The region's boat-building and repair trade has had its ups and downs, but still offers a variety of opportunities.
“Lake Union used to be surrounded with boatyards,” laments Dave Mullens, a shipwright and instructor for Seattle Central Community College’s boat-building program.
In the 1960s, he worked for one of the area’s best-known builders, Blanchard Boat.
It closed in 1969 and today, Mullens says, the site is used for vessel storage.
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Despite the closure of dozens of boatyards over the past 40 years, and after enduring almost as many boom-and-bust cycles as the aerospace industry, the boat-building and repair industry still thrives in the region.
It remains highly respected both nationally and internationally, its reputation built by more than a century of constructing thousands of sturdy, seaworthy commercial vessels, mostly for the fishing industry.
Want to work on boats?
For more information about careers in boat building and repair:
Seattle Central Community College’s marine carpentry program: 206-587-5460 or seattlecentral.edu-
Bates Technical College (Tacoma): www.bates.ctc.edu
Trained craftspeople, like the 30 or so students enrolled in the 1-½-year SCCC program, can usually find work in the area and make a decent living, topping out at about $25 an hour.
But much of the work, according to Mullens, has moved away from costly Seattle to places such as Port Angeles, Bellingham and Anacortes. A few holdouts remain.
Danny Franck is a third-generation boat builder. His grandfather started Vic Franck’s Boatyard on Lake Union in 1927.
Ten years ago, the yard earned about 70 percent of its income from boat repairs, and 30 percent from building new boats, Franck says.
Now those figures are reversed.
“The new, modern, fiberglass boats don’t need as much repair or maintenance,” Franck explains, adding that many people with older wood boats can’t afford to or don’t want to have them professionally maintained. “And our older customers are either retiring or dying.”
$5 million boats
Although he says “new construction is booming in larger vessels” — pleasure craft up to 150 feet long, with price tags above $5 million — at the moment the yard is operating with a 10-man “skeleton crew.”
The last boat the yard built, an 86-footer called the Bella Rosa, was delivered last November.
Now parked at a dock in Lake Washington, it kept 15 full-time employees busy for 2-½ years.
Built with all the fanfare and detail of a high-end custom home, the Bella Rosa boasts 12,000 pounds of granite countertops and solid cherry cabinets throughout, and is designed for around-the-world voyages in exquisite style.
When the next boat order comes in, the yard’s roster will swell to 30, Franck says, with 15 to 20 working on the vessel, and 10 doing other repair work.
The Franck Boatyard hasn’t built a commercial boat since the 1960s, preferring to focus on pleasure craft.
That strategy has helped the company survive, and several other yards have shown similar flexibility.
Kvichak, a Fremont boatyard, built fishing vessels until the early ’90s when that industry took a tailspin, then switching to passenger vessels, such as 80-person catamaran ferries.
Delta Marine, which over the years built more than 800 fishing vessels at its Duwamish yard, now employs 350 people to create mega-yachts for the ultra-rich.
Companies that haven’t changed with the times have suffered.
The 52-year-old Marco Shipyard, one of the primary shipyards in the Seattle area and known for its major role in building tuna seiners and most of the Bering Sea crab fleet, decided earlier this year to shut down.
The company cited low demand for its products as the primary reason for the closure.
Small, but happy
One small outfit that hasn’t seen a reduction in demand for its services is Dogbark Marine at Shilshole Bay Marina.
Al Hughes, 52, started his one-man boat-repair business 10 years ago, though he’s been working on boats for much longer, picking up a love for them from his grandfather in his native New England.
“I can make a living at it,” he says, “but I’m not going to make the business pages anytime soon. I love it. I like being my own boss. Oftentimes we take a month or two off every year.”
The former U.S. Coast Guardsman divides his time between old customers who hire him to maintain their boats, and new customers who want him to fix up a boat they’re either going to sell or buy. The work, usually on sailboats, ranges from fiberglass repairs and painting to installing new sails and rebuilding engines.
Word-of-mouth referrals keep Hughes as busy as he wants to be. Averaging about 20 to 25 hours a week on the job, he estimates his annual income at about $30,000.
He and his wife, Lou, have lived aboard their 39-foot fiberglass sloop, at Shilshole, since 1982, so they know most of the marina’s 500 live-aboard residents, as well as many of the other 1,000 or so boats and their owners.
The quality of his work is superb, according to one former customer.
“I think I offer a good value,” Hughes says.
To those thinking of entering the trade, Hughes offers this advice: “Don’t get into it to get rich. If you don’t love it, it can be some miserable work. I’m a big believer in do what you love.”
Mullens, the SCCC instructor, says people don’t need the “builder gene” to excel in the shipwright trade.
Even students without shop experience can do well, as long as they have a strong work ethic.
Boat building’s great appeal, he says, “is that it’s one of the last specialized trades where you get to do a little bit of everything. Painting, electrician, system installer, rigging, engine work. You get to do it all.”