As I approached the massive hull made more ominous by being back-lit by the sun, the sounds of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” echo from the dark recesses of the ship. I got the chills. A young man—Jason Malsom—moved forward, framed by the colossus behind him, and greeted me with a warm smile. Despite his height, sculpted face and a sleeve of tattoos on each arm, he looked much like the round faced five-year old I met 25 years ago when I worked with his mother Michelle.
In January 2017, Jason bought Van Peer Boatworks and changed the name to Noyo Boatworks. He began building a 60- by 28-foot fishing vessel that will fish for black cod and halibut in waters along the west coast and Alaska.
As we walked around the boat’s impressive hull, we were serenaded by a symphony of classic rock mixed with the crackling of blow torches welding steel. I asked Jason how he became the owner of a highly respected 44-year old business.
“I went to work for Chris [Van Peer] in late 2012. I started out as a tacker—someone who fits the pieces of a boat so the welder can follow along and fuse them together. I was a quick learner and Chris trained me to do welding. Towards the end of 2016, he was ready to retire, but had this boat to build for Nick Jardstrom, a commercial fisherman. He asked if I’d build it.”
To me, this seems a tremendous undertaking. Jason shrugged and said in his humble way, “I needed to keep my job so I bought the business.” He smiled.
Jason graduated from Fort Bragg High School in 2005. He stayed in the area and worked a number of jobs—from a laborer for Rantala Heating to building logging roads for Stan Stornetta and part-time tattooing. “Before I went to work for Chris, I’d get up at 5:00, work until 3:00, then tattoo from 4:00 until 8:00. After a few years, I got tired of the long hours. A friend of mine worked for Chris and was planning to move to Ukiah. I always wanted to learn how to weld, so I contacted Chris. He signed me on and I liked the work immediately.” Between the end of 2012 and 2016, Jason helped build three commercial fishing boats.
I wondered how one builds a boat this enormous. “An architect in Seattle did the design,” Jason said. “After it was approved by the owner, it went to an engineering company in Oregon who cut the steel and sent to us. I’ll build the basic structure, do the plumbing and mount the engine. The wiring and finishing work will be done by someone else.”
Throughout the construction yard, thick pieces of steel are arranged by size. Jason takes the plans, much like a blue print to a house, starts with the keel (which runs the entire length of the bottom of the boat) and moves upwards. Each piece is welded into place.
Side pieces have to be cinched in to fit the curve of the deck. This is done by welding a metal “eye” to the inside of the piece and cranking it inward. I marveled at how hard it must be to bend such a massive amount of steel. Jason laughed. “It really doesn’t take much strength.”
For years, Van Peer Boatworks was located on the north side of Highway 20, under a huge canopy that still marks the spot. Whenever a boat was launched, crowds gathered to watch it painstakingly hauled down the steep slope of South Harbor Drive. In recent years, insurance liability issues caused Chris to move the boatyard to the base of the drive, which provides level ground for boat launches.
When I asked Jason why the canopy remains in the old yard on the highway, he said, “If we move it, we’ll violate the manufacturer’s warranty and we’d have to pay for any repairs. If the manufacturer moves it for us, it’ll cost several thousand dollars.” For now, the canopy stays put.
Although he loves what he’s doing, he feels some frustration over not having the time to take on side jobs. “Fishermen constantly ask if I can help with a boat repair and I hate turning them down. If someone wanted to start a mobile welding business, he could make a good living in this harbor.”
Jason has found a way to establish a career in the town of his birth by working hard and being a dedicated employee. By taking over this iconic business, he’s safeguarding the tradition of large boat building in a community that is anchored in the fishing industry. The sight of the gigantic steel structure being erected is enticing. Jason is amused that nearly every day people stop to watch and take pictures.
He hopes to finish this boat in August 2018, but thinks it’s more likely to be completed in October. “I could use another welder, but can’t find one.” He laments what a number of local employers express—how difficult it is to find people willing to work. “Chris taught me everything I know about welding and boat building. I could do the same for someone else.” He’s grateful to have one experienced welder in Daniel who was hired by Chris in 2015 and another whom he’s training.
I asked Jason how he handles the responsibility of this a multi-million dollar project. In his humble way, he said, “It requires patience.” He smiled before adding, “I take it a piece at a time.” He’s grateful that Chris remains available to him whenever he needs advice.
There isn’t another boat project waiting in the wings, but Jason’s not concerned. “There are only a handful of boat works on the West Coast and I’m one of them. I hope to be doing this for some time to come.
“The best thing about building this boat is watching it all come together. I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like when I see it tied up in the harbor and from there going to the wild waters of Alaska.”
Update: I visited Noyo Boatworks about a month ago. Jason sent a photo of what the boat looks like now: