The epicenter of San Francisco Pelican
activity in the Pacific Northwest is a small white
house on Samish Island, not far from Mount Vernon,
Washington. For forty years, Fred and Don Smith were
the premier builders of the Bill Short-designed 12-foot
wooden lug-rigged dinghy. Don died a few years ago
and Fred, who’s about to turn 80, sold the original
jig to a boatbuilder named Owen Huffaker, but he’s
still the local historian, construction expert and
all-around guru to San Francisco PelicanViking Fleet
III, based primarily in Puget Sound and Oregon.
The Pacific Northwest Fleet
(Viking Fleet III) Racing
The Smith brothers lived in Mount Vernon
and spent their summers on Samish Island. Sometimes,
young Fred would ride his bicycle the 15 miles from
Mount Vernon just to lie on the beach and daydream
about the boats that he would own someday.
The boys moved to Samish Island full-time
in 1945. Don joined the Merchant Marine and Fred oystered
for a few years and then got a job at a filbert farm.
He built his house in 1949 and supported a family
on a salary of $1.00 an hour. They fished and clammed,
grew their own produce and bartered for the rest.
Fred admits that "sometimes the money got a little
Although they had always lived around
water, neither of the brothers had ever built a boat.
In 1960, they decided that it would be nice to have
a shallow-draft boat that could be beached on the
mud flats out behind Fred’s house, so they built
a 24-foot plywood catamaran in their spare time. In
the process, they discovered that, according to Fred,
"We were bad designers and good builders."
The catamaran was fine, but it was hard to get to
during high tide, so they moved it out to a buoy and
set about building themselves an 8-foot pram with
plans that they bought for 50 cents from U.S. Plywood.
When the neighbors came around asking the boys to
build more prams, the Smith brothers found themselves
in the boatbuilding business. They could easily turn
out two boats a day, but they soon ran out of neighbors
to buy them, so they contracted with sporting goods
stores in the area to sell the boats for them. The
prams were available in 8, 12 and 14-foot lengths
and they were perfect drift boats for fly fisherman
and duck hunters. The boats were so popular that the
brothers quit their day jobs and began building boats
full-time. "Besides," Fred says, "It
paid better than the filbert farm." Smith’s
Boat Shop was in business.
In 1963, Fred read an article in Rudder
magazine about a guy down in California who was building
small wooden sailboats with a sampan bow and a lot
of freeboard. He paid $35 for a set of Bill Short’s
plans and the Smith brothers built their first Pelican,
hull #41, in two weeks. Fred says of the stubby little
boat: "The Pelican is sort of an ugly duckling. But
it’s like our own child. You got to love it."
Although they had done very little
sailing and no racing at all, Fred and Don loaded
the Pelican onto a trailer and entered the 1964 West
Coast Pelican Championships on San Francisco Bay.
They finished in first place, sold the boat and went
home to build more Pelicans. To prove that the first
win wasn’t a fluke, they entered again the next
year and proceeded to win by over three minutes. They
won the championship three years in a row and retired
the George Ingram Pelican Association Perpetual Trophy.
"It was a pretty good way to sell boats," Fred says.
The Smiths added a kickup rudder and a heavier tiller
to the basic Pelican design, making it more suited
to Puget Sound’s shallow launch and recovery
A year later, Bill Short offered the
Smith brothers the Pacific Northwest franchise to
build and sell Pelican sailboats; their territory
eventually expanded to include California, making
them one of only five Pelican boatbuilders in the
United States. It took a week for Don and Fred to
build a Pelican; Don was left-handed and Fred was
right-handed, which meant that they could work in
perfect synchronization. Fred still has his original
copy of Bill Short’s plans and a logbook containing
information about every one of the 580 Pelicans that
have passed through the Smith Boat Shop.
The Smiths never spend a cent on advertising.
"It’s all been word of mouth," says Fred. "Even
the boat shows didn’t sell our boats. If you
don’t believe in your own product, you won’t
stay in business."
Fred and Don built their first El Toro
sailboat in 1965. "We needed more work," says Fred,
so when a sailing friend suggested the 8-foot pram,
the boys added the El Toro to their inventory. Designed
in 1940 as a training sailboat and yacht tender, the
little boat was simpler to build than the Pelican,
so the Smiths could easily trailer 10-14 boats a month
to California, where the El Toro was popular for clubs
and youth programs. At one point, the brothers were
the largest El Toro producers in the country. "We
stopped counting after the first thousand," explains
Fred. They supplied El Toros to the Olympia and Everett
Parks Departments and the Seattle Parks Department
for use on Green Lake. The Oak Harbor Yacht Club still
relies on El Toros for their youth sailing program.
For a number of years, Don was the regional representative
for the El Toro Association and a keen racer. He used
to bring a six-boat trailer and a gang of kids from
Samish Island to the Green Lake El Toro races so that
they could learn first-hand about sailing and sportsmanlike
In 1972, the Oklahoma City Boat Club
ordered a flock of 12 Pelicans, the largest single
order the boys had ever filled. Don and Fred made
two trips to Oklahoma, pulling a boat trailer loaded
with bare hulls, hardware and completed boats. Wooden
Boat magazine ran an article about Fred and Don and
their Pelicans in 1978. Fred says they got so many
orders that folks had to wait months for delivery.
A rumor got around that the Smith Boat Shop couldn’t
produce. Never one to mince words, Fred put out the
word that there would be at least a year-long wait
for boats, so a lot of people cancelled immediately.
An article in Sailing magazine describes
the Orcas Island Pelican Project, in which a group
of 9 high school kids built their own boats and sailed
them 250 miles down the east side of Vancouver Island.
The Smith brothers fabricated parts for the boats
and spent two days instructing the kids on fiberglassing
San Francisco Pelican Viking Fleet
III came into being when a group of Pelican owners
began getting together to cruise the San Juan Islands
on Sunday afternoons. Someone finally suggested that
the sailors try racing their boats in Samish Bay.
This backyard regatta eventually grew to include as
many as 100 Pelicans and El Toros and over 280 skippers
and crew. Days were spent rigging and racing and evenings
were devoted to eating Fred’s barbecued salmon
and telling boating tales. Don applied for a fleet
number and Viking Fleet III was born.
Viking Fleet III cruises all summer
and races in the winter and spring. The cruising season
opens officially with a Mother’s Day Cruise
to Pelican Beach, which is a free Department of Natural
Resources campsite on the northeast side of Cypress
Island, where the Smith boys camped as kids. Pelicaneers
have been pulling their boats up on the sand and camping
on this site for 35 years. In 1983, members of Viking
Fleet III banded together with the DNR to built a
picnic shelter. When Cypress Island was turned into
a Marine Park complete with mooring buoys, picnic
tables and toilet facilities, the DNR made its nickname
official. Pelican Beach is one of Fred Smith’s
most gratifying achievements. "I feel like I’ve
left my mark on the earth," he says proudly.
In August of every year, Fred leads
a week-long cruise through the San Juans, ending at
Turn Island, just outside of Friday Harbor. A highlight
of the cruise is the Annual Pelican Single-Handed
Turn Island Circumnavigation Race, complete with spectators
walking the perimeter of the island, cheering and
shouting advice to the racers. Fred holds the distinction
of having come in first and third in the same race:
"I finished so far ahead of the other boats that I
went around again," he says cheerfully. "Of course,
I knew the currents." He takes part in the Wednesday
night Pelican regattas on Whidbey Island and still
finishes at the head of the pack.
When Don died in 2003, Fred reorganized
and reopened the shop under the same name. These days,
Fred and his son-in-law Ron, who lives next door,
build custom 8 and 10-foot prams. There’s no
time frame – the boat gets done when Fred finishes
it. As he says, "We’re retired and we’re
as busy as we want to be." The workshop, actually
a large shed, is still heated by a woodstove. The
small space is crammed with hand tools, bits of hardware
and cans of varnish. It gives the impression that
nothing has been moved since the boat shop opened
in 1961. Fred’s salmon smoker stands by the
back door and his little motorboat lies on the mud
flats, waiting for high tide.
Fred Smith is a happy man. He told
me that he’s had a good life, "not a rich life,
but a good one". He’s proud of the fact that
every boat he ever built was paid for before it left
his shop and he’s never in 40 years gotten a
bad check. Customers become family – when they
come to pick up their completed boats, they often
stay the night at Fred’s house and enjoy one
of his mammoth fresh seafood dinners and then return
the favor whenever he’s in their neck of the
woods. Fred enjoys nothing more than hosting a gathering
of Pelicaneers in his backyard, which looks out over
Padilla Bay toward Hatt’s Island. Folks often
bring their boats with them and do a little sailing
He’s very pleased that the San
Francisco Pelican is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
"I’d have felt like a failure if the Pelican
died before I did," he says. Thanks to the Smith brothers,
that’s not ever likely to happen.
Smith’s Boat Shop is located at 9578 Samish
Island Road. His telephone number is (360)766-6883.
Call first to make sure he’s home.
Owen Huffaker builds Pelicans, El Toros and other
small wooden boats in Anacortes WA. He’s proud
to carry on the tradition of the Smith Built Boat.
His website is www.pelicanfeathers.com.
San Francisco Pelican information and design specs
is found on Muriel Short’s website - community.webtv.net/Pelicansailboat.
Bob Rodgers is the Commodore of Viking Fleet III.
His email address is email@example.com.
For kits or completed
boats, see Ratty's Boatworks - http://rattysboatworks.com/