Boats are alive

A 1941 Norwegian spissgatter sailboat lovingly restored in Bellingham, Wash.

spissgatter

Photo: Andy Meyer
Trine is a spissgatter, a Norwegian class of wooden boats with what English-speaking sailors call a canoe stem.

Andy Meyer
The Norwegian American

“Boats are alive,” George Boggs said to me as we sat aboard Trine, the Norwegian spissgatter he spent five years restoring. Outside, a persistent rain fell from dark gray clouds onto the dark gray water in the marina—not uncommon for a September afternoon in Bellingham in northern Washington state—but inside the cabin, it’s hard to think of a better word than koselig.

The story of Boggs’ encounter and, well, you could say it’s a love affair with Trine is a fascinating tale of commitment, attentiveness, history, and beauty. There’s a simplicity at its heart, too, though bringing Trine back to life was a complex task with a complex history. Indeed, there’s a little magic in it, as well.

For my part, I feel like I know something beautiful when I see it, but I can lay no claim to being anything of a sailor. I love the sea, and can quote a spell of Moby-Dick, but I am quite a stranger to the world of sailing. I know little terminology and just as much technique. The extent of my experience is as an enthusiastic passenger on one trip in the Oslofjord and the Skagerrak strait in southeast Norway with Norwegian friends and a couple short trips among Washington’s San Juan Islands with family. I’m the kind of sailor who gets to hold the wheel from time to time, pull on a line when he’s told, and pretend he’s actually sailing.

Yet I love the technical dimension, the craftsmanship, and the spirit of sailing. And listening to Boggs describe his relationship to Trine and her history, one can’t help but agree: boats are alive.

Trine, as I mentioned, is a spissgatter, a Norwegian class of wooden boats with what English-speaking sailors call a canoe stern. That is, both the bow and the stern are pointed—like a canoe. Most sailboats have a transom, the flat surface that forms a square stern, while a spissgatter has a pointed stern (spiss is Norwegian for point, and gatt means stern, so literally, a spissgatter is sailboat with a pointed stern). Norwegian correspondence that Boggs showed me translates spissgatter to double-ender. Having a point on both ends of the boat allows it to take waves from all directions more effectively than a flat stern.

spissgatter

Photo: Andy Meyer
George Boggs spent five years restoring his boat, Trine, down to the last detail.

Boggs has a warm presence, with a gentle demeanor. He is soft- but well-spoken, with a manner of speaking that suggests the patience that was clearly demanded by a project like this. He is the sort of conversation partner that instills confidence—and as the executive director of the county conservation district in a county with some hefty competing interests, from the maritime industry to agriculture to the National Forest and the Park Services, you get the feeling he’s been involved in more negotiations than the one with Trine.

He has a folder with all kinds of documents related to Trine’s life story, including his labor of love in restoring her. One of the documents he shared with me was the technical specifications for a 40 mspissgatter-class wooden sailboat, set by the Kongelig Norsk Seilforening (KNS), the Royal Norwegian Sailing Association. The regulations are meticulous, down to where and how many holes can be drilled in the hull, the spacing of the beams and joints, and the diameter and material of the bolts that fasten various parts of the boat together. One regulation requires the sails to be sewn in Norway. Boggs confessed that Trine expresses some variations from the original rules and some newer finishes, like self-tailing windlasses—but the boat’s dimensions as set forth by KNS are intact.

spissgatter

Photo: Andy Meyer
The stern of a spissgatter is pointed, making for more effective steering, especially in wavy conditions.

Boggs first saw Trine advertised in WoodenBoat Magazine. At the time, she was called Anna Maria, and had been languishing under an ever-lengthening restoration process by her then-owner in British Columbia. Boggs saw something special and happened to have access to the tools, access to the materials (he chose a good deal of Western red maple—a heavy but forgiving wood), and just the right amount of foolhardiness to bring her home to his workshop. In fact, he and cabinetmaker Ken Thomas, whom he brought, ahem, on board to help, had to build a special shop to build the boat in. And so he stepped into a world of loving persistence.

Progress was, indeed, slow. This was no standardized boat. Restoring a spissgatter is an exercise in particulars. The pointed stern requires the keel and rudder to conform to the hull’s curvature for the entire the length of the boat, with correspondingly curved beams and braces. And the cabin also boasts a slew of unique touches, like its gently arched ceiling.

Photo: Andy Meyer
The arched ceiling in Trine’s saloon required some patient carpentry.

But as he trudged along, conniving solution after solution to restore Anna Maria’s particular shapes, neither the boat’s uniqueness nor, as Boggs puts it with a reassuring smile, his “limited skill” could explain many of the setbacks he endured. He’d try one thing and would soon have to do it again. He’d work on another thing, only to have to repeat it later.

It occurred to him, as he struggled through some of these less-than-reasonable impediments, to consider the force of history. As he had looked into Anna Maria’s past, he heard that the exporter in Norway claimed that the boat was originally built for a Nazi. It wasn’t—that fib may have been a ruse to get the boat out of the Norway more cheaply, or a fabrication after the fact to drum up interest. But it was true that Anna Maria wasn’t her original name.

As history would have it, the boat was built in Sarpsborg, in southeastern Norway, in 1941 for a pulp and paper magnate named Einar Iversen. Iversen, a foreman in the Sarpsborg Sailing Association, had purchased Ottar Larsen’s wharf at Grimsøykilen, where he commissioned a number of newly designed spissgatter-class boats, all with the sail-mark “W” and all named “Gro.” In 1941, Iversen enlisted a reputable boat builder named Arthur Holth of Drøbak to design two of the six spissgatter-class boats. One of these became Gro 3, and in 1947, it was sold to Christian Christiansen in Høvik, outside of Oslo. Christiansen renamed the boat Trine 4.

According to correspondence that Boggs inherited, Trine 4 was sold again to shipbroker Finn Engelsen in Bergen and renamed Anna Mari before being exported in 1965 to California. Anna Mari was thus her name when she left Norway (apparently changed to Anna Maria upon immigration)—perhaps Boggs wonders if this departure from the northern waters of her upbringing was against her will. Whatever feelings the boat had, Anna Maria made her way along the American west coast in various states of disrepair before landing in the care of one Bevan Harrington in British Columbia. He had done a lot of research on the boat’s history and had ordered new plans for the interior from naval architect Paul Gartside. Outside of Harrington’s workshop hung a sign that read, “OPTIMISTS ONLY,” followed by the name, ANNA MARIA, and a jolly resignation: “It’s nothing that a lot more time and a lot more money won’t fix!” He had been working on it for 10 years.

spissgatter

Photo: Andy Meyer
Boggs used a good deal of western red maple in his restoration of Trine.

So, with a little intuition, Boggs resolved to listen to the boat’s story, to try and hear its desires. He renamed the boat Trine, the last name she had as a fully Norwegian spissgatter. From there, the work went much more smoothly. Yes, boats are alive.

Listening well tends to open the listener to unexpected joys—perhaps it’s a way of creating space for the beauty of the world to fill in. When Trine was relaunched in 2008, a Norwegian bricklayer who had grown up in Sarpsborg and resettled in Bellingham, picked up the Bellingham Herald and read about a restored sailboat originally built in 1941 for a paper tycoon in his hometown in Norway—it sounded familiar. The bricklayer, as it turns out, was childhood friends with Iversen’s son and had seen the boat being built as a boy. Boggs and the bricklayer met in Trine’s saloon, presumably sharing anecdotes, listening to memories, connecting over the strange forces that bring living beings together.

Although Boggs himself claims no Norwegian heritage, he flies the Norwegian courtesy flag in honor of Trine’s. He’s a good listener, both to people and to boats.

 

Special thanks to Dean Tharp, who noticed—and admired—Trine, with her Norwegian courtesy flag, in the Bellingham Marina and generated the idea for this story.

This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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