It’s not a secret that the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding (NWSWB) in Port Hadlock, Wash., attracts students from far-flung places and diverse backgrounds who want to acquire skills that help them change careers, find a job or tackle private boatbuilding projects. After graduation the school also connects them to the local maritime trades, which become the new professional home for many. The fifth running of the Race to Alaska (R2AK) from Port Townsend, Wash., to Ketchikan, Alaska, provided the backdrop for a project that was initiated, executed and completed by a group of former NWSWB students and instructors. For nearly two years, they collaborated on the restoration of Ziska (team motto: “Sail like a Luddite”), a 116 year-old gaff cutter, which is the oldest vessel to ever enter and, at the time of this writing, was en route to also become the oldest ever to finish this selective contest.
Weapons of choice
The R2AK is just about the wackiest regatta one is allowed to take seriously. It’s a formidable challenge that covers 750 nautical miles through the Inside Passage for boats of all kinds and sizes, as long as they are propelled by wind and/or muscle power. Conditions are harsh, outside help is not permitted.
The list of winners who took home the winner’s prize of 10 grand in cash (nailed to a hunk of cedar wood) is unambiguous about the magic formula: Trimarans, catamarans and light-displacement keelboats, nimble craft that sail fast and still move reasonably well under oar or pedal power when necessary.
By contrast, Ziska, built in England in 1903 by Crossfield Brothers in Arnside, Cumbria, is a massive 12-ton Morecambe prawner, a working vessel with a full keel and a sparred length that is given as 52’. Flying every stitch of canvas, she sprouts about 1100 sqft. of upwind sail area and zero engines. None, whatsoever. Auxiliary propulsion consists of two rowing stations and one sculling oar rigged on her fantail stern.
A hard row
Given her displacement, one oarsman has to move up to 6 tons, which is backbreaking work, but won’t win an Olympic gold medal. Maximum speed? Maybe one full knot – with a friendly push from the current. This arithmetic forced Ziska to run with the tides in the first half of the race and duck into shelter to wait for the next window of opportunity. 11 days in, a full week after the winners had rung the finish bell in Ketchikan, she had covered barely more than half of the course.
With the deck so severely stacked against vessels of Ziska’s type and vintage, why compete in the R2AK? “It’ll be an awesome trip,” laughed Stanford Siver, her owner, an East Coast transplant like so many others in Port Townsend. “She’s the oldest vessel to ever do it, with the youngest crew member on board [a strapping lad who goes by the name of Odin].” However, the story of the race matters less than what went before: All the toil that was necessary to get Ziska ready for this adventure.
In her long career, the cutter was restored several times, but most notably (and to much acclaim by the classic-boat universe) in the late 1990s by Ashley Butler, a young and profusely talented English shipwright, who proceeded to sail her across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and then along the US East Coast. Eventually, he built himself a new vessel, a bawley, at Gannon & Benjamin on Martha’s Vineyard and sold Ziska to the Chesapeake Bay.
But her new owner never coughed up the anchor, so he had to let her go and a friend of Butler’s brought her to Port Townsend, where she spent several years as a cruising and liveaboard vessel before falling on hard times again. Siver, who already owned Blue, a tidy Atkin double ender that was docked across the way from Ziska, saw the decline, stepped into the breach and picked her up in 2017. She had healthy bones, but she was a pitiful sight. “There was food on board, rats came in,” Siver remembered. “The cushions had to go straight to the dumpster. There was a lot of mess and rat shit and gross stuff.”
The following 18+ months were dedicated to cleaning up the messes and working with a cast of characters who came to Port Townsend to change tacks in life, to get out of the rat race, forget a dead-end job or a broken relationship. In other words: People who were looking for a fresh start. The first stop for many of them is NWSWB, where they learn woodworking and boatbuilding skills. As mentioned above, many alumni join local marine businesses, either as employees or as independent contractors. And as the Ziska restoration demonstrates, paths converge, cross and separate, only to repeat it all over again at the next project.
Siver, himself an alumnus of NWSWB (class of 1992), embarked on an ambitious restoration that included lots of cosmetics, a new set of spars, new canvas and functional furnishings for the cabin, which he chose as his personal project in this undertaking. “It was kind of an ugly interior to be honest,” he said. “Rephrase that: It was not really comfortable.” With woodworking skills and an eye for aesthetics, he designed the bits in SketchUp, a 3D CAD package, mocked them up, ripped them out and then built curvaceous cabinetry and settees from Sapele that transformed Ziska’s former bare-bones interior into a cozy cabin, complete with settees, updated galley and wood burning stove.
The stick builder
Still, the most conspicuous new item on Ziska is her new set of spars that glimmer in a warm hue of their Cetol finish. They were built by local shipwright and educator, Patrick Mahon, from staves of Douglas fir (8 each for gaff and boom, 16 for the mast) with bird’s mouth style joints. The 46.5’ mast is part hollow, part solid while boom and gaff are both hollow (see also WoodenBoat 268). These days, Mahon works as a marine surveyor and consultant, but over the years he’d built a long resume as a boatbuilder with stints at several prominent shops in Maine, including Hodgdon, Penobscot Boat Works, Morse Boat Builders (read about one of Lyman Morse’s recent cold-molded projects) or Lee’s Boat Shop. He also taught at NWSWB from 1995 to 2006 before starting the Great Lakes Boatbuilding School.
From shipwright to crew
J Galloway from the Washington, DC area, finished his instruction at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in 2010. He’d met Siver at Arren Day’s shop and was tasked with replacing the stem of Siver’s other boat, Blue. Galloway, whose first name is really only the letter J (a convoluted story) got into the new project. “Ziska was structurally sound, but sat for a while, wasn’t worked,” he said. “We refastened her topsides, patched and re-glassed the deck, which had some rot near the stanchions.” And with a chuckle, he offered: “Never broke out my big hammer, could not bash planks into the boat.” He built the entire sculling oar setup and a Gucci-looking tiller base. He also raised his hand when Siver needed to fill out the crew. “I’m going,” Galloway said with determination before stepping aboard with guitar strapped to his back. “I’ve been to Alaska fishing, now I’m excited for a nice change, although at times it will be miserable. But that’s how adventures work. It will be a learning experience to see my work in action and check it.”
The philosophy of rigging
Ziska’s classic running and standing rigging matches her sparkling spars: Round wire settings terminate the shrouds at the deadeyes. Upturned bottom ends. Lanyards to tighten the rig. Wires parceled and served with Seine twine. The whole works. “I was always interested in rigging, because it combines problem solving with engineering and craftsmanship,” said Matt Fahey, who was the man on the job. In a previous life, Fahey studied philosophy at New England College in New Hampshire.
Like Siver, he’s an East Coast transplant (from New Jersey) who’d moved to Port Townsend and enrolled at NWSWB, from where he graduated in 1998. “While at the school, I also attended rigging classes on nights and weekends, where I learned from Wayne Chimenti, who runs the Community Boat Project,” Fahey said. He met Siver through the maritime community, helped out on Blue and spliced the winch cable on Siver’s Dodge Power Wagon. Honing his skills in contemporary rigging, Fahey also worked for Brion Toss Yacht Riggers in Point Hudson.
Blocks from a knife maker
What good is a fine stick with classic stays and three-strand lines for running rigging if the blocks don’t match? Siver thought about this and fitted Ziska with a set of blocks made locally, by, you guessed it, another NWSWB alumnus, Ed Louchard. He came to town circa 1980 “to look for a new place to live” and met a guy who said he wanted to purchase his car, but bought him a beer instead. Next thing Louchard knew, he was attending a potluck for the school, which he decided to attend. Already an accomplished knife maker, Louchard now got into boatbuilding and designing (i.e. the Truant daysailer) and eventually started to manufacture blocks and sheaves and did some high-end metal fabrication for Oracle’s America’s Cup team.
He hung out his shingle as Zephyrwerks, making custom block kits that are also in use on Ziska. They consist of a Locust shell that’s bored for the pin and ready for finish sanding. The shell is slotted to accept the acetal sheave with oilite self-lubricating bronze sleeve bearing. Also in the kit: a 316 stainless-steel pin cut to length, a brass thimble, a length of poly Dacron line to lay up the grommet and a length of seine twine to seize the grommet under the thimble.
Measurement by photogrammetry
Siver also hired local yacht designer Carl Chamberlin to create line drawings. Chamberlin was considering the use of photogrammetry and brought in Jack Becker, who’d worked in structural building design and drafting before moving to Port Townsend, where he attended NWSWB (class of 1997). Becker, who also taught at the school in 2011, was already conversant in this method, which he applied to document vessels for the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, the non-profit Gig Harbor Boatshop and the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle. “The basic technique is to take a series of overlapping (50 to 75%) digital photos covering the entire surface (typically one side of a hull), which could run to 300 or more photos,” he explained the process.” These are then downloaded into the photogrammetry program (i.e. Agisoft Photoscan) to create a 3D-points cloud, (which) is then converted to a surface mesh.”
Next, he exported the 3D mesh into Rhino, oriented accurately along the x-y-z axes, and scaled to size based on the longest reference taken off the hull. “At this point you set up your stations, waterline, and buttock spacing and take sections in all three planes,” he continued. “The bulk of these sections will be pretty accurate, but the master lines (sheer, rabbet, etc.) will require some extra effort to refine, usually due to physical geometry of the hull and/or the limitations of the software.”
From Rhino he exported the lines to Autocad to produce the finished drawing with offsets, dimensions, notes, etc. “No calculations are required to produce the lines drawing, as it is simply documenting the shape of the existing hull, but a designer (in Ziska’s case, Carl Chamberlin) could use the drawing or the model for further analysis.”
Even a boat as classic and as salty as Ziska won’t leave the dock without conveniences of the 21st century. Which means gadgets, batteries and the attendant wiring. For that part of the project, Siver brought in Jo Abeli, originally from Lansing, Mich., who studied history and Japanese and taught English. Like her peers on this project, she went to the boat school, but only did the 9-month program. “I checked every boatbuilding school, but was not interested in systems, “ she said. “I wanted to learn traditional wooden boat construction, because I was interested in maritime museums.” In the end, she did both. First, she learned traditional boatbuilding as part of the crew that worked on the restoration of the Felicity Ann.
After graduating with the class of 2015, she transitioned into the boatbuilding trade by joining Haven Boatworks, where she started to specialize in electrical work, learning on the job by chasing wires on big classical yachts like the Blue Peter before joining the Shipwright’s Co-Op and installing systems (despite her initial reservations) on the Robert Lewis, the first electric hybrid yacht built by Cape George Marine Works.
Abeli wired Ziska for her big adventure in the R2AK, prepping her for the installation of the navigation electronics and communications equipment and a “kick-ass battery charger” (Siver) to service the 900 Ah Firefly carbon foam batteries. “I wanted to work at a maritime museum, so I did not do a full year [at the school],” Abeli said. “But it prepared me to work in a team and to collaborate toward a joint goal. I got the vocabulary and learned what I did not know.”
“Don’t muck it up”
Of course, there are others who helped Stanford Siver with his dream of racing Ziska to Ketchikan. Like Nahja Chimenti at Force 10 Sailmakers, who cut a new set of sails from cream-colored Clipper Canvas. Or Bailey Farneth and Nick DeLorme, who moved to Port Townsend together from Rochester, NY. They are career changers, who did not attend NWSWB, but still got a running start doing finish work on boats. “Bailey and I went to the boat school of hard knocks,” DeLorme joked. He met Siver when his other boat, Blue, the Atkin double ender, was parked at Arren Day’s place for some work. “‘Take the varnish off,’ Arren told me,” DeLorme remembered. “‘But don’t muck it up, it’s a nice boat.’”
At the time of this writing, Ziska, Siver’s other nice boat, still sailing like a luddite, was charging up Hecate Strait after pit stopping at Bella Bella, the second waypoint of the race. “They boldly went,” as a popular refrain here goes and they’ll win, no matter what, i.e. as an inspiration to making the journey count.
“She’ll do Stanford proud”, Ashley Butler telegraphed from Cornwall in the UK, pleased to see his old love on a new adventure. The same goes for all the unsung heroes in Tyvek suits and work boots who went to NWSWB and learned what they needed to know to get her ready for this epic voyage.