With workshops buzzing and business thriving, the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op turns 40. We look at the past, present, and future of this unique institution.
The origin of this story is tightly linked to a ship saw that sat under a tarp on a gravel lot at Boat Haven (Port Townsend, Washington) 40 years ago. The saw belonged to some shipwrights who decided to pool talents and resources to work on fishing boats that stopped there for their annual haulouts after the Alaska fishing season. Incorporating their outfit and running it as a cooperative with equal voting rights for all owners was something of a let’s-try-this experiment. Four decades later, it has morphed into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with a workforce of about 50 occupying four big blue buildings with 73,000 sq ft (6,780m²) of workspace at the Port Townsend Boat Haven. Although Port Townsend’s example inspired others who tried to follow suit, it remains the gold standard in longevity and growth.
Known as the Shipwrights Co-Op, or simply “the Co-Op,” it is a dominant player in the local marine trades that create more than 2,200 direct and indirect jobs and nearly $13 million of state and local tax revenue, according to a 2018 economic impact study. The outfit also helps anchor the working waterfront in the effort to balance Port Townsend’s blue-collar heritage against gentrification and tourism.
Walking through the workshops, I was struck by the diverse boats, jobs, and people in the yard evidenced by size, type, and design of client vessels; the nature of the projects; and the number of Carhartt-clad women hard at work. That includes the co-op’s current main attraction—a complete rebuild of the Western Flyer, the 76‘ (23.2m) purse seiner that writer John Steinbeck and marine scientist Ed Ricketts chartered in 1940 for a scientific expedition to the Gulf of California, which begat the book Sea of Cortez.
Eight Guys and a Saw
“There are some fiercely independent people who wanted to work as a team to accomplish projects without a big boss,” said Jim Lyons, 71, who came to Port Townsend in 1975 as a shipwright. Retiring in 2017, he was the co-op’s longest-serving founding member. “It’s a grassroots company with open meetings, and it helped that the original founders all knew each other.” The co-op was inspired by a humane business concept. Lyons compared it to the Basque Mondragon cooperatives, honoring the Rochdale Principles, which emphasize open admission, democratic organization, participatory management, payment solidarity, and a subordinate nature of capital.
“It really started with that ship saw,” Lyons’s fellow co-founder, Leif Knutsen, 79, recalled. “At first it lived under a tarp, but eventually we built a shed for it that also doubled as storage facility and an office.” Some of his fellow initiators had worked for Mark Burn at Port Townsend Boat Works, which Burn closed in the 1990s to focus on Integrated Marine Systems, his new venture dedicated to commercial marine refrigeration systems. But running a boatbuilding business as a co-op was Knutsen’s idea.
Born in Connecticut to a mother from Lapland and a father from Norway, he said his Scandinavian heritage exposed him to the egalitarian culture of a region where women often head governments. He moved west to the Columbia River Gorge with his parents and eventually “got away from the farm I was living on.” He came to Port Townsend in 1970, lacking a formal boatbuilding education but picking up what he needed to know doing repair jobs.
He’d known about other cooperatives—housing and a plywood mill—he said. “Besides, there were other co-ops in town. It was a community thing.” Knutsen referred to the popular Port Townsend Food Co-op, founded in 1972, with approximately 6,000 members and 100 employees—not as a blueprint for a boatshop but an inspiration.
By all accounts, the founders started working in the fall of 1981 but didn’t file the business with the state until April of 1982. According to the articles of incorporation, the legal name of the business is Port Townsend Shipwrights, Incorporated that serves the following purposes: 1) To provide work and sustenance for people in our region by executing boat repair and related services. 2) To provide non-exploitative employment. 3) To promote collective decision making and cooperative working relations among shareholders. 4) To establish a worker-owned and operated business and to provide for workers’ self-management. 5) To provide for mutual economic aid.
As a Washington profit corporation, the firm claimed authority to issue an aggregate number of 100 shares (par value $100 per share of voting stock) and “shall not begin business until at least 500 dollars were received in cash or equipment for issuance of stock.” The membership fee steadily increased to $2,000 now, but it always was one person, one vote, and members who leave walk away with the same amount of money they paid in. I asked Knutsen how they selected new members. “I don’t know. By magic.” He laughed. “We looked for people who had talent and were willing to work. Everybody had their own tools. Nobody got rich, but we survived.” The model worked, but not for everyone.
“We all had similar skills but different backgrounds,” remembered Dave Thompson, 78, one of the founding members. “We had a 32“ [81.3cm] bandsaw and heard of an opportunity to get a ship saw,” he said. So, a group led by Richard Wilmore, 69, the lead shipwright at the time, went to Tacoma to buy it from the Western Boatbuilding Company for $2,000. “It was very controversial. [Initially] it was not well received,” Thompson said. “The other four [members] were adamantly opposed to it, but we’d already paid for it.” He left after five years, saying that at times “it felt like being married to seven wives. It was a divorce. It was uncomfortable. It became factional, and I wasn’t enjoying going to work anymore. It’s an excellent model, but the political ramifications are difficult.” For a while he took only out-of-town jobs because he did not want to “interfere with the co-op.”
Today, Thompson and Wilmore, who taught boatbuilding after he left the co-op and also worked for Gannon & Benjamin and Bob Fuller on the East Coast, still cooperate as Charlie Noble Enterprises in an open workspace by the Safeway gas station. Over the years, they helped a fresh generation of boatbuilders get started. Many of them are alumni of the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding (NWSWB) in Port Hadlock, Washington, an important source of talent for the Port Townsend marine trades (see “Loft, Cut, and Fasten,” Professional BoatBuilder No. 137, page 45 and our online special about restoring Ziska, a 1903 cutter), which was also founded in 1981.
Economic Climate Change
Initially in place was a profit-sharing model based on billable hours worked, but members decided to keep cash in the company to invest in infrastructure such as more shop space. That was provident but also a necessity, as banks refused to lend to a co-op, at least early on. “What [eventually] got everybody’s attention was a solid cash flow and Dunn & Bradstreet rating,” Knutsen explained. “Mike Stone was the business manager, who got paid the average of what everybody else made. He collected the money, so he was worth his weight in gold.” Stone, who has since died, was the only founding member who had an office—a partition of the shed that housed the ship saw. With growth also came complexity. Knutsen recalled that they retained a lawyer and drew up corporate bylaws that they shared as a sample for other co-ops.
“We still maintain that idea of keeping it healthy,” Lyons told the Port Townsend Leader in 2011, when the co-op turned 30. “But now [the company has] built up enough that we feel we can pay out a family wage and still be okay.” With affluent newcomers bidding up real estate prices, finding affordable housing is a challenge for many wage earners in Port Townsend today. According to the 2018 economic impact study, the average annual salary in the marine trades was about $47,500. The co-op says it offers health insurance, monthly contributions to HSA, a company-matched IRA retirement plan, sick pay, and profit sharing. Profits are split 80% members and 20% company after employee profit sharing. Employee profit sharing varies from year to year based on year-end profit, at the discretion of the owners (also referred to as members).
In the beginning there were no employees, only owners working out of their trucks repairing fishing boats, which were gone over the summer. Most worked a nine-month gig, not the full-time job it is today. “We granted owners the flexibility to run their own business on the side, which also creates synergies,” Lyons said, adding that a side hustle can’t compete with the co-op’s core business. For years he used to take off to Alaska in June to prepare fishing vessels for the season.
Commercial fishermen and the co-op were a good match, while work on recreational boats came later. “We didn’t like yachts, and they didn’t like us,” Knutsen said. “With fishermen, you could do a $100K job and it was settled with a handshake. We also encouraged [boat] owners to participate. If they didn’t know what to do, we’d teach them.” Business evolved and policies changed, but work on fishing vessels and owner participation carry over to the present.
New Co-op Owners with Overlapping Skills
Not the least of the changes concerned facilities. The members built a new timber-frame structure in 1985 with some volunteer help and hired a lawyer to update the articles of incorporation and the bylaws. In the early 1990s a second timber-frame structure was added with a metal shop and a second-floor woodworking shop to serve boats that were pulled up outside. As larger private yachts started to appear, the co-op also added a big hangar-like building with radiant floor heating that can hold two 60‘ (18.29m) boats.
In the early 2000s, a crop of energetic younger owners with different backgrounds ushered in much-needed change as the old guard phased out and the number of owners had dwindled to five. For instance, two of the current members, David Griswold, who previously worked in casinos, and Jeff Galey, who aspired to study anthropology and art, joined the co-op after attending NWSWB, an institution on the résumé of most owners and employees today.
Co-op owner Chris Brignoli, who’d moved his family to Port Townsend from Seattle, is an exception. After years of doing electrical and general boat work out of his van, he joined in 2003. “They were seeking people with different skills to do organized projects together. That’s how it started out in 1981, and that’s how it still ran 20 years later,” he recalled, comparing the surrounding scene to the Wild West. “It was called the ‘funky boatyard’ with ‘boat boys’ living in sheds, cars, and other makeshift shelters or on boats on the hard, which they wanted to fix up to go on adventures.”
Brignoli also co-owns Revision Marine, a business run by co-op contractor Matt Mortensen, which specializes in electric propulsion, advanced battery technology, and electrical systems (see PBB No. 191, page 20). But Brignoli’s focus remains on his duties at the co-op, where he also manages human resources. “We have three new hires from the boatbuilding school in the last six months, for systems, mechanical, and electrical,” he noted, but joining the circle of owners is very competitive, he said. “Now it is all about overlapping skills—welders who do electrical work, woodworkers who do metal fitting, electricians who pick up welding or painting—and there’s always office work too: keeping meeting minutes, assigning projects, tending to the books or legal matters.”
From Wood to Steel
For a client perspective, I turned to Matt Thomas, a retired Coast Guard rescue pilot with a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering. He was taking a break from working on his 1985 steel schooner Terra Nova, a Grahame Shannon design built by Metalcraft in Surrey, British Columbia. She was hauled out on the north side of the co-op for some routine maintenance. But the job both men wanted to discuss was the extension of the vessel from its original length of 53‘ to 60‘ (16.2m to 18.3m), which was done at the co-op in the winter of 2016.
“I needed more real estate below for storage, and I also wanted a fixed backstay to replace the runners for safer shorthanded sailing,” Thomas explained. “So why not extend the boat, add buoyancy and storage and a place for a fixed backstay?” And he was happy with the outcome. “You can’t find that seam,” Thomas said. Brignoli recalled that he used wooden fairing battens to continue the sweep of the stringers, which blended the new portion with the existing hull. “We ended up with a pretty wineglass stern, [so] we think woodworkers make great metal fitters.”
Straddling that line between wood and metal work is Arren Day, a co-op owner. He used to work as an apprentice luthier but migrated to wooden boats. After graduating from NWSWB, he ran his own shop, Freyja Boatworks, in the old Port Townsend Foundry building. But an allergy to tropical hardwoods forced him to change tacks, and he joined the co-op as an owner in 2014 and became a master machinist who oversees metal fabrication. “There’s lots to like here,” he said. “There’s a huge variety of work, making it hard to get bored. Since 90% of the business comes from repeat clients, we get to know the boat owners well.” Day said things changed as more employees came on board. “The admin now gets spread out [among all members], nobody gets stuck in the office, and owners sand bottoms, too.”
On the flip side, the co-op model does not offer many opportunities for advancement to workers who want more responsibility, Day acknowledged. “There’s no middle management; there is no ladder to climb.”
Women in the Co-op Workforce
“We are definitely aware that we are 12 white guys running the [show], but that’s just the nature of how the business and the trades have developed here,” said Tim Lee, who worked at the Sitka Shipwrights Cooperative in Alaska during the mid-1990s while living on a wooden Folkboat he’d finished with his wife.
As a 1990 graduate of NWSWB, Lee returned to teach there after the Sitka co-op dissolved. He became the lead instructor, but boatyard work kept calling. In 2013 he chose the co-op over starting his own business, “because they had all the infrastructure in place.” In addition to leading the Western Flyer project with fellow owner Pete Rust, Lee handles facilitation, assigning jobs to other members depending on their expertise and availability. “I talk to the client, gather information, get some pictures, schedule meetings, and then kind of field those out to different people. Once the job is handed over to the appropriate owner, they run it. I don’t oversee that stuff.”
Two female employees who were made available for interviews declined, so I asked Lee about the integration of women, who, like the owners, number a dozen now (two in the office, 10 on the shop floor), thus making up nearly a quarter of the workforce. “We intentionally hire women; we want to be a diverse company, and frankly, there haven’t been that many in the trades in Port Townsend,” Lee added. “When I started in 1989, one or two girls showed up. They didn’t come from the boat school but from finishwork or from sailing on the boats. When you see the workforce [now], there are more women, and there will be a female owner. I have no doubt about it.”
It’s about breaking glass ceilings by getting established in the trades and then moving into management positions. It’s a necessary conversation for any boatyard, but here in Port Townsend they’ve talked about it for decades. “I think [the co-op’s] decision-making never had been scientific, but more…organic,” said Diana Talley, 68, a now-retired shipwright. “‘I really like working with that guy over there.’ That’s how they make their decisions.” Talley said she was interviewed in the early 1990s as a candidate for membership but never pursued the position. “I was surprised and delighted [the co-op] recognized that bringing a woman into the organization might be beneficial,” she told me. “I also sensed that they weren’t really ready for that change in dynamics. But credit must be given to their attempts to expand diversity.”
The only female owner so far was Suzie Barnes, 72, who oversaw accounting. Hailing from West Texas, she moved to Port Townsend in 1997 and joined the co-op in 2002. She’d been working for a CPA when Mike Stone, the co-op’s business manager and a founding member, died and an immediate replacement was needed. “The job kind of fell into my lap,” she said. “They asked me if I wanted to be a member, and I said yes. I paid $1,000 or $2,000 for the stock, I can’t remember. But that was before they had a lot of employees.”
Dealing with a group of male peers did not come as a shock to Barnes, who had worked for oil field companies, which traditionally have mostly men on staff. “I loved my job [at the co-op]. It was challenging. I was working with different personalities. It was a good place to work,” she said. But when she left in 2015, the parting was somewhat less than amicable. One owner called it a “personality conflict.” She offered a different take: “I had a hard time with some of them, because sometimes they didn’t like women who would stand up.” She said there were times when she felt bullied and that bringing on employees created challenges because some owners were not used to managing people. “It was a sort of growing pain, I guess.”
Never a Dull Day
Lead welder and metal fabricator Greg Laubach, 45, an eight-year veteran of the co-op, shared his own perspective of that time. “When I first worked here, they did not have employees; you either subcontracted or were an owner,” he said. With a degree from a culinary institute, he’d been a chef before pursuing a career as a metal worker. Like so many others, he came to Port Townsend to build a boat and never left. “I worked in the shipyard and on and off for the co-op as a subcontractor; then they hired me full time.”
The day I met Laubach, he was on the Western Flyer, TIG-welding the stern gate fabricated of lightweight 2“ Schedule 40 6061 aluminum tubing so it can be easily removed for deploying gear over the stern when the vessel assumes her intended duties in ocean science and education.
He moves between small projects, he said, spending a few days here and there. On larger jobs such as stern extensions or bow modifications, he might spend as long as three months. “It’s different every day. It’s a challenge—20% of the job is welding, 80% is figuring stuff out and fabrication.” Like others at the co-op, Laubach has another role, as one of two certified “Shipyard Competent Persons.” To take the required classes, he was sent to Seattle, which is rare, as most of the co-op’s training—CPR, ABYC wiring, refrigeration—are conducted on-site. With that certification, “we do air- quality and confined-spaces monitoring, general safety—making sure scaffolding is properly set up,” Laubach explained. He is authorized by the co-op to shut down any project with safety issues.
I wondered whether there’s an executive elite at the co-op, as in other corporate structures. “There’s no [vertical] hierarchy,” Laubach said. “An owner will not say, ‘Hey, you need to go clean that bilge’ but ‘we need to go clean that bilge.’ We work side by side every day.” Did he entertain the possibility of becoming a member? After a brief pause, he laughs. “How do I put this? No. They go to 65 meetings a year. That’s not what I want to deal with. They have weeklies, monthlies, and an annual meeting. I’d rather be busy working.” Over the years, he saw upgrades in equipment and technology, including a 12‘ (3.66m) 90-ton press brake, different lathes, and a pipe-coping machine. “The only thing we can’t do now is plastic tanks,” Laubach noted. “But we have a full-time machinist, a canvas worker, a guy who does props and straightens shafts, and a sail loft, so we’re pretty much full-service.”
A boatyard with its own sailmaking business harks back to the days of Herreshoff. Yet in spring of 2021, the co-op acquired Port Townsend Sails, a small but iconic loft that built a reputation for superb cruising sails. It was started in 1978 in Point Hudson by Carol Hasse, who retired after 43 years at the helm.
“I was looking at Hasse’s client list and found many who are also on our client list, so there was overlap,” Griswold said. He’s a hobby pilot and flamenco guitarist, who currently manages the integration of the sailmakers into the co-op, which converted one area into a dustproof loft space. The acquisition saved jobs and kept a small manufacturing company in town that might have moved or closed. “This is a business that belongs in Port Townsend,” Griswold was quoted by the Port’s newsletter. “The more we looked at it, the more we realized this goes hand in hand with…being a full-service boatyard.”
The woodshop at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op is impressive, but conspicuously absent during my visits were the smells of styrene and solvents associated with fiberglass production shops, CNC tools, or a design office with technicians toiling at computer terminals. Lee said there is enough in-house competency and additional manpower from contractors, so there’s no urgency. “I can see us adding some CNC-design component, taking advantage of things as they come. We can do some Rhino programming, but we work either with Jonathan Moore, Tim Nolan [see “Pilot Boat Evolution,” PBB No. 188, page 32], or take it to Brandon [Davis] at Turn Point [Design] and have him do it, but I can see it getting to a point where we can do some of that here.”
The Co-op’s Showcase Project
The co-op’s full-service operation and supersized footprint among boat repair businesses in Port Townsend helped them secure the Western Flyer project, which has been a boon to publicity for the company. Any other vessel at that depth of disrepair and decomposition would have been broken up and landfilled. But with Steinbeck’s fame (1962 Nobel Prize winner in literature), and Ricketts’s pioneering work in marine science rebounding in currency as real alarm about ocean health spreads, the project got the attention of some large media outlets, which descended on Port Townsend. Missing from these mainstream reports is an episode during the early stages that created some buzz in the local boatbuilding community that prides itself on a collaborative spirit.
John Gregg, the vessel’s owner, who runs a marine drilling company in California, spent a million dollars on Western Flyer, a vertiginous sum for a barnacle-encrusted wreck that was towed to Port Townsend in 2013 after decades of neglect and two sinkings in the Swinomish Channel near Anacortes, Washington. His initial idea, as reported in 2015, was restoring the boat with a crew of independent shipwrights under the supervision of Mark Stout at Scow Bay Boats, who used to work out of co-op member Arren Day’s former shop, before recently becoming boatbuilding instructor at NWSWB.
Stout surveyed the vessel and hired some hands to prep it for Marine Vacuum Services of Seattle, which pumped the bilges. But it was the co-op that secured the commission.
“It was secret for a while, but the co-op was sniffing around and got a hold of John Gregg,” Stout told me. “They went aggressively after him to convince him he needed someone bigger. I wanted to hire independents and small businesses, wanted to start a foundation or a nonprofit to cover it.” He was ready to order lumber and get started, Stout said, but found out from Gregg’s brother that the project was headed in a different direction. So the big shop beat out a smaller one for a massive job. Gregg did not return calls seeking comment, but in Port Townsend, where a lot of folks started out tailgating (as did most of the co-op owners), that decision ruffled feathers.
“Most of us believed [the boat] was going to get crushed,” said Lee, who leads the project at the co-op. He said he’d googled Gregg’s business after listening to an NPR story about him purchasing the wreck. Chris Chase, another shipwright and co-op member at the time, left a message and got a response from Gregg, saying he’d already hired somebody else to do the work. “About a week or so later he called again and asked us to come over and look at the boat,” Lee continued. “He then came and saw the co-op. We were still in the old buildings but had a lot more machinery and were in the process of moving [to our current location], and he realized he could put the boat inside.” And the rest is history.
A minimal amount of old material could be reused for the new Western Flyer, a common issue for such projects, as Chase, who left the co-op to run the Western Flyer Foundation, conceded. “It’s a rebuild. There are maybe five original pieces of wood in the boat,” he told me. The old porcelain head also survives. Gregg wants the vessel to be an oceangoing vehicle for science education with a wet lab and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that can be deployed from the aft deck. Therefore, no effort is spared in the rebuild with white oak frames, sipo planking, fir decks over plywood, purpleheart stern lifts and stem, iroko covering boards, yellow cedar ceiling, Douglas-fir stringers, and sapele trim pieces.
The exact overall cost was not made available, but Chase estimated it could be as high as $5 million. Because the idea of repowering the vessel with an electric- or hybrid-propulsion system was scuttled due to cost and practicality in favor of a diesel, the number still could fluctuate, depending on final fit-out. Following the restrictions and slowdown during the pandemic, the launching date has been delayed, but Chase maintained, “It’s a phenomenal project that brought lots of attention to Port Townsend and the co-op, so the mystique grows, but the lasting effects are not clear.”
From Past to Future
The Western Flyer is a matching bookend for the first 40 years of this institution, because it is based on the design of fishing boats that were the co-op’s bread and butter early on and still make up a good portion of the work. And the old ship saw continues to play a key role in the drama. First it became the foundation of the business, then it inspired the company logo, and now it is the link to the past, having moved to the co-op from Western Boat, the yard that built the original Western Flyer in 1937. The saw still works, and there’s a very good chance it was used to build this famous boat twice, 80+ years apart. Anyone who’d predicted this in the early days, or the robust growth of the co-op’s business, might have been laughed off the premises, yet here we are.
Going forward, there are different opinions about how the company should or shouldn’t change, but as history proves, the co-op model has remarkable resiliency and flexibility. If critics call it a corporation, they are right: By the letter, it is Port Townsend Shipwrights, Incorporated, a Washington Profit Corporation. For better or for worse, it’s a corporation run by what remains a fairly homogenous group of owners with technical skills and experience who roam the shop floor and roll up their sleeves, not by a boss looking down from the corner office. Each of them has one vote and a specific field of expertise, plus ancillary skills to cover the jobs that keep coming through the doors, be it working on fishing vessels, servicing sailing yachts, or building a millionaire’s dream.
“The Western Flyer is a monumental project, one I would not have gotten into,” Leif Knutsen told me in parting. “For me, big projects were never an issue. I never wanted to go there. I’m not sure that I’d qualify to join the co-op today, but I’m proud of what they achieved.”
Any advice Knutsen would have for the next 40 years? “Understand that your reputation is made by the last job you did. Do good work, make money, and don’t piss into the wind.”