Category Archives: In The News

Swiftsure and Shipwright Featured in Ballard News Tribune

Brian Johnson Plank horizontal web

Photo by Shane Harms of Ballard News Tribune

‘A boat builds a community, and a community builds a boat’


Heeling in Time: Swiftsure a beacon in maritime history

Two Ballard News Tribune stories share Swiftsure’s stories and the story, passion, experience and vision for the lightship, a beacon of Lake Union.

Ballard shipwright keeping the trade alive after nearly 40 years (reprinted with permission)

By Shane Harms
Stepping aboard Swiftsure, (Lighthouse No. 83), a 109-year-old Coast Guard Lightship, is like stepping into a floating time capsule slowly undergoing a metamorphic rejuvenation.

Onboard a lone figure is at work fitting 500-year-old Doug Fir deck pieces around the huge smokestack. The shipwright listens to Tango music that riots in the bright-lit canopied dome that protects the Swiftsure from the elements while the deck is restored.

Swiftsure Project Shipwright, Brian Johnson, almost 60, is an inquisitive man. He lives in Ballard, and dances the Tango and is a martial artist. But, mostly, Johnson knows boats.
Johnson has been working with boats all his life. He built his first vessel at the age of five. It sank, but the experience spurred a life long love of boats and an ingenuitive passion for the maritime industry.

Northwest Seaport, owner of the Swiftsure, have asked Johnson to use his shipwright expertise in rebuilding the deck — just one piece in an ongoing restoration puzzle.

“I’m a commercial fishermen and a shipwright — you can’t get anymore Norwegian than that. … I’ve been on and off boats for 40 years either on them breaking them or underneath fixing them,” said Johnson.  read more…

Cover June 26 Ballard News-Tribune Shane HarmsBy Shane Harms

Heeling in Time: Swiftsure a beacon in maritime history

Northwest Seaport, a maritime heritage organization, is restoring a 109–year-old Lightship (No. 83) called Swiftsure.

The Swiftsure is to become a floating museum, and in their effort to revive the ship, they hope to discover the rich, nuanced layers of history the ship contains and also share the lore of bygone days with the public by having them actively participate in the project. Swiftsure is open to the public and floats at the Historic Ships Wharf at Lake Union Park.

According to Nathaniel Howe, the Vessel Manager & Nautical Archeologist for Northwest Seaport, 179 lightships were built between 1820 and 1952, and of those, 17 remain, half of which have become floating museums.

Built in 1904, Swiftsure was first forged in the Carnegie steel furnaces in New Jersey. That same year, America gained control of the Panama Canal and engineers started the daunting challenge of opening the earth for naval passage. Indeed, the Swiftsure was fabricated from an era of unprecedented strides in engineering and industry.  Read more…

The Arthur Foss Turns 125

The Arthur Foss at the Historic Ships Wharf on South Lake Union

The Arthur Foss at the Historic Ships Wharf on South Lake Union – (Photo by Joe Mabel)

Foss tugboats are as an iconic part of Puget Sound views as Orcas or Mount Rainier.

The company was founded in 1889 in Tacoma by Andrew and Thea Foss, starting out with a single rowboat painted in the now iconic green and white livery. Eventually, their growing concern expanded to the rest of the Sound, then eventually to the West Coast and Pacific.

(Blog re-posted from Three Sheets Northwest by Scott Wilson on May 21, 2014:  “2014 is a big year for anniversaries in Pacific Northwest maritime history. This summer, we’re doing a series of articles on some of the significant local organizations and vessels celebrating major milestones.”

That same year, the tug Wallowa was built in Portland by the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company to tow sailing ships across the Columbia River Bar. The steam-powered tug was built stout for the task, but she wasn’t at it for long when the Klondike gold rush gave her a more glamorous and profitable role, hauling barges and ships full of prospective prospectors and supplies for the same up the Inside Passage.

Wallowa went up as far as St. Michael on the Yukon in the employ of the White Star Line of Alaska. But the rush was short-lived, and by the time it was done in 1900, Wallowa was relegated to the mail run between Haines, Skagway, and Juneau.

(Celebrate National Maritime Day 3-8pm today with Northwest Seaport 3-8pm in Ballard)

Although the age of sail was fading, and the gold rush lost its luster, the age of timber wasn’t going anywhere, and Wallowa found gainful employment towing logs on Puget Sound. There, she caught the eye of Foss Launch and Tug Company, which bought her in 1929. One of her first jobs with the company was an unusual one: she was leased out to MGM to star as the tugNarcissus in the 1934 film “Tugboat Annie,” a movie thought to be loosely based on the life of Thea Foss herself.

After her star turn, Wallowa went into the yard for a rebuild and to be repowered with a 700hp Washington Iron Works diesel (the engine that remains in her today). When she came out, she had not only a new engine, but a new name: Arthur Foss. With the additional horsepower and reliability of the diesel, Arthur Foss was a fast and in-demand coastal tug up and down the Pacific Coast.

In February 1941, Foss chartered her out to Pacific Naval Airbase Contractors, who put her to work hauling military supplies from Hawaii to the isolated American outpost at Wake Island. The morning of December 8, 1941 (Wake being on the far side of the International Date Line) found her a mere twelve hours out from Wake on a return trip to Pearl Harbor, when news of the surprise Japanese attack was received. Painted in the traditional Foss white and green, and well within scouting distance of one of the primary follow-on targets of the Japanese Navy, the tug and her crew were a big bullseye in a lonely ocean.

The Justine Foss, which was left behind at Wake, was not so lucky. Subject to near-constant air attacks from December 8 on, Justine and her crew were still at the island on December 23 when the Japanese landed. Justine was sunk and most of her crew executed.

Like many workboats during the war years, Arthur Foss spent her time in service of the Navy, renamed Dohasan (after a Kiowa chief) and was assigned to the 14th Naval District in Hawaii, working at hundreds of miscellaneous military towing assignments. In 1946, the war won, she was returned to Foss, and put back to her plodding pre-rebuild work of towing logs around the Pacific Northwest.

In 1968, having set a record for the longest uninterrupted log-towing service in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Arthur Foss had finally outworn her usefulness and was retired.

Most old wooden tugs of that age were broken up or fell to ignominious fates of fire or rot, butArthur Foss caught a break in that Save Our Ships (SOS) — the organization that would later become Northwest Seaport — had been founded only four years earlier (the year Art turned 75).

Though established specifically to preserve the Wawona, the leaders of SOS quickly saw the historical value of Arthur Foss and when that vessel was offered to them in 1970, they snapped it up as well.

On her 100th anniversary, the Arthur Foss was declared a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service (which also makes this year the 25th anniversary of that designation). Today, she is the oldest known wooden-hulled tug still afloat and in operating condition in the United States today.

Although her old Washington Iron Works diesel still turns over intermittently, Arthur is a museum ship now, moored more or less permanently at the Historic Ships Wharf on South Lake Union. Northwest Seaport offers a popular Tugboat Storytime series aboard, bringing children and parents aboard to listen to stories and sing chanteys, and allows just about anyone to spend the night aboard as a part of their Tugboat Sleepovers program.

Recently, the organization received a grant from King County’s 4Culture program to complete the revitalization of the tug’s onboard systems. Provided that Northwest Seaport can match the grant amount, they’ll receive $25,000 to put into her … keeping her in shape to weather the next 125 years.

About Scott Wilson

Scott Wilson lives aboard his Freedom 36 with his doting wife Mandy. He works as a consultant in the information technology industry and occasionally scribbles out an article for Three Sheets Northwest. From time to time, he even goes sailing.

Wooden Boat Dan Interview with Nathaniel Howe

Nathaniel Howe aboard tug Arthur Foss. Photo: Wooden Boat DanNathaniel Howe is Vessel Manager and Nautical Archeologist with Northwest Seaport. Reposted blog by Wooden Boat Dan, January 2013Play Podcast in new window and get the full scoop. (Dec 7, 2012 45 minute interview begins at 11:15)

Nat grew up in Seattle and as a young kid was building boat models out of milk cartons, wood, and assorted other materials he could scrounge up.  His parents and grandparents owned (and still own) anAllied Seawind 30’ which the family used to explore the Inside Passage around Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands.   When Nate was 10 years old he discovered the 1897 three masted 165′ schooner Wawona on Lake Union in Seattle.  He fell in love with her and at age 11 built  a 5’ model of Wawona.  He also built a radio controlled model of the Arthur Foss tug after discovering that historic vessel in Seattle.

Nat attended Beloit College in WI to get his undergraduate degree in Museology.   During Continue reading

MOHAI Opens Today Dec 29 2012

The Seattle Times frontpage Dec 29 2012The Seattle Times frontpage Dec 29 2012 (PDF)

The Seattle Times article

The Seattle Times photo gallery

Today, Lake Union Park opened…as it was envisioned many years ago when Seattle community members began taking account of the vital maritime resources were being “lost.”

MOHAI, Historic Ships Wharf, and CWB is buzzing with people!  WOW!

Celebrating the Park opening will be remembered as a highlight of this organization’s leadership and the many people contributing to this community.

Jack Broom’s article on The Seattle Times front page A1 is a positive example of people revisioning the importance, historical value and contributions of the fleet at the Historic Ships Wharf.

Shipwright Brian Johnson shares skills with visitors

Shipwright Brian Johnson shares skills with visitors

Aboard tugboat Arthur Foss shipwright Brian Johnson is working with ship visitors and progressing on the Stop The Leaks grant.

Arthur Foss Revealed at Festival!

“Welcome aboard the Arthur Foss!” 

With dedication and elbow grease of many Northwest Seaport volunteers, staff, and board members, the National Historic Landmark tugboat opened for public boarding during the 2012 Wooden Boat Festival.  A January Portolan post informed readers of the winter cover to protect the tugboat from seasonal rains. The white plastic was removed one week prior to the festival to access areas needing some scraping and painting.   Today she is unveiled and serves as floating representative of the Northwest’s tugboat industry.

Prior to the festival, an image of the Arthur Foss graced The Seattle Times Entertainment section to inform readers about the wooden boat festival hosted by CWB and others.

“She looks great!”  festival visitors said as they stepped aboard the 1889 vessel.   Over 4,000 people explored her decks, engine room, houses, and bridge during the event which included a holiday celebration of July 4.

Staff and volunteers introduced a number of maritime skills demonstrations to the festival schedule.  The Northwest Seaport was honored to welcome marine surveyor, Lee Ehrheart, who demonstrated how to survey the tugboat’s deck planking. He’s pictured here showing participants the tools he uses and how he raps his hammer on the decking to feel/hear the decking condition.

Vessel Manager Nathaniel Howe and shipboard volunteer Troy Joey demonstrated the Man Overboard rescue to the delight of visitors (pictured below).  Nat provided insight to why tugboat crew members carry full immersion dry suits, and Troy expertly demonstrated how to slip into the suit, free-fall into Lake Union, catch a life ring, and swim to a ladder.  Northwest Seaport President Shannon Fitzgerald orchestrated a heaving line toss demonstration.  Vessel Engineer Adrian Lipp worked with volunteers to start the tugboat’s diesel engine, which enchanted onlookers with her smooth sounding and rhythmic nature.

The Center for Wooden Boats organized both a celestial navigation demonstration and a celebrated appearance of Pirate Lou for a pirate storytime.   Pirate Lou regaled shipboard visitors with entertaining tales and introduced families to Tugboat Storytime, which occurs regularly (2nd & 4th Thursdays at 11:00 AM) aboard the Arthur Foss.

Thank you to all who visited the tugboat as part of the festival activities and to the volunteers who shared their valuable time and energy with the visiting public.

Northwest Seaport looks forward to opening the ship for Tugboat Overnight Experience  and other programs as the summer continues.

Stay tuned at the Northwest Seaport Facebook Page.

Arthur Under Cover

If you visit the Historic Ships’ Wharf at Lake Union Park, you will notice that the historic Tugboat Arthur Foss has been wrapped tightly in plastic like a frozen burrito.  A volunteer crew recently installed the winter cover over the National Historic Landmark to protect the 122-year-old vessel from one of its most dangerous threat — rain!Arthur Foss under cover

Shielding the Douglas fir of the wooden boat from moisture helps prevent the perfect conditions for “dry rot” fungus and is one of the most important steps in preserving the vessel for the future.  Wayne Palsson, a Northwest Seaport volunteer, likens dry rot to “cold fire.”  “Extremely damaged wood looks like it has been burned and charred, it just falls apart under any pressure, and overtime, it spreads like fire.”

Arthur Foss interior under cover

Northwest Seaport President Shannon Fitzgerald, along with the help of George Stausser, Jim Flies, and Joe Shickich installed the framework to support the plastic, and then Shannon, George, Wayne, and John Endresen spent a day draping four sheets of shrink-wrap plastic over the boat.  It was like raising a tent.  They had to arrange the plastic to easily unroll from the top, then fasten the pieces to each other and to the sides of the vessel.  Then it was shrinking time.  Wayne Palsson used an industrial heat gun to shrink the plastic to the tension of a drum — that way most water and snow will easily shed off of the cover.

The cover will be on the Arthur Foss until late spring when Seattle’s Rain Festival should end.

Wawona Artifacts Update

Just a quick update on Wawona: So far we have received interest and proposals for artifacts from several local maritime heritage organizations including Grays Harbor Historic Seaport and the Museum of the City of Anacortes Maritime Heritage Center. Keep them coming!

We have given several tours of the site, including one for Three Sheets Northwest. If you missed their coverage of the project, check it out here. The Seattle Times also did an excellent article that’s posted here.

There has also been a lot of interest from public artists and from craftsmen who have ideas for re-purposing the wood. To give a better idea of the quality of material we have, I took a small piece of the Douglas fir outer hull planking and cleaned it up in my own shop. These are the most accessible pieces, since they have very few iron fastenings. Because iron would rust over time, trunnels were used instead. These are wood dowels with wedges at either end. Boards were fit and held in place by iron spikes, and then drilled and fastened with trunnels. These iron spikes have mostly rusted away, of the four I encountered in two 6′ boards I only had to drive out one. The ends of the trunnels are still there, and lend to the character of the wood.

First I had to strip the paint, and I found two layers: copper bottom paint from the last thirty years, and a much earlier paint which is likely made from fish oil. A common paint for fishing vessels in the middle of the century was made from oil extracted by the canneries. Using a goopy organic stripper and a scrub brush the paint came off easily, revealing a weathered surface with raised grain and a slightly greenish tinge from the copper paint.

After removing the iron fastenings and drilling the holes out larger to remove any remaining iron oxide flakes, I put a 2′ section through the planer to see what the clean surface looked like. The earlier fish oil paints and a century of seawater penetrated quite deeply into the wood, giving the outer surface a rich caramel color.

Looking at the end grain shows this color extends about a quarter inch under the surface.

The inner surface of the planking, where it met the frames, has a quite different color. This would have been salted to keep it from rotting in the confined spaces between the frames. It was never painted. There is rot and insect action on the raw surface, but once a quarter-inch is planed off, a monochrome spectrum from pale cream to gray is revealed. In some places the pink of Douglas fir heartwood can be seen, too.

We are still giving regular tours of the site, and there may be a secondary deadline for proposals… keep in touch and keep the good ideas coming.


New Directors and Officers!

Northwest Seaport welcomes Shannon Fitzgerald as its new President, Jim Flies as Vice-President, and Andrew Bennett, Colleen Browne and Barbara Klee as new members of its Board of Directors!

Shannon Fitzgerald, President, is the Manager of the Coordinated Seabird Studies Group at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where he has been a biologist and scientist for 23 years. He has a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Wisconsin and B.S. degree in Wildlife Biology from the University of Minnesota.

Jim Flies, Vice-President, is the Purchasing Manager for Harley Marine Services, Inc. Previously, he served as the Academic Dean and the Dean of Students at Seattle Preparatory School, where he taught for twenty years. He has a Master of Education degree and a Principal Certificate from Seattle University and a B.A. degree in History from the University of Montana.

Andrew Bennett is an Associate and Project Manager for KPFF Consulting Engineers. He currently manages waterfront planning, design and construction projects for public sector clients across the county. He is the immediate past-President of the Seattle Propeller Club. He has a Master’s degree in Coastal Management from the University of Washington and a Naval Architecture degree from MIT.

Colleen Browne retired in 2009 from the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, where she was the Pro Parks Levy/Major Maintenance Manager. As a Capital Projects Manager at Seattle Parks, she was the lead on the Historic Ships Wharf, Lake Union Park, Luna Park and the multi-million dollar Seattle Aquarium makeover project completed in 2007. She has a B.A. degree from the University of Washington.

Barbara Klee is a designer and craftsperson, working with precious metals, jewelry, textiles and interiors. She was raised in Seattle and Copenhagen. She has a B.A. degree in Art History from the University of Washington.

Lighting Up the Lightship

I spent this afternoon “clearing my desk.” Now, I’m sure that I am only one of millions of people to do this in preparation for the long holiday weekend, but I expect that most others actually mean clearing their in-boxes and finishing their to-do piles. In my case, it meant stringing holiday lights up on Northwest Seaport’s 1904 vessel, the Lightship No. 83:

Lighting up the Lightship at Lake Union Park

Our lightship, now designated SWIFTSURE, is moored on the Historic Ships Wharf at Seattle’s Lake Union Park next to our 1889 tugboat Arthur Foss. As has quickly become tradition, we are teaming up with other non-profit and heritage organizations at the park (visit for an ever-growing list) to put on a series of holiday events for the public, and this weekend will be our Historic Ships Holiday Open House. The Seattle Times wrote a nice little article about it last Sunday (Sail back in time with festive ships), and it coincides nicely with the beginning of Argosy’s Christmas Ships Festival. We invite all of you to come down to the park on Saturday the 28th and Sunday the 29th for a festive afternoon aboard historic ships, and what better way to set a festive mood than to put up holiday lights?

Anyway, back to my afternoon. After stopping by the schooner Adventuress (a winter visitor to the Historic Ships Wharf this year) and seeing their own festive preparation, we headed out to the Lightship. It won’t be open this weekend, but it’s the biggest boat at the wharf and bright red to boot, so it definitely needs to be as festive as the other boats.

We had a bag of light strings, a bag of zip ties, an extra extension cord, a volunteer eager to help, and a massive century-old navigational aid. What I didn’t have was the ship’s extensive electrical system: its anchor and deck lights, its beacon, and its external outlets. The lightship is scheduled for an extensive rehabilitation project starting early next year and restoring these features is high on the list of planned tasks, but for now we plugged the extension cord into a splitter from the shore-power cable that powers the bilge pumps and work lights inside.

I had already made the curatorial decision to use the white icicle lights on the Lightship and colored strands aboard on the Arthur Foss, so we set to work stringing them along the railings as Seattle’s long autumn twilight fell.

lighting the lightship

Now, it turns out that a 136′ vessel has a lot of railing – more than I realized, and I’ve not only been working here for two years, but I’ve participated in several surveys of the vessel. Our five strings of icicle lights, which would have easily decorated all the eaves of my house, barely stretched around the curve of the bow. I was sorely tempted for a few moments to go buy all the white icicle lights from all the drugstores within a mile of Lake Union Park so we could stretch them all the way around the perimeter, but I restrained myself in the interest of time – and a promise to do so next year.

For this weekend, though, the lightship looks dramatic from the wharf, and pretty festive beside the Arthur:

Lighting the Lightship at Lake Union Park

We’ll get the Arthur‘s own lights up on Friday. Meanwhile, mark your calendars and come on down to see both vessels all lit up with the Virginia V and the schooner Adventuress. We’ll all be open from 1630 to 1900 on Saturday and 1600 to 1830 on Sunday, so drop in for a festive time aboard these historic ships – and maybe for some hot spiced cider, too.