Photo by Shane Harms
Brian Johnson with caulking mallet and irons shows how to fit an airtight wooden deck aboard the Swiftsure.

‘A boat builds a community, and a community builds a boat’

Ballard shipwright keeping the trade alive after nearly 40 years

Stepping aboard Swiftsure, (Lighthouse No. 83), a 109-year-old Coast Guard Lightship, is like stepping into a floating time capsule slowly undergoing a metamorphic rejuvenation.

Onboard a lone figure is at work fitting 500-year-old Doug Fir deck pieces around the huge smokestack. The shipwright listens to Tango music that riots in the bright-lit canopied dome that protects the Swiftsure from the elements while the deck is restored.

Swiftsure Project Shipwright, Brian Johnson, almost 60, is an inquisitive man. He lives in Ballard, and dances the Tango and is a martial artist. But, mostly, Johnson knows boats.

Johnson has been working with boats all his life. He built his first vessel at the age of five. It sank, but the experience spurred a life long love of boats and an ingenuitive passion for the maritime industry.

Northwest Seaport, owner of the Swiftsure, have asked Johnson to use his shipwright expertise in rebuilding the deck -- just one piece in an ongoing restoration puzzle.

“I’m a commercial fishermen and a shipwright -- you can’t get anymore Norwegian than that. ... I’ve been on and off boats for 40 years either on them breaking them or underneath fixing them,” said Johnson.

Johnson grew up towing shipwrecked vessels to his childhood home on Bainbridge Island, where he said the shore became a ship graveyard, much to his mother’s dismay.

Johnson said on one occasion he and his brother brought back an old barge that had rotted caulking throughout the deck. The barge sunk and when the tide was out they would take old couch stuffing instead of cotton and oakum, and tried to reseal the deck, tediously packing it in with wooden mallets and irons. Despite their frenzied efforts, the barge never did float, but Johnson said, “ It was a time when there was an opportunity for kids to have all kinds of those experiences. … It didn’t matter if didn't float, we learned a lot about how ships are put together.”

On the deck
Johnson with the pieces that will eventually fit around the stack.

Johnson became a commercial fisherman and captained a ship and crew in 13 different fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, fishing everything from salmon, crab, shrimp, cod, pollock and tuna.

“My father always said if you want something you’re going to have to build it, and that’s really how I’ve approach every challenge in life. … There’s always a way to figure it out,” said Johnson.

Through the years, spurred by his ingenuity and penchant for problem solving, Johnson learned the gauntlet of problem solving nuances encountered while being at sea from engine repair, deck maintenance, plumbing problem solving and electrical work. With those skills, in the off seasons, Johnson started a shipwright contracting business called Ocean Bay Marine, and worked on recreational yachts and commercial fishing ships.

Drilling new holes on Swiftsure
Johnson placing a 50 pound drill to eventually make new holes through Carnegie steel.

However, about five years ago Johnson was in a car accident and injured his neck, which caused him to take a break from fishing and working on large boats. He always enjoyed passing on knowledge and so decided to get his teaching certificate in Industry and Trades.

Johnson started doing more educational training programs teaching the maritime skills he knows best.

A major project Johnson worked on was in 2012 with the Kodiak Maritime Museum to restore a 34-foot salmon seine vessel, Thelma C. The ship was one of the last remaining boats built in response to the 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake when a tsunami took out most of the fishing fleet in Alaska.

“When something happens in Alaska it affects the economy here, and when all the hundreds and hundreds of boats were ruined there was a boom for business on the lake (Lake Union) and Ballard.”

“We called these tidal wave boats because they were mass-produced for after the big tsunami, and the Thelma C was the last one floating. Karmically, it was my boat in the 90’s too.”

Johnson worked as a project adviser and contractor with the museum. He showed students from the local colleges how to replace degraded planking and ribs, repair the ship’s rigging, and restore the diesel engine, among many other things. Now the Thelma C is set to be a permanent outdoor museum on land near St. Paul Harbor in downtown Kodiak.

“ It was a community boat building project, and the whole community rallied around and supported it. … We would say ‘a boat builds a community and a community builds a boat’. It’s a circular thing.”

Today Johnson is figuring out a complicated puzzle aboard the Swiftsure at the docks of the MOHI in South Lake Union. The re-decking work is part of an almost two million dollar restoration project for the 136-foot, steel hulled vessel and is spearheaded by Northwest Seaport.

With federal grants and ongoing funding opportunities they have managed to reclaim the Swiftsure from dereliction. Through the project, Northwest Seaport hopes to provide maritime educational opportunities for volunteers and apprentices. They also are providing an ongoing living museum that they hope connects visitors to the history of the Pacific Northwest.

Johnson said that the project is a “triple-bottom-line” for the community.

“We’re transferring information and training through apprenticeships; the public has a presentation that’s always open to them; and the job is getting done. So it’s serving three things.”

The apprenticeship program is a partnership between the Center For Wooden Boats and Northwest Seaport.

“The apprentices get to work on the smaller wooden boats for part of the time and then they get to come over here to the larger boats and push the big timber around, and I mean, we move some pretty big pieces of wood. ”

Johnson showed the planks for the deck that when first brought in from the McClanahan Lumber Inc. in Forks, Wash., were 16 footers, weighing over 200 pounds apiece.

Swiftsure at MOHI.

Apprentices get to pick different skills sets like pattern making and other wood work endeavors; however Johnson said that at the heart of it they are learning way more than one trade.

“ To conceptualize it, all those skills are part of the same thing from steel to wood work. When you come in here you learn how to solve problems. … There are so many skill sets used to put these boats together. Really, we’re not teaching them to be a shipwright, we’re just teaching them to be problem solvers. When people walk away from this they have basically figured out how to put a square peg in a round hole.”

In addition, the experience is most about historical and cultural enrichment, especially for Johnson.

“We work with the archeologist, Nathaniel Howe, and he comes from his discipline of studied ancient ships; and I come from being under boats; and we’ve meshed together really well to figure this thing out. It’s really nice. I’ve learned a lot from him and he’s learned a lot from me by just having a hands on approach -- this is how they put a board in, and this is how they did it one thousand years ago and this is how they do it now -- nothing has changed. The hammer hasn’t changed.”

Read more about the Swiftsure in next week's part two in the Ballard News-Tribune.

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