Editor’s note: This is the first in a new series of Northwest maritime history videos made by Port Townsend writer and producer John Sabella.
Born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1918, celebrated naval architect Bill Garden spent much of his career on Seattle’s freshwater waterfront, working out of offices on Lake Union and the Seattle Ship Canal. In the late 1960s, he relocated to the private island near Sydney, British Columbia he called Toad’s Landing.
A trained boat builder as well as a designer, Garden scrounged through B.C. sawmills and extricated enough discarded machinery to create his own shipyard. His workshop was a study in ingenuity that Rube Goldberg would have admired. He called it Santa’s Workshop for older boys. Garden’s passion was designing and building boats made from wood.
Garden died in 2011 at the age of 92. In 2004, he gave John Sabella’s Nautical Media video crew a tour of the island. He ruminated on his craft during an interview in his living room.
“Wood is such a lovely, fragrant, friendly material. You can do anything with it. You can bend it and pound it, use a rasp and offend it.”
He grudgingly admitted that aluminum is a pretty good material, if only it smelled like wood.
Garden remembered his early career fondly, when a gift for design was more important than formal credentials.
“Boats were simpler then. A boat builder with an eye for design could build a better-looking seine boat than somebody with three degrees and all sorts of technical information.”
There are those who have the urge to conceive inspired vessels, but not the talent. Garden figured he was lucky to have the gift.
“You’re really blessed if you’re on fire to do something and you’re competent to do it.”