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Boats, boats, boats: One man’s passion helps preserve history

The STAR was rescued from rotting away and brought back to Knife River by Paul von Goertz to be restored. (News-Chronicle photo by Adelle Whitefoot)1 / 4
Larry Ronning explains how the numbers above can be used to build a boat from scratch. (News-Chronicle photo by Adelle Whitefoot)2 / 4
Artist and boat builder Garry Couch takes measurements, or offsets, of the STAR. The offsets will be used to make a half-hull model as well as architectural drawings of the STAR. (News-Chronicle photo by Adelle Whitefoot)3 / 4
Paul von Goertz holds a half-hull model of the Nor Shore that was created by Garry Couch. Once a half-hull model is made of the STAR, Von Goertz will exchange the Nor Shore for it. (News-Chronicle photo by Adelle Whitefoot)4 / 4

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."

Adelle Whitefoot

Adelle Whitefoot is a Michigan native who moved to Minnesota in Sept. 2014 when she started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle. She graduated from Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich., in 2012 with a bachelor's in English writing and has been a professional photographer since 2011. Whitefoot is the night general assignments reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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