Smith's Boat Shop  
by Jill Brown - Greenbank, Washington - USA

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 tight."

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 sites.

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 behavior.

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. Problem solved.

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 techniques.

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 before supper.

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 bobrodgers100@hotmail.com.

For kits or completed boats, see Ratty's Boatworks - http://rattysboatworks.com/

SAILS

EPOXY

GEAR