The Joy of Custom Boatbuilding

March 25, 2010
By Ralph Lovelace

Those of us that have spent much of our career involved in sales and marketing are always interested in what makes the customer tick. What causes them to dream about a boat and ultimately move ahead and have one built? In this regard, and with Sam’s approval, I began to survey various owners who have used Sam and his crew to bring their dreams into reality.

Both Sam and I are hopeful that this exercise will shed new light on the motivations behind a build and why the customer contacts the yard to discuss his dream. We also hope that the process will help us fulfill the customer’s expectations during the build and create even more enjoyment once the vessel hits the water.


Henry Wendt commissioned Sam to build a Sockeye 45, a beautiful tug trawler. When I asked Henry about his motivation, he said he had a philosophical need for a vessel to combine utility of purpose with artistic flair. He went on to say that he felt the Sam was one of only a few designers capable of such creativity.

Henry has owned a number of boats and still owns smaller power and sailing craft. In this build, he wanted a safe and seaworthy craft that was easy to operate; one that he and his wife could take up the Inland Passage to Alaska.

I also asked Henry about the building process. He stated that the whole effort was most enjoyable and trouble free. And as a last remark, he said to be sure and say: “hello to Sam and the boys.” Finally, in my opinion, Henry’s choice of name says it all: “WIDGEON” — a seabird of exquisite design and breathtaking beauty.

John Carlson is a custom builder of homes in the Pacific Northwest. For years his family had enjoyed a 1962 Hereshoff “Rosanante.” After 30 years of ownership, John said the maintenance became such an issue that they were spending more time repairing the vessel than sailing it. John’s wife suggested that maybe it was time for something newer and perhaps a little faster.


John then set about designing his dreamboat. He noted that he drew his inspiration from some of the Atkins’ designs and that he was fond of the raised foredeck of the Lake Washington Dreamboats. John showed his design to Sam and over time, a 20 foot express cruiser emerged from Sam’s drawing table. John also mentioned that he was drawn to Sam’s building methods, ease of construction and limited exterior maintenance. Sam’s stature in the industry came into play as part of his motivation. “He’s somewhat of an icon in the wooden boat world”, John said with admiration.

John notes that he is pleased with his new boat and the building process. “She cruises about 20 miles an hour whereas Rosanante maxed out about five.” Would he do it again? John said that from time to time he surfs the net and notices very good looking used Devlin Surf Scoters for less money. But, he says, there is something very special about admiring Scout, his express cruiser, and knowing that it is his custom design. John’s boat evokes the beauty of past wooden classics, is easy to maintain, and turns heads wherever she travels.

Cyndie Phelps is the new proud and happy owner of Storm Petrel, a 34-foot lobster boat. She began her fascination and love affair with the water at an early age. She began with rowboats and canoes at summer camp. In her teens, she raced a Lighting sailboat against a neighbor boy. “He was a better sailor than I was, she recalled, but we always had fun.”

“My dream was to once again return to the water, but on my own terms, not someone else’s. I loved the old wooden boats of my past, but at the same time I wanted something that was safe and dependable. We shopped around some but the more we got to know Sam, the more he seemed like the perfect choice. There is a “workboat persona” about Sam. To me his designs are clean and simple but also exude a wonderful artistic flair. I felt that Sam and his crew would build a boat that safe, easy to use and beautiful to look at.”

Cyndie enjoyed the building process immensely. “It was important to me to be involved as much as possible”, and she rarely let a week go by without visiting the shop and watching the boat become a reality. One especially enjoyable experience was working with Sam on the exact placement of the forward pilothouse windows. After some collaboration, they decided on a lower placement than originally planned. The end result is beautiful to look at from any angle.


When asked if she was happy with the process and her new boat, she said that she was delighted. “Each time I drove south towards the shop, I found myself happier and my spirit much lighter. There is something wonderful about working with a group of individuals that exhibit an aura of pride and excitement towards the project before them.” She noted that it was hard to describe the energy and delight involved in taking a blank sheet, articulating her hopes and dreams, and then ending up with a beautiful vessel. “Storm Petrel truly represents much of my passions and feelings about the water.”

“I was involved in a wonderful collaborative effort. I worked with men that were happy in their effort and proud of their accomplishment. That happiness made all the difference in the world; and the end result is a boat that exudes that frame of mind and is ready for all sorts of new adventures.”

And so it goes: three different people all with a special passion for the beautiful waters of the Pacific Northwest. Each one with a desire to express those feelings through a custom boat. Widgeon, Scout, and Storm Petrel are ready to explore our Puget Sound and Canadian Gulf Islands. All are “workboat” tough, safe, and easy to operate. And yet they all exhibit an elegant, artistic flair that turns heads wherever they roam.

Ralph Lovelace/ Biography

Now in his mid-sixties, Ralph Lovelace continues to enjoy change and new adventures. Graduating from college in the late 1960’s, Ralph found himself drafted into the Army and part of the Vietnam War. He served as an infantry communications officer. Released in 1970, Ralph started his working career as an office manager for a hardwood sawmill and ended it as a marketing manager for the Department of Corrections.

Retiring in 2000, Ralph decided to sell used cars for a good friend and pursue his other passion of “messing about in boats.” Ten years later, he continues to mess around with boats and drives a school bus for the Griffin School District in rural Thurston County.