Boats, boats, boats: One man’s passion helps preserve history
Building boats is all Garry Couch has ever done, and like most boat builders, he became interested in half-hull models.
A half-hull model is a wooden model ship featuring only one half of a boat's hull. According to Couch, boat builders would whittle a half hull during the winter and make a boat from the measurements they got off the half hull.
"They would do that to a 1-inch scale where 1 inch equals 1 foot," Couch said. "Then they would draw out the various sections on the half model and take measurements from the base up and then the centerline, and they would make the molds of the boat from that and start wrapping wood around that."
Because the builders would build boats from the half hulls, no drawings of the boats were made, Couch said. So what he does is reverse the process.
"There is no historical documentation of these boats other than paintings and pictures. There were no architectural drawings," Couch said. "So basically I reverse engineer that process. I take the lines off of the boat, then I make drawings and then I make the half hull. So I'll have drawings and a scaled half hull of all these boats."
Couch, who lives in Bayfield, Wis., started doing half-hull models about 10 years ago, completing about one a year.
"Like most boat builders I was interested in half hulls. And I thought I should make a half hull of a Lake Superior boat," Couch said. "So I looked around for some drawings and plans and could find none. There were none."
According to Couch, the Smithsonian watercraft collection has a library of lines drawings of boats from the East Coast and every Great Lake, except for Lake Superior.
"So then about 10 years ago, I said, 'Well if I want to make a half-hull model of a Lake Superior boat I'm going to have to document it and come up with my own drawings,'" he said. "So I did and now it's just kind of taken on a life of its own."
Couch said he decides to take offsets of whichever boat happens to come into his life. This year that boat is the STAR in Knife River. Paul von Goertz, the owner of STAR, heard that Couch's half-hull model work was on display in Duluth at Benchmark Tattoo & Gallery. He went down there in March and thought the STAR would be the next perfect project.
"My interest here is preserving the history of commercial fishing on the North Shore," von Goertz said. "Some of these boats are rotting away and he gets the offsets and makes the half models before they are totally gone, and the history of the boat lives on."
Von Goertz said he was really impressed by the quality of Couch's work.
"The fact that he's helping to restore or continue the appreciation of commercial fishing, it's helping to restore some of the heritage of our history."
Von Goertz is trying to preserve history by restoring the STAR with the help of friends. One of those friends is Larry Ronning. Ronning is also a boat builder and has a boat business just north of Two Harbors. He's even built a Mackinaw boat from a half-hull model, which took 600 hours to build.
"I'm able to get the absolute exact shape of what this boat is going to have for the stem, or bow, by using my drawing," Ronning said. "It's just an example of what offsets do for you."
Ronning said from the offsets he gets off the half-hull model, he can make a two-dimensional drawing with three dimensions.
"There's a lot of stuff you have to do," Ronning said. "It's really a complicated process to build a boat and even more so when you just have the half model."
Couch has made half-hull models of three North Shore boats, and the STAR will be No. 4.
"I'm compiling a collection right now. I'm going to quit my boat-building shop very soon and am going to have a studio and this is all I'm going to be doing," Couch said. "Right now this is just kind of a part-time hobby thing I'm doing."
Couch said people like von Goertz purchasing the half hulls have given him motivation and some financial wherewithal to make his hobby his work.
"When you're building boats you're swinging hammers, and forget doing that when you're in your mid-60s."