Sailing Away // Bainbridge Celebrates Wooden Boats

By Neil Rabinowitz

One Thousand Miles off the Oregon coast, the Pacific swells are building and the tuna are biting—and Paul Svornich is out there single-handing his home-built wooden boat. The Ocean is a 47-foot sloop that he and his wife Lorraine put together in their backyard and have fished in rough north Pacific waters for 25 years. An independent solo sailor, Svornich points out he had help from island talent and a maritime legacy of boat building on Bainbridge Island. Local craftsman Dave Ullin, the tall, rugged figure often seen stoically carrying his canvas tool bag through town, helped to caulk the planking on the Ocean, while a wealth of other island wooden boat artisans pitched in as well.

The Ocean, and other local wooden boats with stories to tell, was the inspiration for Bainbridge’s own Wooden Boat Festival, an event that kicked off two years ago on a glorious sun-splashed weekend in June. (This year will mark the second festival; organizers expect it to be a bi-annual event.) Festivalgoers sauntered through a dockside gauntlet of colored signal flags and bright tents, building demonstrations, and numerous speaker forums. The crowd included families, sailing buffs, crotchety old salts and everything in between. Local musicians played lilting shanties as people clambered on and off boats. Young sailors rowed off the dock and sailed dinghies as others raced remote-controlled fleets.

Visitors sampled a local squadron of wooden, power and sailboats, each one linked to Bainbridge through some aspect of its history. Plaques prominently displayed on each deck detailed the story of how that boat was built—the saga of restoration, who designed it and why, and the unique tale of its history or voyaging past. On board, owners invited people for a peek below or a closer look on deck, vividly bringing the boat’s story to life. When rumors of an event attracting the island’s independent mariners first reached the docks, the artisans and sailors, long absent from the local social maritime scene, “came out of the woodwork” to participate. If they claimed their boat wasn’t “show ready,” they were invited nonetheless and the refinishing process, and their heartfelt stories, became part of their presentation.

“We never intended this to be another pretty face on the festival circuit,” recalled Tom Hudson, one of three founding members of the event. “We made it by invitation; not for showcase boats, but rather a hands-on gathering about the soulful tale of owning and repairing these heart wrenching projects. Chipped paint, greasy fingernails, the sweet smell of wood shavings—this is who we are.” In addition to the boats and their owners, a display presented by the Bainbridge Island Historical Society tied the island’s boatbuilding heritage together with modernday characters who have mostly remained tucked away in the island’s hidden coves and forested woodshops.

“I’ve been building wooden boats of one sort or another most of my life on the island,” said participant Andy Goodwin. “This festival was the first time to assemble with like minds. I spoke with boat builders I hadn’t seen in years. The boaters had as much interest in each other as the visitors had in getting to know the boats.”