The Anchor of Eagle Harbor
By Tristan Baurick
Posted December 11, 2010 at 8:11 p.m.
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND —
The temperature drops as an icy December wind whips across the waves, but the waterfront homes that ring Eagle Harbor grow warmer.
The sky dims as evening sets in, but the large modern homes only grow brighter. They cast glowing reflections over the water, making them appear to creep even closer to the harbor’s dark and silent center.
That’s where Dave Ullin is anchored, in the old gray tugboat that’s been his home for more than half his life.
The tug’s only light is the one strapped to Ullin’s forehead. Its only heat source is the cloud of steam rising from Ullin’s mouth. And the only sound inside its wood-ribbed hull is the clang of Ullin’s hammer as it strikes a rusty shackle.
“Good steel,” he says as a grin loosens his hard-set features.
Ullin, a 68-year-old former fisherman, logger and shipwright, is spending his evening doing what he loves best.
“Purposeful work,” he says.
He’s retooling the shackle into a kellet that will weigh down a drifting anchor line from a neighboring sailboat. Its owner, also a liveaboard, isn’t spending his nights on the boat anymore. He knows as well as Ullin that their decades-old liveaboard community is set to end within the week.
But Ullin isn’t thinking about that now.
“I’m thinking out for potential problems,” he says while greasing the shackle’s thumb-thick bolt. “I don’t want a passing boat to get their propeller caught in that anchor line.”
While many anchored-out liveaboards have fled the harbor in response to a state eviction notice last month, Ullin is still here, still taking care of the harbor he’s lived in for 27 years.
He’s not sure what he’ll do when the eviction comes due on Dec. 15. There is the slim hope on the part of Bainbridge city leaders that an agreement can be reached with the state, allowing Puget Sound’s last liveaboard community to remain anchored in the harbor. Ullin’s Plan B is to trade in his anchor for a costly moorage slip at a shore-based marina.
Neither option sits well with him or most of the dozen or so liveaboards who remain.
“Even though the (city) would have legalized our existence, it would have changed our character,” he says. “We would not be the same people if we went into that reservation. We take care of ourselves. We are independent.”
Few are more independent than Ullin, or as generous. He’s a contrast of self-sufficient seafaring hermit and gregarious, warm-hearted Samaritan.
He estimates he’s allowed only five people aboard his tug, yet hundreds on the island revere him for his volunteer work at schools, parks, farms and in the harbor.
“He’s always bailing out boats, always paying attention to the harbor,” said city Harbormaster Tami Allen, who has known Ullin for 10 years and considers him the harbor’s unofficial guardian. “A couple weeks ago, he rowed out at night in a windstorm and stopped a boat that was dragging anchor. Just with his oars he stopped a 40-foot boat.”
Ullin is an imposing figure, with his broad shoulders, heavy brow and wide hands. He stands out when he strides past Winslow’s boutiques and art galleries clad head to foot in heavy wool and salt-stained logger boots. The contents of his tar-flecked canvas bag has been the subject of whispered gossip. Does it carry a hatchet or a severed head or something worse?
No, Ullin says with a laugh, it’s much more likely to carry fire wood, cabbages, a portable archive of newspaper articles or a box of index cards with his favorite quotes by Gandhi, Aristotle and Margaret Mead.
There’s a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote he knows by heart: “A strong community is one made up of independent individuals, each going their own way.”
“Dave is sort of an enigma. He doesn’t dress like the rest of us or act like the rest of us,” said his longtime friend Betsey Wittick. “He seems like an outcast, but he’s actually so connected with the community. And he leads by example. He exemplifies voluntary simplicity.”
A HANDS-ON LIFE
Wittick, a farmer and winemaker, came to know Ullin after he took an interest in her draft horses.
He built the horses a “stone boat,” a wood sled sturdy enough to haul large rocks out of Wittick’s fields. Nearly two decades later, the sled is still in use, hauling everything from pumpkins to children at Wittick’s Day Road farm.
They’ve partnered on several projects, most recently a school-to-farm program that introduces children to small-scale farm practices.
“It’s really cool to see how kids connect with him,” Wittick said. “Once, when I was doing laundry in town, I saw all these kids following him and pulling a 12-foot-long log. I said ‘Dave! What’s going on?’” And he says ‘Oh, I’m just helping on a project for a preschool.’”
The log was then used to teach a practical physics lesson on how a few little kids could lift a heavy log using an inclined plane and a pulley system. He also taught them to saw the log and slit the sections with an ax.
Ullin volunteers on tree plantings near salmon streams, serves on the city harbor commission, does trail work and removes invasive plants at island parks. During one recent project, Ullin enlisted a group of yacht club members, housewives and children to help him tackle a proliferation of holly trees at Waterfront Park. He taught them to use an old sailing block-and-tackle rig to rip the trees out by the roots.
He’ll generally pitch in wherever he’s needed — so long as it’s for the common good and doesn’t involve money.
“The simple life is everything to me,” he said. “I have no interest in accumulating money or possessions, although I do have a lot of tools.”
By Ullin’s estimate, the tug has thousands of pounds of tools. They’re tucked neatly along walls, slotted into custom-built shelves or hang from hooks. Some he hand-forged, while others he picked up while working as a log salvager in Alaska and a boat repairman on the Duwamish River in Seattle.
Most of the tools are more common in museums than in anyone’s hands today.
There’s a selection of long, two-handed log saws above his bunk, a 100-year-old drill press at his work bench, a collection of scythe blades and a menagerie of steel clamps. During a tour, Ullin came as near to giddy as the spartan seaman gets.
“This is a wooden beetle for hitting corking or horsing irons,” he said, taking hold of a long-handled mallet. “This is a brush hook, of course, with a fire hose guard on the end. There’s my 200-pound anvil. Oh hey, here’s a froe for a splitting shakes.”
The tools are intermixed with his sleeping accommodations: a spare wood bunk made up of hinge-joined plywood that Ullin built to alleviate back pain.
“It really helps me a lot,” he said. “I invented it because I always had trouble with mattresses.”
Ullin has a small cook stove up the ladder in the pilot house, but none of the heat comes down below, where he sleeps under a wool blanket or two.
What does he do when it gets really cold?
“Nothing. I just sleep.”
During the day, the pilot house gets good light from the sun. He calls it his “reading room,” but its three-foot wide expanse serves as much more. On one wall is a mending station with peg-mounted threads, scissors and needles. There’s a small sink, a hand-crank grinder and the stove, which he uses to cook up stews made of fish scraps or soup bones. His kitchen staples are sauerkraut made of kale or stinging nettles, raw tuna soaked in vinegar, dried kelp and sprouted grains with a flavorful dose of cod liver oil.
The tug has no power, no running water and no plumbing. His bathroom is a bucket he hauls daily to a toilet at Waterfront Park.
The way Ullin lives is an outgrowth of lessons learned in childhood. He was born to parents who had built their own home on land they cleared in what was once a rural part of West Seattle. They raised much of their own food and regularly went on long family gill-net fishing trips. His father didn’t so much teach Ullin as guide him, giving him a few boat-repair or tree-felling pointers, and then left him to figure out the rest.
“It was a pioneer lifestyle. It was great,” he said. “But then I went to school. It was culture shock.”
After class, Ullin didn’t run off to the movie theater with the other kids. He beat it back to the woods to saw logs.
Ullin signed up for the Coast Guard after high school. He spent much of his five years with the guard on a buoy tender based out of Seattle. Then he went to work as a choke setter for the Simpson Lumber Company.
A near-death experience with a speeding log on a skyline helped persuade Ullin to leave logging. He bought a fishing trawler and went to work for himself in Alaska. During the off-season, Ullin salvaged logs drifting along the coast.
“I was doing that with my fishing boat, and that’s what inspired me to get a tug boat,” he said.
Returning to Seattle in 1970, Ullin moored his boat on the Duwamish River and began helping fisherman repair their boats.
He came to Bainbridge in January 1983 after the Seattle marina he was staying at was condemned to make way for a rock-crushing operation. The condemnation eliminated a long-standing and tightly-knit community of boaters, much like the one Ullin is now a part of in Eagle Harbor.
THE VIEW AHEAD
Ullin has written several essays on the struggle of the harbor’s liveaboards. One such handwritten essay he keeps tucked in a waterproof sleeve questions why the state and some Bainbridge residents oppose the liveaboards, which he sees as having a low-impact lifestyle based on a respect for nature and a mutual generosity between people.
“If the criteria for judging human activity is care for the web of life, then small is beautiful,” he wrote in 2004. “Maybe the liveaboards should be the ones lobbying the government to impose lifestyle regulations on the liveashores.”
Ullin hasn’t worked for money in more than a year. One of Ullin’s fisherman friends recently persuaded him to apply for Social Security benefits so he can get his ailing hip checked out. Ullin hasn’t yet seen a doctor, but the $460 monthly Social Security payment helps him cover the few things he can’t barter, build or grow himself. He’s socking some of the money away to haul out and repair his boat, and maybe help him move if it eventually comes to that.
Ullin spends a lot of his time thinking in his tug, sometimes late into the night. He keeps an eye on the tides, on the weather and the boats around him, looking out for signs of a busted bilge, snapped buoy line or dragging anchor.
“That’s where I get my enjoyment,” he said from the darkened pilot house. “Just doing what’s useful.”