When word got out last fall that the Jensen Motor Boat Company on north Lake Union would be shutting down, other boatyards around Puget Sound wasted little time in trying to hire the company’s skilled shipwrights, carpenters and other craftspeople.

There were offers from outfits in Seattle and in Anacortes. The Port of Port Townsend was ready to supply shop space for the entire crew at Jensen, which had built and repaired wooden boats at its Boat Street for nearly a century. “We were all offered jobs pretty much all up and down the coast,” says Peter Proctor, general manager at Jensen until it formally shut down this month .

But Proctor and many of his former colleagues politely declined.

Instead, as work at Jensen’s maze of shops, sheds and slips wound down this summer, many of the boatyard’s 23 employees were busy making sure that the skills they’d developed and refined at the iconic boatyard would remain here in Seattle.

The lightship Swiftsure sits at a dock on the north side of the Museum of History and Industry. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
The lightship Swiftsure sits at a dock on the north side of the Museum of History and Industry. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

The results are heartening for a city whose industrial past is quickly being replaced by eateries and apodments.

This month, even as the Jensen property’s new owners explore plans that may include a restaurant, two spinoff ventures by former Jensen workers are ready to launch.

One, known as the Ballard Boat Shop, will see Proctor and four other shipwrights working in a loose affiliation of independent contractors from a shop near the 14th Avenue Boat Ramp in Ballard.

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A few blocks away, a second Jensen spinoff, the Halibut Flats Collective, will feature five to six Jensen shipwrights in a more formally organized cooperative operating out of shared shop space.

At the bow of the lightship Swiftsure, the fir planking is traditionally fitted with this historic pattern. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
At the bow of the lightship Swiftsure, the fir planking is traditionally fitted with this historic pattern. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
The fir planking will have the gaps between with traditional caulking, consisting of oakum, the shipwright’s mallet (shown here) and cotton. After the cotton and oakum has been tamped down, deck tar is added to make the joint flush with the deck. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
The fir planking will have the gaps between with traditional caulking, consisting of oakum, the shipwright’s mallet (shown here) and cotton. After the cotton and oakum has been tamped down, deck tar is added to make the joint flush with the deck. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Though differing somewhat in structure, both spinoffs share a broadly similar goal: preserving a piece of Seattle’s shrinking wooden-boat industry, and the small but determined pool of craftspeople who run it.

It is, admittedly, an against-the-tide kind of fight.

In the last three years alone, three of Seattle’s biggest boatyards — Vic Franck’s Boat Co., Dunato’s Boatyard, and now Jensen — have shut down, in part as boaters have shifted to less expensive fiberglass.

There are still plenty of wooden boats in the city; but with fewer local repair options, the fear is that their owners will either sell or migrate to out-of-area boatyards — and as they do, many local marine craft jobs could follow.

When Jensen shut down, “we lost some of the physical infrastructure,” says Brian Johnson, 64, another former Jensen shipwright who is heavily involved in the Halibut Flats project. “But the money is still here, the skills are still here, and the boats are still here.”

Rising tide of Seattle growth swamps century-old Jensen Motor Boat Co. (2018)

Plans for a spinoff venture emerged last October, shortly after employees were informed by DeWitt Jensen, grandson of founder Tony Jensen, that the boatyard was for sale. But there was little consensus on what that venture should look like.

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Industry veterans such as Proctor, 68, who had run his own shipwright business for years before joining Jensen in 2003, had few qualms about launching a new venture and began scouting locations for a new shop. In fact, initially, Proctor invited the entire Jensen staff to join him in new shop, but that plan was scuttled by the expense of large commercial spaces as well as by uncertainty among other employees.

Many Jensen employees, blindsided by the sale, were unsure whether to join together in a collective effort or go solo as independent contractors, says Julie Inglish, a 30-year-old former Jensen shipwright.

But Inglish said that uncertainty faded after she and several other Jensen shipwrights took a side job working with Johnson on the Swiftsure. The 115-year-old, 130-foot wooden-decked vessel is being restored near the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) at South Lake Union by Northwest Seaport, a non-profit that preserves local maritime heritage.

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As the Swifture project progressed this spring, Inglish says, she and her former colleagues realized how much they valued working together. They also saw how a collective structure would give them more marketing presence in Seattle and let them take on larger projects.

With a collective “you can tackle the big projects that everybody likes doing but can’t really do by themselves,” says John Bishop, 35, another Jensen alum and Halibut Flats member.

Because neither spinoff has an actual boatyard, they’ll rely on creative logistics. Work will be done at the client’s location, or taken back to the shops; when boats need to come out of the water, the spinoffs will rent space at one of several remaining Seattle boatyards, such as Canal Boatyard or Seaview West.

This virtual structure, though not as convenient as a full-service yard like Jensen, has certain advantages. The lack of an expensive boatyard means less overhead costs and, ideally, more competitive pricing, says shipwright David Willard, the former office manager at Jensen who will work out of the Ballard Boat Shop.

There will also be more flexibility as workload changes. For really big projects or when things get busy, both spinoffs will be able to quickly bring in outside contractors, including the 10 or so former Jensen employees now working solo in the area, Proctor says.

Below deck in the engine room of the lightship Swiftsure the vintage engine telegraph is still in place. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Below deck in the engine room of the lightship Swiftsure the vintage engine telegraph is still in place. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

In some cases, the spinoffs will even recruit from each other’s ranks, a fact that underscores how this industry has always been both competitive and collaborate. “The nature of this business is that you have to be very fluid and flexible,” says Johnson. “It’s small world on the waterfront.”

Although both the Ballard Boat Shop and Halibut Flats Collective are effectively already in business — in some cases, working on Jensen projects that didn’t wrap up before the yard closed — there’s been no formal launch yet. Halibut Flats has a website, but it’s still formalizing its structure. Jensen customers, meanwhile, haven’t yet been introduced to the spinoffs, though an email is set to go out soon.

There is some nervousness about how the boatyard’s loyal customers will respond to these post-Jensen ventures. The reaction, Willard jokes, “could be an onslaught of clients. Or none.”

Proctor isn’t worried. Given the large number of customers who were still on the waiting list at Jensen when the yard closed, he expects plenty of work for both spinoffs as well as for the former Jensen workers who are freelancing.

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In fact, Proctor says, so much local demand for Jensen talent helps make up for the sadness of seeing the old boatyard shut down.

“We taught a lot of these people how to become shipwrights,” Proctor says. “I’m really excited to see them getting out and doing their own thing.”

University of Washington buildings loom over the Jensen Motor Boat Company, on the north side of Portage Bay in 2018. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
University of Washington buildings loom over the Jensen Motor Boat Company, on the north side of Portage Bay in 2018. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

This article has been updated to indicate that the Swiftsure is being restored by Northwest Seaport.