The craftsman, one of the few in the Southland who restore large wooden boats, finds it’s a difficult but growing business.
Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2003.
By Andy Olsen
It’s a tedious task, raising the dead.
Tucked away in a fold of Ventura Harbor, a school of wooden hulks lies beneath gray tarps, waiting for Doug Shumpert to bring them to life again. A shipwright, Shumpert has spent the past 36 years gutting rotted ghosts of the sea and rebuilding them to sail again.
Of the few dozen businesses in Southern California that repair watercraft, only a handful specialize in the large wooden boats that Shumpert and his crew work on, according to experts in the field.
A former Navy man, the 57-year-old Oxnard resident lost his desire to sail years ago. His focus now is on repairing and restoring the boats he loves most. But Shumpert, who taught himself to build a boat from scratch, admits that the restoration business can be tough.
The job of ripping out the ribs of a boat’s delicate frame, cutting new ones and reinstalling them takes a highly skilled hand.
And the work can be painstakingly slow. A select piece of wood can take up to eight months to dry, or cure.
“You learn patience in this business,” Shumpert said, adding, “and frustration.”
To be good with your hands is not enough. One also needs experience in long-term planning, financial advising and marriage counseling. When a spouse turns sour on a restoration project or the money runs out, Shumpert said, the checks stop coming.
“There’s two kinds of people who own wooden boats,” he said. “Crazy people with a lot of money and crazy people without any money.” The white-haired Shumpert has ridden every wave of this niche industry since he started in 1967.
Wooden boat restoration nearly capsized in the 1960s and ’70s, when hobbyists flocked to buy trendier fiberglass models. Shumpert painted homes and built kitchen cabinets to get by.
Today, wooden boats have become collectible antiques of sorts. And interest in fixing the old boats is intensifying, according to Bill Curry, managing director of the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Townsend, Wash.
At least one wooden boat school has opened every year for the past seven in North America, Curry said. There are five on the West Coast alone.
And boat buyers aren’t the only ones returning to the ways of old. Second-career and retired woodworkers are among those taking courses at the Port Townsend school.
“There’s a group of 30- or 40-year-olds that are changing careers and want to work with their hands and with wood,” said Curry, whose school has about 50 students enrolled in its two-year program. “They make up the bulk of our students.”
Of the 250 students he estimated will graduate from such programs around the country this year, only a fraction were under 25, Curry said.
As for Shumpert, he has enough business to keep him busy for years. He is juggling five projects that include Cho-Cho-San, a 42-foot yawl, whose deck and frame nearly crumbled when it arrived last year at his workshop, which is built out of several large metal freight containers.
Some boats can’t even float when they come in.
“There’s a lot of guys who freak out about jobs like this,” Shumpert said. That is why his apprentices are almost never young.
One graduate fresh out of boat-building school came to work in the boatyard but didn’t last. Too much attitude, Shumpert said.
Most can’t keep up with his assistant Ted Breyer, 70, who grabbed a broom and swept wood shavings into piles as he talked.
“It’s rough-and-tumble work,” said Breyer, who used to repair satellite systems for the Navy. “People say, ‘You’re crazy working that hard out there.’ I tell them, ‘No, it’s fun.'”
Shumpert began developing a new way of rebuilding hulls 20 years ago. He fits a wooden skeleton around the remains of a ship’s frame to keep it from collapsing before he tears it apart.
His technique was featured this month in WoodenBoat magazine, an international sailing publication.
There are about 100 shops like Shumpert’s nationwide, said Carl Cramer, publisher of the Maine-based magazine. Unlike others, Shumpert never went to a fancy boat-building school. He learned his craft largely as an apprentice.
He discovered his interest at 19 during a brief stint in Pearl Harbor with the Navy. Stuck in dock as the aging ship he served on underwent repairs, Shumpert paid other seamen to stand his watch while he scoured the local shipyard for odd jobs.
“Rather than sit around on the base all day and earn nothing, I went out and learned something,” he said.
He watched and absorbed. Old deck planks came off; new ones were put back on. Corroded iron fittings were removed; new bronze fittings were installed.
“One thing led to another,” he said. “If I didn’t know how to do something, I’d look it up in the book.”
After the Navy, Shumpert married his girlfriend, Sharon, and the couple, who now have two children, eventually settled in Oxnard.
Shumpert spent an unsatisfying year fixing telephone lines in the San Fernando Valley before starting up his boat business.
His biggest project to date was a 50-foot trawler, named Elvica, built in 1968 and owned by William and Jody Allen of Santa Barbara. The couple purchased the boat for $110,000 in 1997.
An inspector said the boat needed a little work but was otherwise in good shape. No one noticed the fungus devouring Elvica from the inside.
Months later, the Allens steered Elvica into Windy Lane, a 10-mile stretch of rough waters near Santa Cruz Island, notorious for destroying wooden boats. They were lucky to make it back.
Shumpert, who was recommended by friends, was later asked to come to Santa Barbara to inspect the vessel. At one point, he motioned for William Allen to step inside.
“I want to show you something,” Shumpert said, and began ripping rotted planks by hand from Elvica’s hull.
“I thought to myself, ‘My God, I had been cruising a bit in Windy Lane and it could have literally fallen apart,’ ” Allen said.
He ended up having to restore nearly the entire boat.
There is a joke among mariners: A boat is a hole in the water into which you throw money.
Shumpert admits he shudders a little each time he gives customers large repair estimates. Allen’s boat cost more than $400,000 to restore. Still, Shumpert loves bringing the old wooden boats back to life.
“It’s what I do,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire. It’s a job you don’t mind waking up and going to every morning.”