Craftsmanship Future-Proofs You – A Sointula Boatyard Spans Generations

Legacy Part 15 – Ken and Robert Griffith – Shipwrights – Tarkanen Marine Ways

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By Jason Murphy, Founder & Creative Director

Sointula is a reminder that people have been experimenting with the idea of building the ideal community for a long time.

Sointula means “Place of Harmony” in Finnish.

Finnish immigrants established the town, located on BC’s Malcolm Island, in 1901 in a bid to create their vision of utopia based on the values set forth The Kaleva, the epic Finnish poem by Elias Lonnrot, and a set of socialist principles they called “Communitarianism.”

The Communitarian experiment failed after only a few years, but the determination to be independent and the strength-in-unity ethos at its core remained. The town’s original visionaries fell by the wayside more conventional co-operative and unionized practices. This approach, combined with business savvy and managed with Scandinavian common sense, made people feel secure while allowing them to prosper.

An influx of hippies in the sixties and seventies caused friction for a while, but ultimately these newcomers were found to have similar ideals to the older residents. Also, they supported more ambitious roles for women in the community and expanded the use of the co-operative model to new types of businesses. 

Commercial Fishing – Boom & Bust

Agriculture has always been a feature of the island, and like many coastal communities in BC, logging has been a big economic driver, but it was the commercial fishing fleet that built the place.

A boom in the fishing business in the seventies and early eighties gave way to a fish-stock management and resource crisis in the nineties. 

The implementation of fishing license reduction, separation and stacking schemes and the introduction of Individual Tradable Quotas (ITQs) that followed resulted in the same massive decline that is in evidence towns up and down the coast.

The Tarkanen Marine Ways boatyard is a family owned and run businesses, an essential part of the fabric of the community on Sointula, and serves boat owners from a wide geographical area.

Walk into Tarkanen's yard and there’s a chance you’ll meet one of the local commercial fishers who will tell you in no uncertain terms about the state of the business. I spoke to the owner of the Sea Harvest, one of two boats in the yard and out of the water for maintenance.

The Sea Harvest, a modern steel-hulled fishing vessel, is an impressive sight and her owner tells me he how installed monitoring cameras voluntarily but still finds himself on the wrong side of regulations – and the law – from time-to-time purely by mistake. I tell him about efforts underway to change fisheries legislation in BC to correct the errors of the past. He expresses skepticism.

Standing on the deck of Sea Harvest it is easy to appreciate the cost involved in commercial fishing even at a local level. A system that downloads all of the risk onto individual owner-operators hardly seems to be supportive of the idea of thriving communities, or – if you accept that one follows the other – the stewardship by locals of the marine environment upon which their livelihood depends.

Pride And Optimism

You will notice something else at Tarkanen Marine Ways as well though – something subtle but unmistakable – the sense of pride and optimism that emanates from the yard itself.

The Tarkanen yard is a family owned and run businesses, is a key part of the fabric of the community on Sointula, and serves boat owners from a wide geographical area.

The yard doesn't only work on modern steel vessels like the Sea Harvest, but also more traditional wooden boats that require special handling and expertise. And like most boatyards Tarkanen’s is not limited to catering to the fishing fleet – as you would expect, other types of vessel have always been a part of the yard’s work. These days, recreational craft offer an increasing source of revenue.

I spoke to a handfull of people at the yard, including the grandson of the original owner, but the story of Ken Griffith and his son Robert illustrated why so much confidence in the future emanates from the place most clearly. 

Ken is the senior shipwright in a business where the quality of craftsmanship on wooden vessels is high. Somewhat reticent, Ken is the kind of person who doesn’t seem very forthcoming when you first meet him, but opens up once he finds that you’re genuinely interested in what he has to say – and he speaks with enthusiasm when it comes to the future of the business.

There was a fire at the yard a few years ago. No-one was hurt thankfully, but it gutted one entire shed on the property. It has been replaced with a brand new one.

In Ken’s view, the future of boat building and boat maintenance is bright even if the number of fishing boats to work on is decreasing. 

The wooden vessel standing in the yard next to ocean harvest is a tugboat – one of the last wooden tugboats around, and the pride that the shipwrights working on it have in their work is evident. Plus, from Ken’s perspective there will always be boats on the coast of one type or another, and in his view, as the area opens up to tourism and recreational boaters the future for skilled workers in this area is bright.

Craft Is Key

The story of Tarkenan's success is not one of technology, but of craftsmanship, and a profound belief that the highest level of craftsmanship and expertise in the area of boatbuilding and maintenance will always be in demand.

One thing underscores Ken’s faith in the future of the business more than any other – how happy he is that his son Robert works alongside him. 

Robert is equally enthusiastic about the future of the business and proud to be a part of things.

There was a fire at the yard a few years ago. No-one was hurt, but it gutted one entire shed on the property and hurt the business. That shed has been replaced with a brand new one, full of activity, the sound of power tools and the sweet aroma of milled timber. One more affirmation that Tarkanen’s is not only thriving but confident in investing what it needs to for the future. A future that includes profits but also opportunities for the local community that span generations. It's inspiring stuff.

Hopefully, with improved legislation, the BC fishing industry can be rescued and fish stocks maintained.  The conversations that I had with Ken and Robert and the others at the yard were a reminder that while the goal of revitalizing the fishing industry in BC is massively important, there are other aspects of the economic life of coastal communities that, while small, are already bright, and that people living in communities of all kinds can bridge generations and find different paths to a prosperous future. 

An important thing to care about if you care about the health of the world's oceans.