An article in our local newspaper got me thinking about the number of boat builders who have been in business in Tacoma. Of those who existed when I started work in the mid ’70’s only one still exists, J.M. Martinac, the others have been bought up or gone by the wayside due to changes in the economic climate.
So back to the article. It talks about the Western Flyer, the boat John Steinbeck used when exploring the Sea of Cortez. It was built by the Western Boat Company which had long ceased business by 1975 although I believe their facility was operating under a different name. Western Boat along with Tacoma Boat, Martinolich and many others built good, stout commercial fishing vessels for use in the North Pacific. Their era was one of wood and strong men to move the planks around, drill holes and screw in screws by hand.
I started my career working for Tacoma Marine Supply which was a supplier to most of these builders. It was amazing the barrels of screws they still had in inventory, most made from silicon bronze, from that earlier era. Most were Reed & Prince head which is similar to a Phillips head but the slots are straight, not curved. This allowed for installation without stripping the head which was really important when you were installing thousands per boat. Also lying around were planks of exotic wood, not little pieces but lengths that must have been over 20′ and probably 12″ in width. When the Tacoma Marine Supply building was torn down in the early 1980’s, the salvage company made out quite nicely with what they found.
By time I started work companies like Fairliner Boats had ceased business. They were one of the pioneers in building plywood cabin cruisers for the recreational market. Cruising around Puget Sound you still see plenty of their product still keeping families happy on the water. Fiberglass, steel and aluminum were the new materials of choice and companies like Martinac were using them to build Tuna Seiners for the Western Pacific of crab boats for the Bering Sea. Changes in the tax codes helped bring an end to this era, it was no longer easy to get ones money out of the commercial fishing industry without paying large tax penalties so all of the rich folks who were investing in the industry (but not operating the boats) took their funds elsewhere.
Tacoma now has a few boat builders but they have had to specialize. Companies like Martinac are building tugs and others like Nordlund Boat, custom yachts. You can still see the tradition of the wooden boat era when you look at the interior workmanship these companies provide. The wood work is gorgeous and the workers (I had trouble not saying workmen) are very proud of the product they are producing. I hope that these companies, some of which are on their third generation of family ownership, are able to prosper and keep Tacoma’s boat building history alive.
Past president of the United States Marine Safety Association and retired sailor
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