Standing beside a public boathouse on Seattle's Lake Union, a man and a woman tried to decide which boat they would rent for an afternoon's outing. Would it be the little 1939 Herreshoff sloop that once sailed the waters off Cape Cod? Or the Whitehall, a type of rowboat with a sailing rig that was first used as a water taxi in New York Harbor in the 1840s? Or the elegant 28-foot yacht that cruised the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon some 60 years ago?
The two felt as though they were stepping back in time. In fact, they were—as visitors to The Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle. Calling itself "a living museum," the center not only collects and preserves classic small craft but also allows visitors to rent the boats, provided they can demonstrate a working knowledge of sailing.
Dick Wagner, the center's executive director, believes his nautical museum is unique. "There's nothing else like this place, because we emphasize public participation," says Wagner. "We don't just put little signs on the boats. The whole of Lake Union is an amphitheater for people to watch and sail or row the boats."
As he conducts a tour of the center's docks, Wagner, a trim, studious man of 60, offers information about each boat he passes. The squat black vessel, apparently old and weathered, is actually a replica of a Toulinguet boat that was used for seal hunting off Newfoundland in the 1890s. "The black comes from its finish of pine tar and linseed oil," says Wagner. "It has a long, straight keel that is just deep enough to grip the water and keep it going to windward." The Herreshoff sloop, a boat revered by small-craft sailors, was called the Buzzards Bay Boy's Boat because it was popular with young Cape Cod sailors as a first boat; as for the 1938 Mercury he points out, it was designed for San Francisco Bay's high winds and choppy waters and was one of the first boats built of plywood.
The center, which has a fleet of more than 80 boats, grew out of an idea that Wagner, then an architect, had in 1967 when he found himself spending more time on his boats than he did on his architecture projects. Operating from a houseboat on Lake Union that he lived in with his wife, Colleen, and the first of their two sons, Wagner started a boat-rental service called the Old Boathouse in the spring of '68. He soon found himself surrounded by people who liked to sail and spend hours swapping stories about classic boats. "God, it was fun," says Wagner. " 'This is the kind of boat that my grandfather took me fishing in,' they would say. By the second summer it had just snowballed."
By 1976 the business had become so popular that it threatened to push the Wagners out of their house, which had become a makeshift clubhouse for boat lovers. "People were staying overnight, and strangers were grabbing beers from the refrigerator," says Wagner.
That year he called an informal meeting of Boathouse regulars. Forty people showed up, and it was then, he says, that the idea began to evolve of a "place where you could come and play with the exhibits." The Center for Wooden Boats opened its doors five years later as a nonprofit museum dedicated to preserving small-craft heritage.
The center, governed by a board of 17 trustees, is open year-round and last year received 50,000 visitors. Wagner heads a staff of five, and there are dozens of volunteers. Receipts from boat-rental fees ($8 to $25 an hour—there is no entry fee and no charge for those who want only to look at the boats) and membership dues ($25 for one person, $40 for families) help pay for acquiring boats and maintaining the collection. The center also sponsors sailing courses, boatbuilding/marine skills workshops, special exhibits and a midsummer Wooden Boat Festival. And, of course, it continues to be a lively gathering place for boat lovers.