Washed Ashore in Port Townsend

Olivier Huin has spent his life amongst salt air and sawdust. A seafarer and wooden boat builder, he has travelled around the world by sailboat, often built by his own hand. Now an instructor at the Northwest School of  Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Townsend, WA, he is passing along his passion, teaching the students the art and love for crafting the soul of a boat.

In December 2014, Olivier Huin walked into Sunrise Coffee Company in Port Townsend, Washington, with his wife and daughter, wearing his distinctive white beard, to perform a ritual he’s conducted on four continents. Bill Curtsinger, co-owner of the coffee shop in this seaport community two hours north of Seattle by ferry and car, noticed him right away.

Curtsinger knows his customers. He says he doesn’t like to be the public face of the shop, that he prefers to stay in the background, but he can tell you, for example, which of the coffee drinkers in his shop retrofitted a sailboat into a salmon troller. He walked up to Huin and introduced himself, unwittingly playing a role in Huin’s ritual.

Born in Brittany, France, to a father who built his first boat at 13 and completed 21 in his lifetime, Huin has sailed to and lived in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, among other places, picking up jobs in boatyards along the way.

“I have two passions,” he says between bites of a sandwich and broken Fritos. “My first passion is boats: building boats, being on boats, being around boats, whatever. My second passion is traveling.”

He’s never moved for a job. He moves because he wants to. The jobs take care of themselves. “The first place we look for when we get somewhere is to find a coffee,” he says. “Because most of the time, coffee is where people meet, and that’s where you find jobs. We looked for that place. We found the Sunrise Coffee.”

He found the right place. Situated at the entrance to the Boat Haven boatyard, Sunrise feels like its epicenter. A steady parade of shipwrights in paint-splattered stocking caps, overalls and hoodies make their way here every day in a ritual of their own. They pay cash at the coffee pump – honor system – and bring their paper cups of  “Fly By Night,” “Puget Hound” or “Northwest Passage” coffee to one of the tables outside.

On his first trip to Sunrise, Curtsinger introduced Huin to a handful of people in his shop. Within 30 minutes, Huin had a job offer and his family had a place to live.

“When you have ten fingers and a little bit of brain,” Huin says, “you can work everywhere in the world.”

After working around town for a year, he was offered a teaching position at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding. Here at the Port Hadlock campus, a short ride across the water from downtown Port Townsend, Huin works with students to build and repair boats.

The majority of the work is rebuilding boats, like the Blue Moon.  When students and faculty are finished with the 26-foot sailboat, every piece of wood will have been replaced. They replace the wood one piece at a time so that she retains her shape and identity.

“Everything is going to be replaced on that boat, but she keeps her soul,” says Huin. “Blue Moon will stay Blue Moon even if every piece is replaced. But if you take a model and build a new boat next to it, she will never be Blue Moon.”

When not teaching students, Huin has been making plans for his immediate future. His boat, Breskell, which he built himself in 1985, is in Greenland waiting for him to attempt the Northwest Passage. This pathway will lead him from Disko Bay in Greenland across Baffin Bay towards Lancaster Sound in the far northern reaches of Canada; then across to the West Coast north of Alaska; and finally south through the Bering Strait.

He plans to leave this summer, and is in the process of putting together a crew and raising the funds he needs to complete the journey. Members of the local community are lining up as sponsors, among them the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building, Admiral Ship Supply and, of course, Sunrise Coffee.

After the journey, Huin will return home, docking the Breskell at the dock in front of the school. As he explains on his website, breskell.com, “By this journey, I hope to show my students that by taking care of the soul of a wooden boat, they can also go a long way.” In the end, however, he seems happy of the thought of returning “home” to Port Townsend.

“It took me 60 years,” he says, “to find my own town.”

Story by Chris Kornelis
Photography by Chad Kirkland and Travis Gillett