Among the wonders of owning antique boats is the multi-generational connections that the boats carry with them.
I recently had out of town visitors, friends who had traveled with us last summer aboard Catalyst. Catalyst was built by the University of Washington in 1932 to serve as their first purpose-built oceanographic research vessel. She spent her winters moored to the quay at the University, which is less than 100 yards from where I am currently moored at Jensen’s Boat yard.
In the very modern Marine Science building that is across the street from Jensen’s wooden sheds and shops hangs an old painting. It is a WPA-style rendering of Catalyst, showing her wheel house, engine room and on-board laboratory areas as they were when she was built, and I brought my guests to show it to them. As we stood there discussing what was different and what was still the same, a gentleman stopped to listen. It turned out that he is a professor in the marine science department. He told us that his aunt had created the painting in 1933, the year after Catalyst was launched.
Ten years ago I was working on Catalyst at the dock in Friday Harbor, and two men approached me and introduced themselves. They were the son and grandson of Tommy Thompson, who as the head of the fledgling UW marine science department had scrounged the financing to build Catalyst. Tommy’s son, the older gentleman on the dock, had sailed with his father aboard Catalyst back in the 1930’s and had brought his son down to show him the boat. I invited them in and he shared vignettes of his life aboard as a young boy of five. The thing that impacted me the most was when he looked into Stateroom 3, which he told us had been his father’s when he was aboard, and pointing to the porthole with a crack running across its face, said “When I used to come with my dad, this cabin had over and under bunks, and I slept in the upper while our father slept in the lower. One of my earliest memories is of laying in my bunk and looking out of this very same cracked porthole”. The older man was in his early to mid-80’s and his son in his late 50’s.
The elder Mr. Thompson told me that for his entire adult life he has owned a series of boats, all named Catalyst.
I was in the shipyard in Port Townsend, sanding and painting Westward when several people walked up and began sharing their story. Their family had owned Westward in the 1950’s, when they themselves were small children. They reminisced about the many times when, during cocktail hour, the adults would retire to the expansive back deck and leave the kids to navigate and steer Westward through the intricate passages of the Gulf Islands and Desolation Sound. They told me that it had taken two of them to turn Westward’s large wheel.
I marvel at the strength of the bonds that these old boats had on their young crew members. The memories of old engines, varnished teak and mahogany, and the prismatic light shimmering across the overhead are as vivid today as they were 60 to 80 years ago.
It occurred to me that these fine old vessels are still creating abiding memories for those that sail upon them. At sea each day is an unopened gift and there is no telling what memorable event is awaiting our delighted discovery.