Departures: Carl Chamberlin

Passionate, competent, considerate, modest, and thoughtful is how designer and boatbuilder Carl Chamberlin is remembered by those who knew him. He died last November at age of 75 in Port Townsend, Washington, after a long illness.

Coming by boat to check out Port Townsend, Chamberlin never left. For half a century, he practiced his craft, working for himself and for notable outfits in the area, including the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding (NWSWB), where students built several of his designs, among them two 36 (11m) motorsailers. He also was one of the founding members of the Port Townsend Shipwright’s Co-Op, and his work was formally recognized by the Wooden Boat Foundation, which bestowed on him a lifetime achievement award in 2019.


Carl Chamberlin stands in front of one of his motorsailers built by students at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding.

“He was very thoughtful. He didn’t just blurt stuff out,” said Shannon Africa, a close friend of Chamberlin’s. Citing the principles of the design spiral (starting with the overall concept and becoming incrementally more defined as each decision informs the next), she added, “He always took a step back to think things through, and because of that, he came up with a different approach.”

Chamberlin was born on September 17, 1948, to Tom and Sally Chamberlin in Newport, Oregon, as the middle child of seven. When he was 13, the family moved to Spain, where he got into boatbuilding as a teenager, helping his dad and brothers build Circe, a 57 (17.4m) Herreshoff ketch, thus getting hands-on training in shop skills and Spanish. He later attended the International University in Puerto Rico and the State University of New York (SUNY) at Old Westbury, New York.

“Carl was one of the go-to designers who could also do layout,” said naval architect Tim Nolan, who worked with Chamberlin over the years. “Carl was self-taught, practical, and smart. He figured stuff out,” Nolan remembered. “When I rolled into Port Townsend in the 1970s, he did all the serious layout and engineering stuff.”

Chamberlin remained partial to wooden boats and traditional design tools and construction methods while also keeping up with technological advances. He taught himself CAD and 3D modeling and cooperated with draftsman and boatbuilder Jack Becker to use photogrammetry to create a 3D-point cloud and a surface mesh of the 1903 cutter Ziska’s hull (see corresponding story).

The bio on his simple website that was taken offline, is short and to the point, befitting Chamberlin’s style. “My fascination with the crafts of boatbuilding and boat design began in my early teens. I’ve been committed ever since: repairing, designing, and building boats. My work has consisted of remodels, additions, original commissions, and collaborations on large-scale projects. I’ve designed a plethora of small craft, and have a growing series of stock plans available.” The online gallery showed simple and functional boats without expensive bells and whistles, like the Nuf, a small undecked canoe that weighs about 30 lbs (13.6 kg). He deliberately kept it basic so amateurs could build it from one sheet of 10 (3m) plywood and two 10 fir 1x4s (2.5cm x 10cm).

Chamberlin also worked on fishing vessels at Port Townsend Boatworks, a yard that was started in the late 1970s by Mark Burn. “He was driven by producing good work that fulfilled him, not profit or notoriety” is how Burn put it. “Around 1982, we built a 42 [12.8m] wooden troller, and he took a George Calkins design and modernized it with some structural and spatial changes to adapt it for the customer,” Burn remembered, calling it a successful collaboration.

Chamberlin also was involved with Evviva, built by Admiral Marine Works in the early 1990s for J. Orin Edson, the founder of Bayliner and Westport Yachts. At 162 (49.4m), the world’s largest fiberglass yacht at the time, it proved challenging to launch at Boat Haven. “We didn’t even have a Travelift,” Edson was quoted in a magazine article. “We had to get special permission from the fisheries department to raze the beach and lay down a wood-plank road to get the boat into the water.” It fell to Chamberlin to design a hydraulic self-propelled steel framework not unlike what house movers use but with cradles for a large hull. Burn: “We only had about two weeks to do it. It was like two semi loads’ worth of steel fabrication, and we asked him to do all the layout and thinking for that project, convert the plans, locate the cut lengths, and do drawings. It was 16-hour days for two weeks straight.”


This collection shows some of the small, functional boats Chamberlin designed.

Another stop on his professional journey was Cape George Marine Works, builders of the Cape George cutters. “He’s been involved from about the mid-eighties,” said co-owner Todd Uecker. “He initially redrew some of the older boats and updated sail plans and hull designs. Looking through the drawings, his name is on the bottom of most designs. He also is the 100% designer of the Cape George 34 [10.4m]. That’s his baby, and he redesigned the sheerline and cabin of the 45 [13.7m] Robert Lewis.”

No stranger to offbeat adventure, Chamberlin often rode his self-built electric trike around town, and cartopped one of his boats to the beach to paddle to Rat Island. On one such excursion “the wind came up and he got stuck,” Nolan remembered. “He had to skirt Indian Island along the Navy base down to Port Hadlock, then paddled back to Port Townsend along the shore in shallow water.”

Over land, Chamberlin liked to cruise in an aluminum-sided Grumman delivery van converted into a camper. “It had this very elegant and spartan interior, just the basics, all bare wood,” Uecker said. “It would’ve been something that Henry David Thoreau would’ve wanted for Walden Pond. Carl would furrow his brow at all the complexity [of modern boats], afraid that timeless elegance would be lost in the shuffle. He was into very simple, functional stuff.”

—D. L.