Boatbuilder Lives His Big Lake Dream
Live in a place you love or pursue the career you love? It is a choice that many people face.
Josh Swan was no exception, but through a leap of faith and a lot of hard work, he and his wife, Charmaine, found a way to have both in Ashland, Wisconsin.
Josh makes a living building boats and restoring dreams of his clients at J.W. Swan Boatworks, working his craft in an oversized warehouse.
Now Josh’s passion has merged with the dream of a client who wants Josh to restore a piece of his history – his grandfather’s boat.
Josh’s current project – the 6-Metre sailboat Oslo – is one of the few remnants his client, Chris Schram, has of his grandfather. (A 6-Metre is a class of racing boat, which actually is close to 40 feet in length.)
Chris, an American living in the Netherlands, traced the roots of his grandfather’s boat to the shores of Lake Michigan near Escanaba. The nearly 90-year-old boat, commissioned by the Norwegian royal family and built in Norway, had badly deteriorated. Chris found Josh through the Boatworks’ website.
Once the restoration is complete, the boat will be shipped overseas to Chris, an avid and competitive sailor who likely will participate in a classic regatta and other races.
“It was designed to go very fast” as a light racing sloop, Josh says. The boat originally was built to last only a few years.
Josh is doing a complete rebuild. To the original sections, including the keel and transom, he’s constructing new planking (skin), framing (or ribs) and deck beams. He’s adding a cabin trunk – a small room just below deck – in the 6-foot-wide sailboat.
The wood planking is African mahogany, like the original wood, and bronze bolts and copper rivets are used as fasteners; there’s no glue.
About 80 percent of his business is restoration and repair of wooden boats, Josh says, and 20 percent comes from new construction using traditional techniques but incorporating modern materials.
It was his proximity to Chris’ boat that landed Josh the job, though it didn’t hurt that his boatbuilding resume is impeccable.
Boatbuilding is an outgrowth of an interest he’s always had. He’s wanted to work with wood for as long as he can remember. “There is just something really satisfying about working with wood that you don’t experience working with anything else.”
Soon after high school graduation, Josh took control of his woodworking dreams and began seeking out a niche within the field. He soon found himself spending two years learning and working in Newport, Rhode Island, at the International Yacht Restoration School. It was during this time that his passion for boatbuilding and restoration came to life.
“From the outside, boatbuilding may seem like a mysterious process, but in reality it is the practice of a few very logical rules that have been boiled down and distilled and worked out over time.
“It might take a whole lifetime to scratch at the surface and get good at applying those rules, but that is the exciting part.”
From Rhode Island, life led him to the Adirondack Museum in New York, where he worked two seasons building an Adirondack guide boat in the public eye. While challenging, it also opened the door for him to meet the other love of his life – his wife, Charmaine.
His East Coast experiences paved the way for Josh to return home to Wisconsin in 2003 and to begin pursuing his dream of boatbuilding in a place he loved. At first, he settled in Madison for two years while Charmaine finished school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During this time, he opened J.W. Swan Boatworks. Once Charmaine graduated, though, it was time to figure out the next chapter of their lives.
“We liked living in Madison, but it wasn’t practical for how we wanted to live,” he recalls of their decision to move north to the Chequamegon Bay area.
“After spending as much time near the ocean as I did, I was really missing being on big water.”
So, in summer 2005 the couple moved to Ashland, where Josh could continue his boatbuilding dream while being closer to the Big Lake.
“We knew we really liked the area. So we chose a place to live first and figured we would work our way through the employment issue.”
It was an exciting leap of faith. But, as many people who live along Lake Superior can attest, the romanticism of living along the Big Lake can fade fast when survival (and employment) comes into play.
After moving to Ashland, Charmaine struggled to find a job. Business wasn’t exactly booming for Josh, who also took odd jobs such as working at the local hardware store. And, while they were committed to staying in Ashland, it was certainly a crossroads for the couple.
“We knew we wanted to stay here, but at that time the reality hit of how difficult it’d be to make this work,” says Josh.
Torn about whether they could make a go of it, Charmaine suddenly received a job offer in Madison, making it difficult to justify staying in Ashland. Then fate intervened again when Charmaine was offered a job at Northland College in the communications department. The couple never looked back.
Josh has since grown his business to the point where odd jobs are a thing of the past. In his boatshop, the common theme is that everything is done with wood. Recently, business has been good enough that he started construction on a new shop outside of Washburn, which he says is possible because of the community he calls home.