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Technical Oasis: A Guided Tour Of Seattle's Ballard Neighborhood

Former Technical Editor Steve D'Antonio profiles one of the great marine industry hubs, and better kept secrets, in North America: Seattle's Ballard Neighborhood.
012914222 Western Towboat

Granite countertops, cherry joiner work, stainless steel appliances, a big screen TV, a 750-horsepower Cummins QSK 19, bulbous bow, and bow thruster; she sleeps six and cruises at 8.5 knots.

You might mistake this for a description of a custom-built expedition yacht; that is, until you read the rest of the specifications, which include titanium refrigeration chillers, 65 and 150 kW generators, lots of stainless steel hydraulic plumbing, and an 18,000-pound capacity, one of a kind, deck crane. 

This vessel is in fact a fishing trawler, recently commissioned in Ballard, Washington. I spent about an hour aboard her while dockside, going through her myriad systems, and speaking with her owner, John Barry, and his commissioning contractor, George Hooper, of Hooper Marine. The builder laid up the hull, decks and cabin, painted it and then handed it over to Barry and Hooper, and they, along with their hired contractors, finished out the systems.

I stood on the dock after my tour and looked at Optimus, her flawlessly painted gleaming white hull and blue trim, tugging at her lines as the Lake Washington Ship Canal water swirled around her bulbous bow. I marveled at what’s involved in choreographing the systems, seaworthiness, aesthetics, form and function that make up a vessel of this sort. Much of the work was carried out by local contractors, and herein lies the origin of this story.

An Eclectic Mix

Behold, my plan of attack.

Behold, my plan of attack.

Located in northwestern Seattle, bordered by the Lake Washington Ship Canal (often referred to as the Ballard Ship Canal), Shilshole Bay, Puget Sound, and Salmon Bay, the Ballard area possesses a rich history and a variety of landmarks, the most notable of which are the Ship Canal and its Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, often referred to simply as the Ballard Locks. Built in 1911, the locks isolate and protect the Canal and Lake Union’s fresh water from Puget Sound, providing an ideal environment for storage and repair of a wide range of craft, from small fiberglass and wood pleasure craft, to steel and aluminum commercial vessels.

Over dinner, Don and Sharry Stabbert, both accomplished passagemakers, waxed poetic about the wide array of services and capabilities ensconced in Ballard’s cozy, four-square-mile footprint. Don is the principal of Salmon Bay Marine Center, located directly on the Ship Canal, and he has his finger on the pulse of the neighborhood and its many businesses. He knows just about every shop’s owner and top technician in the area. Sharry was born and raised in Ballard, and they’ve recently completed a nine-month refit on their yacht, Starr.

What’s so special about Ballard?

“Ballard is different, and unlike any other waterfront area,” Don said. The difference, he explained, is that its marine industry is deeply rooted in the construction and repair of fishing vessels, an undeniably harsh and unforgiving environment. Lives depend on the work carried out by Ballard’s craftsmen and women.

In addition, Ballard and Seattle are rife with commercial vessel operations, ferries, the logging industry and tug boat operators. This foundation means that the individual folks working in the marine industry are skilled, experienced and committed. From a logistics perspective, almost anything marine can be obtained within a one-mile radius of any shop or dock, thereby reducing delays and shipping costs. Often, there’s more than one supplier or service shop for a given product, affording those relying on these services the benefit of healthy competition.

A view of one massive tug from another massive tug over at Western Towboat. These oats we largely built right here in Ballard by the many marine businesses collaborating over a single project.

A view of one massive tug from another massive tug over at Western Towboat. These oats we largely built right here in Ballard by the many marine businesses collaborating over a single project.

“Heck,” Don said, “these guys [business owners and foremen] all know each other. They go to breakfast and lunch together, they are used to cooperating with each other on large projects and when someone, or something isn’t right, word travels fast”.

Furthermore, the highly seasonal nature of this industry often creates the proverbial feast or famine environment. When the fishing fleet heads to Alaska, the back log quickly shrinks, creating a perfect storm of sorts for maintaining, repairing and refitting recreational vessels.

During dinner, we hatched a plan. Don would be my shepherd and timekeeper, on a whirlwind tour of some marine businesses. I could spend no more than half an hour at each stop (I ran long), and we managed to cover approximately 20. Each location provided a delight for any gearhead’s senses. I encountered expert joiner work; cold-molding (wood and epoxy); electrical, electronic, metal fabrication, hydraulics of every sort; engine installation, repair and rebuilding; machine shop work; propeller repair; paint application and just about every other specialty imaginable.

The stops we made were by no means comprehensive, and given the choice I would have gladly crisscrossed Ballard’s maze of streets, docks and railroad tracks, visiting each and every one, getting to know the owners, managers and shop floor personnel. Alas, that would have required a week or more, and simply was not possible. Here are some highlights of my tour.

Hatton Engine and Generator Systems

The dynamic duo of Craig and his Shaggy dog harry.

The dynamic duo of Craig and his Shaggy dog harry.

This fully equipped shop is capable of just about anything engine related, including fuel-injection systems; virtually every brand of turbocharger rebuild; full engine rebuilds (in the shop and aboard); stationary power system sales, and service; pre-purchase surveys; freshwater and seawater pump rebuilding; magna-flux service (reveals even the minutest crack in metal parts); custom exhaust; and a hose shop that can supply and make up virtually any type of hose, using stainless steel, bronze and brass fittings and valves. Hatton is a distributor for GE, Mitsubishi, and Scania engines, and a dealer for Deere, Yanmar, Kubota, Lugger/Northern Lights, Onan and Kohler, to name a few.

Craig Hatton met us in the shop, where he, accompanied by his shaggy dog, Harry, quickly volunteered to give us a full tour of the facilities and buildings. In the shop, engines were being set up for test runs, turbos being rebuilt and cylinder heads undergoing magnaflux analysis.

Opening in 1999, with Craig as the lead mechanic and his wife, Ellen, running the front office, Hatton Engine and Generator now employs 55 technicians. Although Ballard is their home, these folks travel all over the world completing engine-related projects. Craig is still the lead mechanic, while Ellen is now the Chief Operating Officer.

Ballard Hardware and Supply

If Ballard Hardware doesn’t have what you think you need, it probably doesn’t exist, or you need something else, which they no doubt have in stock.

No doubt, Ballard Hardware has it all.

No doubt, Ballard Hardware has it all.

Ballard Hardware has been serving the needs of Seattle’s marine and other industries, as well as walk-ins, since 1952. The founders, Lyle Hartje, and Jim Freyberg, bought the business and property of Bohon’s Second Hand Store from the original proprietor’s widow. After more than 60 years, Jim still comes in and remains active in the business. His son Doug and Lyle’s son Greg now manage the day-to-day operation.

Outgrowing its previous floor space, Ballard Hardware moved in 1990 to its present site, a brick and timber former icehouse built in the 1930s. While it wins no awards for exterior aesthetics, the interior’s fixtures, beams, and the extensive stock of steel, stainless steel, and bronze hardware of every size and shape, may take away your breath. Greg showed us every one of the five floors, as well as the basement, I could have easily spent an entire day here. Ballard Hardware owns the building outright, and their staff of 50 doesn’t work on weekends. 

Canvas Supply Company

The sewing machines may be as attractive as their final products.

The sewing machines may be as attractive as their final products.

The motto of this firm, which has been owned by the same family since 1882, is “Anything Made of Canvas.” Originally called Sunde & d’Evers Company when it opened for business 132 years ago, and located in the old Seattle Ferry Terminal, Canvas Supply does very much the same thing now that it’s been doing since the beginning: make and repair virtually anything associated with a boat’s canvas or fabric. Canvas Supply’s staff of 32, which includes an interior decorator, is described as the cream of the crop when it comes to their specialties. The company claims to employ the top five upholstery crafts people in the world, they travel worldwide to work carpet, enclosures, awnings, biminis, bedding, window and wall treatments, hinged mattresses. The minimum amount of experience for craftsmen and women is fifteen years.

Fisheries Supply Company

The Fisheries Supply Company first opened its doors in 1928 in a building at Pier 55 on Elliot Bay in Seattle. In the early days, it provided parts and materials for the Pacific Northwest’s fishing fleets and canneries. Later on, they expanded to include wholesale and retail customers. Today, Fisheries Supply’s retail store and 36,000 square foot warehouse comprise the Pacific Northwest’s largest distributor of marine products. John Rothermel, VP of sales, walked me through every nook and cranny and explained that the company’s customers now include individual pleasure and commercial boat owners, dealers, boat yards and builders, as well as other chandleries. The storefront and warehouse rely on a sophisticated inventory control system—both were neat and clean.

012914266 Fisheries

Harris Electric

Scandinavian heritage plays a strong part in the Ballard Area’s marine industry. Many of the region’s original fishermen were immigrants from Norway, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, and this heritage shows in the many Norse surnames. With the exception of the company’s actual name, Harris Electric is no exception. Jack Harris established the business in 1928, performing electrical work ashore and afloat. A year later, Arvid Ohman (in Old Norse, Arvid means forest of eagles) joined the company as a partner. During the depression, Ohman bought out Jack’s share, becoming sole owner. He toyed with the idea of changing the company name; however, doing so would have meant discarding about $75 worth of stationary, a lot of money in those days, which just didn’t square with his thrifty nature, so the name remained.

Its not alll hard work and no play, be sure to visit The Carpenter & The Walrus for top notch Oysters.

Its not alll hard work and no play, be sure to visit The Carpenter & The Walrus for top notch Oysters.

Just before the Second World War, Swedish-American Vic Sandholm came on board. In 1959 Ohman sold the business to Sandholm. The sale coincided with a boom in the tugboat business, which kept Harris Electric busy. Vic’s son Dick joined the business, after receiving a degree in electrical engineering. Erik Sandholm, Vic’s grandson, joined the company in 1995, he now serves as its president.

I met Erik during my visit, sitting in his office, which is decorated with antique sextants, nautical instruments, and voltmeters. Harris Electric, he explained, specializes in electronics and electrical work, especially control systems that rely on programmable logic controllers or PLCs. Its staff of 50 works on fishing, towing, container, cruise ships, and other commercial vessels, as well as designing, building, installing, and repairing switch panels, and everything else electronic

Worth the Trip

One of my final stops on the Ballard marine industry circuit was Stabbert Yacht and Ship or SYS. Based on the Ship Canal, SYS is a shipyard that handles commercial, scientific and pleasure vessels up to three hundred feet. Its principal, Dan Stabbert, Don’s brother, prides himself in the work ethic they’ve established. He points out that this work ethic is not unique to SYS, it’s prevalent throughout Ballard’s marine industry, saying, “The Ballard and Seattle maritime culture is one of the most unique in the world, in its integrity, technical ability, and respect for the vessels in its care, and its customers. Outside a few other seafaring communities in Scotland and Norway it’s unrivaled. It’s a culture of which we are very proud.”

A work of art in itself, a worker at Kruger Propeller perfecting his craft.

A work of art in itself, a worker at Kruger Propeller perfecting his craft.