Shipwrights Co-op turns 30

Nicholas Johnson of the Leader
Posted 9/6/11

Shipwright Jim Lyons is still a bit shocked it’s lasted this long.

“When we started this, we were young men, and I don’t think anybody had a clue that 30 years later it would be a thriving, …

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Shipwrights Co-op turns 30

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Shipwright Jim Lyons is still a bit shocked it’s lasted this long.

“When we started this, we were young men, and I don’t think anybody had a clue that 30 years later it would be a thriving, viable business,” Lyons said about the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op, of which he is a founding member. “That wasn’t the goal. It was more like, ‘We’ll try this, and it’ll be an experiment.’”

The co-op celebrates 30 years of wooden boatbuilding and repair throughout the month of September, and is planning a party primarily aimed toward those involved with Port Townsend’s maritime trades community.

Lyons and seven other shipwrights created the co-op in 1981 out of an 8-by-12-foot garden shed with a single band saw and a love for wooden boats. Thirty years later, Lyons is the last of the founding members still repairing wooden boats.

“This has pretty much been my adult life,” he said. “It really has worked out well for me.”

Lyons, 61, knows he won’t retire on a nest egg, though he doesn’t plan to stop doing what he loves anytime soon. He and his wife have lived comfortably in Port Townsend, raising two children and sending one off to college, so far. In the co-op’s early years, he never imagined that kind of stability.

For the first five years, Lyons said, the co-op’s profit-sharing business model yielded little, if any, compensation for its members. Instead, profits remained within the company, allowing it to pay its bills and build a new shop without a loan or outside labor.

“We still maintain that idea of keeping it healthy,” he said. “But now [the company has] built up enough that we feel we can pay out a family wage and still be OK.”

Two of the founding members have passed away, while others have moved on to new things, but some still live in Port Townsend. The co-op began working on commercial fishing fleets, doing mostly structural repair on wooden hulls and decks. At the time, the membership fee was $25. Now, it’s grown to about $2,500.

These days, the co-op employs 33 people, including several who’ve introduced a new skill base surrounding electronics, mechanics and metal work, as well as hydraulic, plumbing, heating and cooling systems.

Lyons said while the co-op has grown and increased its skill base, the company’s governing structure remains intact.

“It has evolved a lot,” he said. “But it’s still one share, one vote. Everyone’s got a say and it’s an equal say.”

Lyons said he enjoys the shared responsibility as well as the ability to take off to work on a personal project or take a vacation when business gets slow.

“You’ve got some power,” he said. “You’ve got a vote. You don’t have total responsibility. I’ve taken off at times for months for building projects or trips, then come back and tap right in.”

While there have been tough periods, everyone agrees the last few years have been relatively prosperous. Why? It’s hard to say exactly, but Lyons credits the co-op’s long list of clients who return relatively often and attract others by word of mouth.

“These last few years have been better than ever,” he said. “At the end of the year when you look at the bottom line, it’s up.”

With the help of his 19-year-old son, Lyons is currently repairing a 1916 tugboat called Amak from Alaska, that first came to the co-op in 1981 and returned two more times over the years. Now out of the hands of its original owner, a logging company, the wooden boat is undergoing structural repairs inside and out for a new life of recreation.

Lyons’ son, Sebastian, has worked alongside his father at the co-op since the two built a 34-foot motorboat three years ago. Sebastian works at the co-op during the summers and attends community college in Skagit County the rest of the year.

“I like to think that he’s enjoying working with his dad, and also learning and being productive,” Lyons said.

He said the co-op makes for a great learning environment, especially considering most employees have studied at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding and bring a variety of new skills.

Lyons said, “If you’ve got the interest, you can learn and expand tremendously.”

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