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Stone Boat Yard, or How I Launched a Career 

After dropping out of art school I worked at various construction related jobs, such as doing loft conversions and house painting. But as I started to get serious in a relationship with a woman who later became my wife, I decided to cut my hair and "get a real job".

I had no resume, or much to show for my years thus far, so I turned to an employment agency. I landed a job at an Ingersoll-Rand air compressor dealership, as an apprentice mechanic. My only experience in any related field was the sort of shade-tree mechanics a young man learns fixing his own car out of necessity. But the overall picture of my background, including the construction jobs, indicated a strong mechanical aptitude, and it was this that got me the job.

Voegtly & White, the Ingersoll-Rand dealer near the Oakland airport, turned out to be interesting, and I worked there for something like 14 months. It was largely a nuts-and-bolts job. I took air compressors apart, and put them back together again. As I became more familiar with how they worked, I learned to diagnose the machines, and I started being able to build up air systems from off-the-shelf components. Again, this was mostly a bolt together job, but did involve a little basic fabrication, such as drilling holes and some copper tube work. There was a little welding, but I had no welding experience, so the foreman did the small amount that was needed. One measure of my success at this job was my salary: I started at $2.00 an hour, and finished there at $3.10.

One day, I was sent on a service call to a place called Stone Boat Yard up in Alameda, along the Oakland estuary. Their venerable Ingersoll-Rand was leaking oil all over everywhere. It was still pumping, but was clearly in a bad way. The people at Stone’s were resigned to a complete overhaul, and let us know this. They said "come and take it away, and let us know how much it's going to cost, or if it's worth fixing." They were short on money, but they really needed the compressor.

After lunch this sunny day in early August, following directions to a street parallel to the water with a rail road track down the middle, I arrived at 2517 Blanding Avenue. Under a proud sign proclaiming the establishment of the firm in 1853, W. F. Stone & Sons had been doing business along the Oakland-Alameda estuary since they moved there from across the bay in San Francisco before the second world war.

main gate

Inside, an old fashioned office was lined with framed black and white and sepia toned photos of classic sailing yachts, clipper ships, tug boats and a few WWII mine sweepers. Seated at an oak desk behind a low wooden railing, the secretary seemed to think that the foreman was out on the hauling ways, or perhaps in the construction shop, a couple of buildings beyond the office. Tool box in hand, I set out to find this man whose name I was told was Jack. The challenge in locating him turned out to be not unpleasant, as it gave me the opportunity to wander around the entire yard and look over all manner of things marine. I was immediately enthralled.

construction shop

I’d driven in through the main gate, and now had a chance to look at these wooden buildings that faced the main drive on both sides. One with open sides sheltered enormous wood working machinery. Fine lumber was neatly stacked near one of the machines that looked like a planer. Ahead the yard opened out, and I could see stacks of timbers, at least one wooden boat, partially built, peeking out from under a canvas, coils of heavy rope, drums, a rusting mobile crane, a small forest of staging, and equipment whose function I could only guess at.

A couple of doors beyond the office, the largest building, apparently the construction shop, had wide double doors open. Inside were a couple of large wooden-hulled boats being worked on, a sail boat of about 45 feet in length, and a varnished mahogany-planked speed boat being restored to it’s pre-war newness.

“No,” I was told, “haven’t seen Jack for a while. He might be out on the ways” After clarifying that the “ways” were a sloped rail carriage used for hauling boats out of the water, situated on the other side of the yard. Assisted by some helpful pointing, I took off in that direction.

hauling ways

There wasn’t a soul in evidence on the wide slanted platform, populated only with massive stacks of timber blocks, and I was wondering what my next tack might be when a grizzled old salt popped out of a nearby shed and with a grin, asked me what I was looking for.

“You must be Jack.” I said, approaching and extending my hand.
“Yeah, that’s me”, giving me a slightly quizzical look and offering his hand. He looked for all the world like a gnome.
“I’m here to fix your air compressor”
“I didn’t know it was broken” was the reply. After a look around, he offered helpfully that I was probably looking for the foreman, the other Jack. “Try the Katrina”, he gestured, which was apparently a boat tied up at the end of the south dock.

After a stroll past more staging, a number of wooden boats in various states of repair, a towering crane, and down a few hundred yards of dock, I arrived at a substantial sailing yacht of about seventy feet, gleaming white, with the name Katrina painted on the flat part in back. It was gently moving in the light waves from a tug boat that had recently passed by in the channel. From the safety of the dock I eyed it’s polished deck hardware and varnished mahogany railings. Although this place had already grabbed my imagination, I knew better than to blurt out “Ahoy”, and instead exercised enough restraint to coolly hail “uh, hey, anybody here?”

While I waited for an answer I gawked around at the yard’s waterfront. Seagulls eyed me from the tops of massive pilings while I surveyed the estuary and the refinery beyond. The wharf turned and ran South, parallel to the water’s edge to the limit of the yard to my right. To my left was a gap, which I could now see was a channel for boats to be moved out of the water on the sloped hauling ways, where two rails disappeared into the water. Beyond that another dock ran to the water, and turned to reach the far boundary of the yard to the north. There were several other yachts tied up, each larger than my modest three bedroom suburban house. At last a brash young sandy-haired fellow poked his head out of the cabin, hand held to his brow to shield the sun, and squinted at me.

I explained that I was looking for Jack, the foreman. He was clearly working up to telling me he had no idea, when he spotted a tall man in pressed kakis striding purposefully up the opposite dock. I thanked him, and proceeded at a brisk pace on a course to intercept the foreman at the top of the hauling ways.

Jack was glad to see me, and led me right away to the air compressor, a 10 horse-power top of the line model. It was indeed exuding oil in copious amounts from every conceivable pore, joint and crevice, and making a sick noise to boot. The good news was that the yard had an endless supply of sawdust with which to sop up the oil. But according to Jack it wasn’t pumping a hell of a lot of air. So, although the yard was running on a tight budget, they’d pretty much figured they’d have to bite the bullet and lay out for a complete overhaul - about the price of a good second hand car back then. At 22, I wasn’t a master mechanic, but I smoothly delivered my standard line: “Well, let’s take a look at it”, which served to inspire confidence equally well in times of quick and sure diagnosis, or of utter bafflement. Jack left me with words to the effect of “do what you have to,” and headed off to the boat shop.

In this case, I knew the model 10-T fairly well, it being a long-time work horse of the Ingersoll-Rand line. After some brief thought, I realized that the spring in the centrifugal unloader valve might have failed, allowing the crankcase to pressurize. For no particular reason I had an extra one in my tool box, and in a few minutes had it installed. Upon starting up the compressor again, it purred it’s familiar song, and quickly pumped the reserve tank up to pressure and cycled off. While it was chuffing away, I wiped oil off the worst parts, tightened a few bolts, and was relieved to see the oils leaks had abated.

I caught up with Jack in the boat shop less than 10 minutes from our last parting, but before I could say anything, he asked if I needed any help loading up the compressor. “Oh, that won’t be necessary”, I explained, and went on to inform him that I had repaired it. Jack was a little disappointed, because although the yard was certainly not excited about big repair bills, they didn’t want any sort of patch job. I could see already that Jack was a man with high standards of workmanship and for the tools he used. I had to explain to him what I had diagnosed, and how the unloader mechanism worked, and the effect this broken spring I showed him produced. Only when I summed up by saying that our shop would send him a bill for the minimum service call, plus the fifteen cent spring, did Jack seem to take the whole thing in.

All the while I was working my magic with the air compressor, I’d been running through my mind what an incredible place this was. The workings of a boat yard just seemed to hold so many elements: working on fascinating things, big exciting projects, the charisma of expensive yachts, history, great scenery, but most of all, exquisite things to build and repair.

So after Jack thanked me for the quick rescue of his compressor, I inquired as to whether there were any openings at the yard. Jack didn’t waste any time in introducing me to the owner of the yard, John Whitsett. As John listened to Jack’s relating of the minor miracle I had just worked, I shuffled my feet in modesty. I could see a relieved expression grow the face of one who might make the utility bill after all. John thanked his foreman, and took me on a walk around the yard, asked my about my background, and so forth. At the end of this, he said there were no openings at this time, but that if he needed anyone with my particular set of skills, he would give me a call.

I read this as the old “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” brush-off. But much to my surprise, nearly three months later, John called me to say that owing to a new construction contract, they had a need for someone like me with some versatile skills, and how soon could I start?

I gave notice at Voegtly & White, and started at Stone as a general laborer. I started at $3.25 an hour. The time was the fall of 1973. At first I was doing things like scraping and painting boat bottoms, moving staging around, and so forth. It was no glamour job, but the atmosphere was great, and as I had a wife, and a baby on the way, I was glad for the increase in pay.

The new contract turned out to be for a substantial ketch, a two-masted racing sailboat 58 feet in length, that was planned to be entered in the prestigious Trans-Pac race from San Francisco to Honolulu in the 1975 summer season race. Her name was the Natoma, and carpenters were already starting to work on the temporary frames over which the hull would be shaped.

My big break:

One day, after about 6 weeks, the foreman came to me with some pieces of angle iron and chunks of pipe in his hand, and asked me this exact question: "Can you weld?"

I looked at the pieces of steel, and a hundred thoughts flashed through my mind in an instant. Jack had not asked me if I knew how to weld, nor whether I had any experience welding. He had simply asked "Can you weld?" I had learned, in my early weeks at the yard that they had a machine shop in a building over in the south-west corner of the lot, and that they’d had a full time machinist there, who had retired some years previously. The machinist had not been replaced, owing to work being slow at that time, and they had simply sent the small amount of metal fabrication work out to other job shops after that. But the equipment was still there in the shop.

I had never actually welded anything in my life, but I had always wanted to learn to weld. It looked like a lot of fun. I had some idea of the general principles involved, such as attaching a ground cable to the work to complete the circuit, and holding the electrode very near the work, but not touching, etc. I had even watched someone weld once, with a spare helmet.

I also looked at the steel chunks in Jack's hands, and I had a vague idea of what he was working on that required this. The pieces were part of some kind of staging set-up having to do with the Natoma. So, this was not a deliverable article that had to look slick, but rather a utilitarian thing. Further, what I knew of it indicated that it was not a critically designed part, whose strength was crucial. It just had be to be stuck together.

Jack was apologizing for the poor state of the equipment. For the past seven years the machine shop had been used as a kind of dumping ground and storage space. It was about six feet deep in junk, save for a little pathway to the pedestal grinder, where the carpenters would come to sharpen their chisels and plane blades. I was realizing that my assigned tasks were a little thin just now, in fact, I didn't have quite enough to do. And knowing by now that Jack was one of those plan-ahead people, I could see that there was no time pressure on this job.

I realized too, that Jack probably wouldn't be talking to me if he had anyone else around that could weld, and they were all marine carpenters anyway. So there was not likely anyone around to look askance and make disparaging evaluations of my inexpertise. The metal shop's state of housekeeping was such that it was more than likely that I could find some scrap to practice on surreptitiously, and no one else would be working in that building to watch my mistakes. Besides, Jack had a very hopeful look on his face, and seemed to have some confidence in me.

In addition to all these considerations, I could also see that here lay some sort of fantastic opportunity, whose nature, although only partly visible, showed tremendous promise. In the 8 seconds it took Jack to apologize for the mess in the machine shop I figured out the correct answer to the question asked, and replied without hesitation "Oh, yeah sure, I can weld."

So off the machine shop I went. It took quite a while just to locate and un-bury the World War II vintage welder and clear enough space to work. Sure enough, there was plenty of scrap around. Soon I was making sparks and flashes and getting the electrode stuck to the work and loosing the arc and blowing holes in the metal and generally making a mess. But fairly quickly I got to where I could keep the arc lit for fifteen or twenty seconds at a time, and I managed to get the pieces Jack had given me welded together. I stuck them in a large vise and pounded and pried on them to make sure they were not going to come apart, and took them over the construction shop to show Jack.

I apologized for the appearance with the excuse that I was a little rusty, not having had any practice for some months, but Jack just grabbed them enthusiastically and exclaimed "Oh, that's fabulous, they'll do just fine. I need a dozen of these.” By the end of the day, I was an expert welder.

When all the angle iron pieces and pipe sections were securely welded together, the next question Jack asked me was: "Can you run a drill press?" You can guess how long it took me to come up with the correct answer to that one.

I worked at Stone Boat Yard for nearly three years, although it seems longer than that, just on the basis of how much I grew while there. Recognizing the opportunity for what it was, and wanting to make the most of it, I right away bought some books on basic machine shop practices, welding and so forth, and also developed other sources of learning. I made friends with the people in the machine shop across the street, I took a few evening adult education classes, and pumped salesmen for all the information I could.

Over the first six months I gradually cleaned up the whole shop and got all the equipment into working order. Most of it had been old back during WWII. There was an enormous 1905 LeBlond engine lathe, whose bed-ways were worn down like an old stair tread. It would turn work twelve feet long between centers, and two feet in diameter. There was also another small bench lathe for little jobs. The archaic shaper was operable, but I hardly ever used the beast. There was a good bench-type drill press, and a giant floor model drilling/boring machine of the same vintage as the big lathe. These two ran on an old flat-belt drive system off a shaft up in the rafters connected with a single motor down at one end, and using wide leather belts running on wooden pulleys. Once the drive motor was running, the lathe or drilling machine were engaged with a clutch operated by a wooden lever that hung from the rafters. Stone had been in business in the San Francisco Bay area since 1853, and most of this equipment dated from the 30's when they had "modernized" while moving the present location.

machine shop

As my proficiency increased I moved from yard hardware to making structural members for the Natoma, the 58 foot ketch. These had to be crafted well, with good quality welds, but those early structural members went in the bilge, so I could concentrate on strength without worrying too much about appearance. And of course later came the finish deck hardware, mostly stainless steel, which had to have beautiful welds, and be polished to jewel-like perfection. Later on, after Natoma and a sloop named Rolling Stone were completed, "Wooden Boat" magazine did a four-page spread on the custom hardware I was building. My name wasn't mentioned in the article, but John and Jack were appreciative of my contribution to the prestige the yard received in this national publication.

The Natoma and Rolling Stone both required a lot of structural knees and bracing in the hull. For the Natoma, the 23,800 pound ballast keel had to be drilled through more than six feet of solid lead in a dozen places, for the 1-1/2" diameter stainless steel bolts, which I also made, that fastened it to the rest of the boat. Rolling stone required a huge weldment that incorporated the mast collar, three deck beams, and the anchor points for the main stays. Thirteen and a half feet wide and weighing nearly 400 pounds, all made of stainless steel, this structure had to be fitted to the hull being built across the yard in the construction shop.

I learned enough to convince the John, the owner, to purchase a new modern TIG welder, with which we could weld aluminum and do various other more sophisticated tasks. The shaper was eventually sent to the scrap heap and replaced by a modern Bridgeport milling machine. The rest of the equipment stayed. The big lathe was still there when last I visited, 25 years after my departure.

Boat Yard stories I have yet to write:
• Taking the mast out of the KragerØ
• Knocking down the boss with a fire hose
• Chuck and I torching the bulkhead out of the Katrina
• The 22’ boat from Denmark with the fireplace
• Learning to use the crane: “use the shiny ones”
• Fixing the stuck trolley on the crane.
• Beer – the Miss Lucky
• Shutter plank parties, etc.
• Sea Lions, Egrets, Pilot whale, etc.
• Foss tug under the bridge
• Burning the front out of my shirt
• Getting my shirt caught in the grinder
• The 42" ship saw
• Harold getting taken to McDonald’s in an ambulance
• Drooling over the old clipper ship plans
• Tool boxes
• What they built during the war
• All the people: Joe Orowski; The Lindermans - John, Jim and Jimmy, Marc de Millengire (went by Karl at the time), Jack Ehrhorn, Phil, Chuck Gorch, Dave Shaw, John Whitsett, Bill Zemer, Cindy, Doug, Johnny Gunther, Bud Shaw, Dave Shaw, Harold
• The machine shop across the street
• Sending Cindy to the Chandlery (Proper-Tighe Marine)

When I started there John cautioned me about the foreman: "If Jack likes you, he'll be hard on you, if you're worth anything, that is." Jack, although he had a great sense of dry humor, and could be a lot of fun to be around, was always a demanding task master. He expected high quality work. With a lot on his mind, he generally wasn't amused with arguments about how things should be done, but he would listen to new ideas about design that could result in a better product or save schedule time without compromising quality. Jack and I remained in touch, although Jack had pretty much retired from boat building by the 1980s. Stone boat yard continued on until 2005, passing a century and a half of building boats on San Francisco bay.

I left behind an operational machine shop, and a business base that was very profitable for the yard. We were taking in custom hardware work from other yards when we had time to do it. John told me one day, that while I was one of 15 craftsmen there, I was responsible for 25% of the profits in the yard. By the time I had been there a year and a half I had been raised to Journeyman Boat builder's wages, which at that time amounted to $6.89 an hour, plus $.08/hr tool pay. In 1976 when I left, that wasn't a bad wage.

Epilog:

Stone Boat Yard was really my alma mater. It still stands as one of the best jobs of my career, and only in more recent times did I understand what a profound impact it had had on my life. I left only because I had some goals in my personal life that required me to live in LA for a while.

I had secured a fascinating job in the LA area with an audio-animatronics firm started by some ex-Disney people. They’d just finished a robot of Albert Einstein that was far ahead of the “Mr. Lincoln” at Disneyland at the time. Their next project was to be a full size elephant, ambulatory, and with a prehensile trunk. Unfortunately, they went broke after I had sold my house in the bay area and moved my family to LA. Things didn't really work out very well, and for a long time I wished I had never left the boat yard. In hind sight, I realize that I probably experienced some peak years for Stone Boat Yard. I wished it had gone on, but realistically, it might not have, in the way I would have liked. No more glamorous sailing yachts were built for many years after that, as the yard concentrated on the bread and butter of repair and maintenance work.

Like a college, it was where I started my grown up life, where I learned not just a subject, but where I realized my natural skill and love of building things which was to be my life’s work, my “major”, if you will. I learned thinking skills, learned to work as a team member, and how to be a professional. It’s where I learned to study and learn on my own, more than I ever grasped in art school, a “real” college. Years after I left, Stone Boat Yard became an accredited educational institution for college students in naval architecture programs to study traditional boat building methods.

I have occasionally thought that maybe I blew it up in my mind to be bigger and better than it really was. But I don't think so.

Jack was disappointed when I left. He had thought I had become a boat builder, but I had come to know that I was a builder of all things. I had a sense even then that my skills were transferable to any industry, and, since then I’ve built things for companies in bio-tech, optics, space flight, telecommunications, medical technology, and others, now running my own business.

Jack Ehorhorn 1985

I stayed in touch with Jack over the years, and went back to visit the yard with him a number of times, even after he had retired. I had breakfast with him and his wife Mary on one of these visits.


All these thoughts started with some news of Natoma. I had gotten to know the then foreman, Richard McGuire, on one of my visits, and I asked him if he knew anything of Natoma. All that was known was that the original owner had eventually sold her to someone down in Southern California in the late 1980’s, and after that no one knew of her whereabouts.

My son Mike was married in 2005 in San Pedro, near LA Harbor, and we had a wonderful time at his wedding. His father in-law Bill turned out to be a terrific guy, and at some point the conversation turned to Boats. To say Bill was a boat enthusiast would be an under statement. Get two boat people going in conversation, and you can forsake all other subjects. It didn’t take long before a stunning coincidence emerged: Bill was the man who bought the Natoma. I have baby pictures of Mike with Natoma under construction from a day he came to visit at the yard, and they have little kid pictures of Alissa sailing on Natoma.

Bill told me that when he bought Natoma, the owner told him a story: W. F. Stone & Son's had won the contract to build this boat on their long reputation (since 1853) of building wooden racing yachts, in spite of not having anyone in-house who could do the metal work that this modern design called for, or an adequate shop to do it. But they had built Don’s previous boat, the Rowena, which was also a winner, and they counted on being able to figure it out somehow. As the story goes, the week they laid the keel to kick off the project, a tall dark haired stranger walked into the yard looking for work, who ended up doing all the metal work. So, technically, I'm a legend.

Bill had since sold Natoma to someone in the Caribbean and moved on to another boat, so I never got to see her again. Her last known whereabouts were in St. Petersburg, Florida.

I knew Jack would get a kick out of this small world story, so I wrote to him, but didn't hear back. After a month I began to get worried. I hadn’t received a Christmas card from him, and knowing he was pretty old, I phoned Stone’s at the end of June to see if he was OK, but I was stunned to find the phone had been disconnected. I got on the internet, and finally found news that Stone’s had closed after 152 years. On line, I found Svendsen's Boat Yard up the estuary, and called, leaving a message for Sven. He returned my call, and despite the fact I had never met the man, we had a great long conversation, reminiscing about the yard, and all the people who had worked there. I named them all, and he said he’d employed just about everyone at one time or another.

I found a home phone number for Jack, and called him. In his 90s, and despite having had a stroke, and losing his beloved Mary about a year previously after a 10 year battle with Alzheimer’s, he sounded amazingly alert and in good spirits. He was glad to hear from me, and we reminisced about the yard. I told him the small world story, which he enjoyed immensely. He tired after 15 minutes or so, and I promised to write.

Three weeks later as I was surfing the internet at lunch, I Googled Jack Ehrhorn, to see if there were any boat legends to be found. Instead, the first thing that popped up was his obituary. I’d had writing to Jack on my to-do list for weeks. In our last phone call I had said how much I had learned there, which warmed him, and he said “tell me, what did you learn at the boat yard?” I was a little caught off guard, because I’d never enumerated all I acquired there, or put it into words. I came up with a few things like measuring and welding, but after I got off the phone I started the list, which I’d meant to send him.

Things I learned at the boat yard:

I learned a high standard of craftsmanship.

I learned an enormous amount about measuring, layout, and geometric development.

I learned a good deal about the trades of welding, machining, blacksmithing, painting, marine carpentry, pattern making and foundry work, lofting and layout, boat building in general.

John told me that if the boat owner wants the keel mounted on top of the mast, and he pays his yard bills on time, what you say is: “aye aye, Captain!”

I learned that there was a balance between the construction work and the repair work. John Explained that new construction work is where you make your reputation as a yard, but that repair work was where you made the money. The construction work also served a very important role as a buffer for the work load. Repair work fluctuates. When repair work was slow, all the boat builders could go in the construction shop and keep busy, but when a lot or repair work came in, they were a readily available work force. This forms a stable business.

I learned that if someone thinks you can do something, and they believe you’re the one for the job, then the chances are good that you can do the job. People’s confidence in you is sometimes greater than your own, and is usually not misplaced.

Never bullshit about what you’re able to do, to others, or to yourself.

I learned that you can do far more than you thought you could.

I learned that people with expertise in any field are almost always more than happy to pass it on to you, or be asked about it. People love to teach you what they’re good at.

I learned that you can knock down your boss with a fire hose in his dress clothes (accidentally), and he’ll still like you if you do good work and make the business a lot of money.

I realized that the most important of my skills were not specific to the industry. That is, I was not specifically a boat builder, I was a builder of just about anything. I learned later, these were called transferrable skills.

I spent about ten percent of my time on facilities, caring for tools, maintenance, making useful tools or jigs to help with the work. By spending a certain amount of time on production capability, when the work came my way, I was rewarded by being much better able to do it.

And I learned that you never stop learning . . .

 
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