Bayfield boat builder preserves maritime history

BAYFIELD -- Musicians rely on sheet music, and travelers follow maps. "Boat builders have these," says wooden boat builder Garry Couch, pointing to a set of drawings by "the grandmaster of it all," Howard I. Chapelle, a mid-20th century naval arc...

Garry Couch of Bayfield
Wooden boat builder Garry Couch of Bayfield works on an 1880s-style Newfoundland seal-hunting skiff, using measurements documented in 1950, in his Bayfield shop on Sept. 1. He is continuing the tradition of documentation by creating drawings from three Lake Superior boats. (Julie Buckles / Ashland Daily Press)

BAYFIELD -- Musicians rely on sheet music, and travelers follow maps.

"Boat builders have these," says wooden boat builder Garry Couch, pointing to a set of drawings by "the grandmaster of it all," Howard I. Chapelle, a mid-20th century naval architect and curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The drawings are of an 1880 Newfoundland seal-hunting skiff, a boat Couch happens to be planking at the moment from plans preserved by the Smithsonian. Chapelle took the lines off the boat -- meaning he got the measurements -- in 1950, a year after Couch was born. "And now I'm making that boat," Couch says.

Couch is continuing the Chapelle tradition by documenting the plans for a trio of Lake Superior wooden boats -- a lighthouse tender and two fish tugs.

"I'm documenting as a boat builder for future boat builders," he says, emphasizing that his project is modest, and so are the boats he has chosen.


Couch's shop, Chequamegon Boat Works, is across the street from Bodin's Fisheries, where he has a view of fish tugs in the water and on land. Out front, there's a refurbished 1910 Morris wood-canvas canoe (a steal at $3,100). Inside, there's the western red cedar and white oak frame skeleton of the seal skiff, and on the walls in the back of his shop, his latest passion, ornamental half hull models.

Couch grew up in Bloomington, Minn., then headed north to Alaska where he worked on wooden fishing boats and eventually ran a salmon trawler down to Port Townsend, Wash., and hauled it out at a yard for repairs.

That was about 30 years ago and he's been repairing and building wooden boats ever since. "I've always worked with wood and had a gravitation towards it," he says.

He wanted to work on smaller boats and landed in Bayfield 20 years ago where he set up shop repairing and restoring wooden boats.

He used to build small craft on commission, but now he builds boats that he likes, the way he likes to build them, in the time frame that suits him.

"Garry loves certain challenges like making oars," says friend and wooden boat owner Don Albrecht of Bayfield. "He's constantly reinventing how he is doing things in a real deep sort of way."

Albrecht helped set off Couch's foray into documentation years ago when he walked into Chequamegon Boat Works and said, "Let's make some half hulls," Couch says.

Half hulls are beautiful models of the real thing and can be used to make the real things. In fact, in the old days, builders shaped half hulls first, then took the measurements and scaled up and built the larger boats.


Selling for about $450 to collectors, half hulls are a "way to preserve and protect these boats," Couch says.

Couch ordered the "Ship Plan List" from the Smithsonian Institution -- and from there, he constructed a few half hulls. But when his interest turned to Lake Superior, he realized that no documentation existed for Lake Superior boats.

Two years ago, he decided to change that, starting with a wooden boat named Bobbie, a 30-foot tug, now out of the water and sitting among flower beds just down the street.

Some say there's nothing special about the Bobbie.

"The boat has not had a very colorful history by any stretch of the imagination," commented fisherman and historian Harvey Hadland by e-mail. Hadland documents fish tugs and the history of commercial fishing on his website (

Colorful history or not, Couch doesn't care. What interests him is that the Bobbie is wooden, accessible and that its builder, Evan Christensen, was an accomplished builder.

Christensen, who came from Norway to America in 1921, was an expert carpenter and furthered his boat-building skills working under the tutelage of fellow Norwegian and Bayfield resident Olaf Edwards, who was a premier boat builder in the early 1900s, says Christensen's nephew, Bob Nelson of Bayfield.

Christensen built the Bobbie in a parking lot located just a stone's throw from Chequamegon Boat Works in 1939 for William Noring, a Norwegian commercial fisherman from Sand Island. It was later sold and renamed "Uncle Butts."


Couch set up a jig and recorded measurements from the Bobbie. He then created two-dimensional drawings from three different perspectives. This was something he had done before for a Lake Wherry rowboat dragged out of a field near Lake Minnetonka, and a 1941 Falls Flyer.

After the Bobbie, he then jigged, measured and drew the plans for a north shore Navy-built lighthouse tender named Scout, now located at the Bayfield Maritime Museum in Bayfield.

He's built many half hull models of the two boats.

After Applefest in October, if the weather is kind, he'll pack his tools and jigs and drive to the North Shore, where he'll take the lines off a fish tug, a two-day endeavor.

He has his eye on two tugs: one in Two Harbors and another in Grand Marais.

Then he'll settle in for a long winter at Chequamegon Boat Works, watching Lake Superior turn to ice, as he works on the presentation of the drawings and working on his seal hunting skiff.

He scoured numerous plans before finding the right one, "an able-bodied little boat that could row and sail around the islands and could be hauled up on the beach when all hell breaks loose," he says.

And so because Chapelle took the time 60 years ago to document the hunting boat, Couch can build it.


Asked if he'll keep the boat, he smiles. "I have definite fantasies of sailing and rowing it while I'm building it, but I am a builder, that's what I do.

"This is hard-core, traditional wood building, traditional plank on frame. I'm not taking any shortcuts, just taking my time and building it real nice," he says. "I have very few redeeming qualities but this is one."

What To Read Next
Get Local