The Lady Washington has undergone a detailed late-summer makeover with newly sanded spars, a fresh coat of paint, a bolstered frame and a lot of tender loving care. She’s been sandblasted, sealed up, galvanized, replanked, and will soon head to Port Townsend for out-of-water repairs, too.
And she’s also managed a movie cameo in an independent film partially shot in the Harbor, along with a role in the Canadian TV show “Once Upon a Time,” all the while carrying a few dozen more passengers and capturing the fancy of thousands in the ports she visits, such as Kirkland over Labor Day or Bremerton the week before.
From the dreams that became the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport more than 25 years ago, the crew and the stewards of the locally built Lady Washington now hope to complete plans this fall for a permanent new home here on Grays Harbor less than a mile from where she was built piece by piece, hand by hand.
For 22 of those years, Seaport Executive Director Les Bolton has helped captain and promote the Lady Washington, its companion ship the Hawaiian Chieftain and the full-service spar shop that make up the Seaport facility tucked away at the end of the road in Junction City.
Just don’t come on board acting like a pirate, please, Bolton asks.
After all the publicity surrounding the appearance of the Lady Washington in Disney Picture’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” in 2003, Bolton is a little tired of such swashbuckling nonsense.
“If one more person says ‘Argh matey’ to me, I’ll kill ‘em,” he warns from the start. “And a lot of people think we teach them how to sail. If you come on board, and you really want to learn about sailing, you will certainly learn a little bit about sailing.
“But more what you learn about is how to be a person — how to be part of a family. … Some people have had some real life-changing moments on board.”
There have been scores of visitors who have learned lessons from the Lady Washington since a core group of believers and shipwrights began to fashion some Douglas firs into ship frames in a building that had been an old hake plant. It was started in 1987 as part of a state centennial project, and the Lady now sails far and wide as a symbol of the Harbor’s history, spirit and determination.
“Our tall ships are ambassadors for our community along the entire Pacific coast,” said Linda Orgel, a Seaport board member. “Whenever they arrive in communities, there is a palpable excitement. The ships are beautiful and the crews are skilled and dedicated — and they are from Grays Harbor. There is no price that could be put on that kind of exposure.”
Former Daily World publisher and editor John Hughes recalled that it was no easy effort getting the project started. He credited former Cosmpolis state legislator and third-generation longshoreman Max Vekich, now living in Seattle, with being “a visionary, persevering booster of the Historic Seaport project, for which he won the State Historical Society’s highest honor, the Robert Gray Medal.”
“A succession of Seaport trustees, managers, captains and crews have stayed the course, and the Harbor is a better place for their often thankless efforts,” said Hughes, now the state’s chief oral historian and a publisher of books on former Gov. Booth Gardner and Sen. Slade Gorton, among others.
Vekich, a member of the ILWU International Executive Board who still contributes to the Seaport, recalled his initial idea was first to build a replica of the Columbia Rediviva, which was the first American ship to circle the globe under the command of Capt. Robert Gray — the Gray of Grays Harbor — and the ship that served the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest during the late 1700s. The Lady Washington was the tender ship to the larger Columbia.
“That was the concept we started with,” Vekich. “So move forward 25 years, and we don’t have the Columbia three-masted ship with a lot of guns. We got the Lady Washington, a pretty good-looking brig, but clearly a much more mercantile ship. But it feels good and I’m so proud of the Seaport and the tenacity of the supporters and the community who have kept faith with the dream.”
Bolton was on the state’s Centennial Maritime Committee when the Lady Washington was launched in 1989.
“We wanted to have this great ambassador for the state,” Bolton said. “At that point in time, the original Pride of Baltimore was sailing and it was just an incredible success story for the state of Maryland and the people of Baltimore to promote them around the world.”
“When I first ran the boat, in December in 1990, at that point in time the mate and I were the only people who had ever sailed a square rig.”
That March, Bolton and crew took off on a 104-day voyage. The crew was about 10, with a few Sea Explorers and Seaport committee members aboard.
“At that point in time, the organization had closed for three months and we all thought this could be the last trip the Lady Washington ever makes.”
They knew the stakes were high in raising awareness and funds to keep the boat afloat.
“If we do this right, we’ll be able to keep this on. But if we do this wrong, it could be the last trip.” That was how the voyage was billed to those aboard.
Bolton was told the original fundraising effort was $7.9 million, but in going through archives and Seaport records, he’s since learned the total project costs were first estimated to be $9.6 million. While supporters were able to raise $2.4 million to convert the hake plant and then buy some of the needed tools, the Seaport still had to find matching funds for the centennial grant.
“Nobody on the West Coast had built an 18th Century vessel before,” Bolton said of the initial plans. “They had this $9.6 million dream, yet they only had $2.4 million.”
Ultimately, the City of Aberdeen came to the rescue with the city council passing a bond issue paid off by timber reserves to support the Seaport’s mission.
“At the time, when opposition to the project was so vociferous, I marveled at the myopia of the mossbacks who howled that it was a boondoggle and wanted the (Aberdeen) City Council to walk the plank for pushing ahead,” Hughes recalled.
“It would not have happened without that funding,” Bolton explained. “We would have had a tall ship that was based in King County, and if we were lucky we’d see it here every five years or so.”
The Seaport is in a similar dilemma now. It launched plans more than three years ago to move across the Chehalis River to the old Weyerhaeuser sawmill site in South Aberdeen.
The vision for the Seaport Landing is not only to showcase the Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain (purchased and renovated in 2005), but also to honor and highlight the maritime history of the Harbor. Bolton talks about forming partnerships with local school districts and promoting efforts to help young people enter maritime trades.
“When we have a footprint and we can actually get the public in there and see what we can do … to tell our stories, to let people know who we are and where we come from, then we will start to determine how we can use this area to start improving our community. When we get those answers, things will start falling into place,” Bolton said.
In November 2010, the Historical Seaport Authority announced a formal offer to acquire 28 acres of the former Weyerhaeuser property immediately adjacent to 2.5 acres of land, including 320 feet of riverfront, that the Seaport has leased from the state Department of Natural Resources just south of the Chehalis River Bridge. The uplands portion of the property is planned for ship maintenance activities, as well as a campus for hands-on vocational and academic programming.
Without disclosing details, Bolton said the Seaport is still in final discussions with Weyerhaeuser and the state, and he hopes to close the deal for the Landing by Sept. 30. One of the issues is that it is a former industrial site that would have to be converted for public use.
“The discussions are positive and I think we are making good headway,” Bolton said.
Orgel sees the Landing project as “critical to the economic viability of Washington’s coastal communities.”
“The Landing will bring together our history and our future connected by the rivers, estuary and ocean,” she said.
The Seaport board envisions a working waterfront “integrated with tourist, commercial and perhaps residential uses,” Orgel added. “We need a positive image to bring businesses and investments here and I believe this will be the catalyst. Even more important is that the Seaport Landing will provide public access and appropriate use of the waterfront.”
With the Landing, she said, the Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain “will have a visible home. It’s been a long time coming and now is the time.”
On the West Coast, there are now only three other non-profit organizations like the Seaport that maintain more than one tall ship. There is the San Diego Maritime Museum, the Los Angeles Maritime Institute and the Sail and Life Training Society (SALTS) in Victoria, B.C.
But if that list is narrowed to boats that travel outside of their own harbors on a regular basis, only the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport and SALTS make the grade, Bolton notes.
“There are some things about Aberdeen that make this a perfect location for this kind of facility,” Bolton said. “It’s strategically located. We’re at the crossroads. If you are trying to get to the Washington coast, you are going to go through Aberdeen.”
The Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Ore., Bolton said, averages 100,000 people a year.
“When you look at the Seaport, at lot of what we do is hard to see,” Bolton said. “People say, ‘The boat is gone all the time.’ Well the boats cost about $400,000 a year each to run. … In order for us to stay here, we need a dock to be operating. So as we come to develop the new site, we can start lengthening the amount of time we can stay. But we’ll probably always be under way, while there are aspects of it that will be here year-round.”
Like the Seaport’s spar shop, where it was most recently turning out poles for Logger’s Playday as well as masts for the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship in Mystic Seaport that was built in the 1840s.
Before final plans are in place for a new Seaport facility, Bolton would like to see some sort of assessment to take into account what other museums in the area, such as the Polson Museum and the Aberdeen Museum, already provide: “We should be telling our community’s story. What we do should be an enhancement of our community, not a competition. So what’s missing? What’s the story we tell? We can tell stories of ship building, so how do we tell that in scale?”
Bolton is a big supporter of opening up more of the area’s waterfront and hopes the new Landing will connect Aberdeen with not only its industrial history, but its natural beauty too.
“We have 11 miles of shoreline, and in 1930 we had 25 saw mills and 28 shipyards in the commercial directory,” Bolton said. “Now, you can’t get to the shoreline because it’s all set aside as industrial property. But that’s our history right there.”
Orgel, Hughes and Vekich all laud Bolton for charting a direction for the future.
“He’s kept the ships afloat, literally,” Orgel said. “He hasn’t done it alone, of course. As with any non-profit, the passion that the staff, crew, board and volunteers bring are what keeps everything going. But Les has a vision and it is that vision that moves the organization forward.”
The restoration project with the Lady Washington currently is being done in three phases, with about 65 percent of it completed.
The above-the-waterline structural work has been completed, and it’s now headed for the boatyard in Port Townsend in September. Some frame problems had surfaced traced to a seam that had gone bad, allowing water to get in behind it, so some planks and two frames had to be replaced.
“We address things as we see issues,” Bolton said. “The boat gets painted about three times a year. Consider if you had 50,000 people a year walk across your front porch. The boat gets washed down with saltwater every day because it’s good for the wood, but it’s not good for the paint.”
In October, the Seaport will have a celebration to mark the laying of the Lady Washington keel. It already had a 25th anniversary celebration in June, too, for the Seaport organization.
“And we’re going to celebrate for Christmas, for sure,” Bolton said. “This is kind of a rolling celebration. We’ve had a lot of milestones this year and we’re looking forward to the next.”
Vekich is proud his original idea is still sailing, even if both he and Hughes express regrets the Columbia never got built.
“It’s like telling a committee you want to design a horse and you end up designing a camel, or in this case, maybe a zebra,” Vekich said. “It was really different from what we set out to do.”
The success of the Lady Washington and now the Hawaiian Chieftain, too, make the compromises worthwhile and give the Seaport something to reach for in the future.
“People love the Lady Washington in California and in British Columbia, in Oregon,” Vekich said. “It takes the Harbor elsewhere, and that’s one of my favorite things about it.”
Angelo Bruscas, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3916, or by email at email@example.com