Sausalito, California, is a scenic waterfront community located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Once a fishing, transportation, and ship-building hub, Sausalito is now known for its trendy boutiques, pricey inns, and experimental eateries. Cutting-edge homes that appear out of the pages of “Architectural Digest” crowd its hillsides, and sleek fiberglass yachts pack the marinas.
Amid the glamour is the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center. The modest boat shop was established in 1951 by Myron Spaulding, a violinist who was also a skilled sailor and boat designer and builder. For nearly a half-century, he constructed sailing yachts to his own specifications until his death in 2000 at the age of 94. A couple years later, his wife, Gladys, created the nonprofit Spaulding Wooden Boat Center. In addition to providing repairs and maintenance on wooden boats, the center holds cruises, demonstrations, and youth boat building and sailing programs. Since 2007, the center has also been home to the Arques School of Traditional Boatbuilding, an apprenticeship program that teaches adults wooden boat construction.
I visited Spaulding the first Wednesday of this month while on my honeymoon in San Francisco. My wife and I biked over the Golden Gate Bridge that day, and I pedaled the extra mile up the Sausalito waterfront to the boat yard. I missed the weekly Wednesday open house by a few hours, but I called the office when I arrived and a cheery gentleman encouraged me to come on in to have a look around.
The interior of the shop has developed a patina from decades of rugged use. The floorboards creaked. Yellowed posters hung from the walls. Masts leaned in a corner. Antique power and hand tools sat primed for action. Scraps of lumber and rope were splayed throughout. Wood dust coated everything.
Freda rested on one of the two interior berths, beneath a latticework ceiling. The watercraft, built in 1885, is the oldest sailing yacht on the West Coast. She is undergoing a painstaking restoration that included cutting, milling, and drying the same type of wood used originally. So far, the project has cost about half a million dollars.
Fiberglass boats are so much easier to create and maintain, and they can last indefinitely, so what’s the point of wooden boat shops? It’s because wooden boats are works of art. Compared to a fiberglass boat, a well-built wooden one is like a Jaguar next to a Jeep. But to build one requires skill–just as in painting, sculpting, and glassblowing–that takes years to perfect and then it must be practiced regularly in order to maintain. The continued existence of places like the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center ensure the art of wooden boat construction lives on.
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