Popularity is still high for Poulsbo’s namesake boat

From left, Joe Schwan rows a 65-year-old Poulsbo boat with Richard Meyers. Meyers restored this boat, which Schwan now uses as a fishing and history lesson for his grandchildren.               - Megan Stephenson / Herald
From left, Joe Schwan rows a 65-year-old Poulsbo boat with Richard Meyers. Meyers restored this boat, which Schwan now uses as a fishing and history lesson for his grandchildren.
— image credit: Megan Stephenson / Herald

POULSBO — It’s been nearly 80 years since Ronald Young first built his unique style of boat, but among enthusiasts and folks proud of their hometown, Poulsbo boats have become the ubiquitous fishing boat of Puget Sound.

“I grew up on these boats,” said Joe Schwan, of Bridgehaven on the Olympic Peninsula. Schwan grew up in Eglon in the 1950s and 60s, when Puget Sound still had fish, he said.

“We almost always caught a fish,” he remembered. Poulsbo boats were the vessel everyone wanted — and Schwan said you could usually tell who had a Poulsbo.

“A blister and a burn,” he laughed. The early motors never started easily, and Schwan said absentminded fishermen would often rest their hands on the hot exhaust pipe.

Schwan recently got his hands on a Poulsbo boat, originally built in 1946, from fellow boater Richard Meyers of Lofall. “It’s a piece of history, it represents an era in the Pacific Northwest,” Schwan said.

Meyers said he grew up using Poulsbo boats, and has spent some of his retirement restoring the boats he fishes on. About five years ago, he acquired a green, worn-out Poulsbo boat that sat dry for 20 years. Luckily, the planking was in good shape.  Meyers said he scrapped down the green paint, known as a Port Orchard color, and replaced the small bits of rotting wood with fresh cedar. He repainted the boat blue, and even fished with it for a while.

However, he said he wanted it to be used when he stopped fishing with it. He offered it to the Poulsbo Historical Society to be displayed at City Hall, but no bites. The Marine Science Center liked it, but didn’t have the money to make sure it was maintained. Finally, by a chance meeting between Schwan and Meyer’s wife, he got his wish — Schwan wanted to use the boat to teach his grandchildren about fishing and boating.

“I restored it, and loaned it out so kids could learn how to row,” Meyers said. “Growing up ... Everybody had one.”

And if they didn’t, they could easily rent one. Meyers and Schwan both remember the numerous fishing resorts around Puget Sound, and all had Poulsbo boats ready to rent.

Poulsbo boats are a unique design, well-suited to fishing pursuits in the Puget Sound, according to Schwan, Meyers and just about every published reference to the boat.

“Their characteristic swooping sheer lines and generous tumblehome were once well known from Olympia to the San Juan Islands,” according to the Rotary Club of Lake Union.

“It’s definitely a classic design,” Schwan said. “It cuts through the water absolutely phenomenally.” Its “signature shape” of lifting up at the back makes for a great ride, according to Schwan’s wife, Jackie.

Poulsbo boat designer Young was born in 1892 to Swedish immigrant parents near Bartow (now Suquamish). He became interested in boatbuilding through newly emerging mechanic technology, such as gasoline engines. A schoolmate of Young’s said he first built a speedboat in 1910 or 1912, according to documents from the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle.

After returning from service during World War I, Young worked as a mechanic at an auto repair garage in Poulsbo, which now houses Second Season clothing store downtown. He began building 16- and 18-foot fishing boats in the basement of the garage around 1930. He became a full-time boatbuilder in 1939, usually producing two boats at a time in about two weeks.

At that time, the shop was right on the water, and the basement would occasionally flood with the incoming tide. Young’s son, Gordon (who goes by Pat), remembers that on a high tide there would be 6 to 10 inches of water covering the floor.

“Boats and materials would be floating all over the place,” he said in a Kitsap County Herald article in 1982.

About 900 were produced between 1933 and 1965, each built by Ron and often Pat, according to the Center for Wooden Boats. Pat said he first began helping his father when he was 12 or 13, cleaning and cutting the 80 ribs needed per boat.

“It was just a matter of cutting wood,” he said recently of his after-school job.

The book “Spirit of Poulsbo” says Young was a “prolific producer” of boats, experimenting with the “perfect” design that was easy to maneuver, “stable on serendipitous waters of Puget Sound,” and enjoyable to own.

More than 60 years after it was built, Schwan says his Poulsbo boat is still a joy to have. He takes his grandchildren on treasure hunts to Sand Island, which they know as Treasure Island.

“[The boat is] just something the kids could reflect on, an experience the kids could have that steps back in time,” he said.

George Corley of Seattle shows off his Poulsbo boat every year at the Seattle Yacht Club’s opening day event, typically the first Saturday in May. He is usually one of only a few Poulsbo boats going in the Antique and Classic category.

“Everybody wants to see it, it’s as cute as can be,” he said. It is a “shapely launch,” painted white with black trim, and mahogany seats and deck. He also understood Young to be a practical boatbuilder — he sold the boats unpainted and without engines, so folks could afford and personalize their boats.

“If somebody wanted a boat, he could buy a boat unfinished from Young and put the thing together,” Corley said.

Young stopped building boats in 1965 and died in 1968. His boats are a rarity now; an estimated 50 remain.

Pat Young worked as a teacher and administrator for a school district in Vancouver, Wash. after World War II service and earning a college degree. He wanted to see if he could still build the kind of boat he and his father spent years on, so on the day he retired in 1984 he laid the keel. “A year and a half later, I finished the boat.”

Pat’s last boat was built the same way his father taught him — no plans. Pat took measurements off a Poulsbo boat in Hansville and it “worked out just fine.” The boat is now on display at the Foss Waterway Seaport museum in Tacoma.


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