Tom hands

These are hands that build. That carve and sand and fit out boats with the lush warmth of fine wood, for the practical and aesthetic comfort of their crews.

I’ve seen their work in person, in the Western Navigator. a beauty of a tug, jawdroppingly pristine to my eyes in every respect. So far, the tugs I have been on are stripped down, practical, wholly functional. But stepping into the Western Navigator was like stepping into a boat from another time, or a novel even. She was spick and span all through – clean as a whistle despite years of service, her bare metal parts in and out of the engine room polished to a mirror shine (which I then smudged with fingerprints when clambering around, oops), electronics progressively updated, and of course, fitted out with absolutely beautiful woodwork.

A lot of love and pride has gone into the build and maintenance of the Western Navigator, by everyone involved, and she shows for it.

Tom is one of two ship’s carpenters at the Western Towboat Company in Seattle. I paid them a visit in January, thanks to Ed Brydon, who hooked me up from across the country. I have a long standing respect for people who make things with their hands, as my own struggle to open jars and aren’t much use away from a keyboard. Trying to get into Tom’s mental space, from his physical working space, was a treat.

Sanding down

It isn’t very often I get to chat with someone at work for as long as I did with everyone at Western Towboat. I got to know Tom while huddling in the warmth of his workshop, asking him questions about his life and work, shooting when there was pause. I made some portraits that day which I love (not something I normally say about my people pictures), and this is one of them:

Tom portrait

I am reminded, every time, of how much portraits really are a give and take experience. So much more goes into them than a split-second hit of a shutter button.


  1. True North Mark says:

    A post close to my heart treasure, after being in shipbuilding since the early 80’s! :)

    1. charlene says:

      I thought you might appreciate this :) Thought of Glenn while shooting these ones too.

      1. True North Mark says:

        Indeed! We had Glenn out the other night with Peta and Nigel…another fun night out!

      2. charlene says:

        Is poor Glenn getting used to being chased around by photographers yet? Or were Peta and Nigel nicer to him than Flemming and I were? :D

      3. True North Mark says:

        He was ‘light boy’ on this occasion Charlene! :)

  2. True North Mark says:

    And I was the Flash! :)

    1. charlene says:

      Haha!!! I did not doubt that for a second.

  3. petaanne says:

    Great read and pics as usual, those hands have seen a lot of work…
    Glenn asked where you were the other night….

    1. charlene says:

      Thanks Peta :) Hehehe poor Glenn! He’d be such a great one to do a project on though.

  4. Ed says:

    My pleasure Charlene. I hope this is just a teaser, a taste of what you have from that day because it is a great little teaser

    1. charlene says:

      It is :) I shot a lot that day. Had free reign while they were working so I made it count. People that work with tugs = great!

  5. It makes me want to go in there and watch him work for hours….love the images…

    1. charlene says:

      I could have too. It was very serene in there watching him work. They’re building a new tug at the moment and it’s going to take 3 years to complete. What a project.

  6. I love the angle of your story. Crafting something wind your hands, with skills learned through many years of hard work is something special indeed. And in this world becoming something of a rarity, all the more reason to treasure it and tell stories. So great to see part one of your World Tug Boat Tour.

    1. charlene says:

      You’re so right. It is something to treasure, especially for someone like me, who gets a kick out of these things but has never done them. Maybe I will one day. I don’t know about building half a house with my hands, but it will be great to be able to make something beautiful from wood, given how much I like the material. Kind of like learning a different language – time, place, motivation :)

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