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Sink or Sail

The annual Wooden Boat Challenge returns to Bodega Bay

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VESSEL VENTURE Ken Swindt (second from right) and his team, the Wasabi Rockets, prepare for competition.
  • VESSEL VENTURE Ken Swindt (second from right) and his team, the Wasabi Rockets, prepare for competition.

From Noah's Ark to the Viking longship, the art of the wooden boat brings with it a history and craft that can transport you to any place and time in the world. It's a love affair that continues in woodshops today across the state, and for Bodega Bay residents Ken and Starr Swindt, it's a hobby 30 years in the making.

The Swindts are avid boaters who logged more than 5,000 miles on water last year alone. They cruise the North Bay when they're not setting course for the Caribbean or Chesapeake Bay. Yet for the Swindts, riding in the boat is only half the fun; Ken is also a master builder of wooden boats, from canoes to kayaks to 50-foot vessels.

A retired firefighter, Ken built his first wooden boat 25 years ago and it's still around today. Swindt revels in the idea of being able to travel freely, "like people have been doing for thousands of years." But the hook for him was the puzzle: "How do we make this piece of wood do that, make that shape, look nice, carry some folks around and actually work? That's the challenge."

For the past six years, the Swindts have organized and hosted Bodega Bay's Wooden Boat Challenge. Taking place April 26, as part of the annual Bodega Bay Fisherman's Festival, the competition encourages craftspeople of every level to take part in an afternoon of team work that turns planks of plywood into seaworthy and sometimes impressive small boats.

The Swindts first heard of the wooden boat challenge when it started eight years ago, and each credits the other with first getting involved in it. Now Starr is the chairperson, overseeing aspects like recruitment and wood donations, and Ken continues to compete and coordinate the teams and the event.

For an activity that normally takes 50 to 70 hours of work, the challenge's time constraint of three hours is one of the most daunting and exciting aspects of the competition. "It's just like, 'What?' You have to build something that looks like a boat, acts like a boat, and the time constraints are ridiculous," he says.

This year, the event introduces a youth division, as students from the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center in Sausalito face off in their own race. The event will also feature running commentary from local comedian and star of the upcoming film The Mendoza Line, Juan Carlos Arena.

Awards are given for craftsmanship and speed (there's even a Titanic award for best sink), and the teams always attempt to put new spins on traditional designs.

"These old Merchant Marines built a potato chip boat that was oval and almost flat," Starr says. "They entered the day before the race. It was only a team of two guys, and they blew everybody out of the water."

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