Story last updated at 2/24/2010 - 1:21 pm
WRANGELL - Rain, wind, sleet and snow-these characteristics of Southeast Alaska are often seen in a negative light. But not for Patrick Ellis. Weather keeps him in business.
Ellis owns and operates the Wrangell Boatshop, the only covered boat repair haulout in the region. He purchased the shop three years ago and moved with his family from Petersburg to run what he called his first "land business." Prior to the move, Ellis worked at sea as a commercial fisherman and at the shipyard in Petersburg. His experience in the marine industry began when he was 10 years old, sorting nuts and bolts at his father's shop.
Now, his son David, 11, is in charge of sorting bolts while Ellis and his crew repair boats that hail from all over Southeast. About 80 percent of the repairs are applied to fishing vessels from Petersburg.
"They've got a huge fleet and they are very maintenance conscious," Ellis said. "Most of those boats are doing four or five different fisheries, therefore they're always breaking something and always fixing something."
Work in the marine industry has long been a mainstay of Wrangell's economy, especially since the Alaska Pulp Corporation sawmill-once the town's largest employer-ceased operation in 1994.
"This town went through quite a slump when the mill closed down," Ellis said. "All of a sudden you've got a lot of people employed in the marine repair business. You've got to take it and run with it, and let everybody in Southeast know that Wrangell is a good place to bring your boat and a good place to get it worked on."
Ketchikan's vessels provide about 10 percent of Ellis' business and Juneau's about half that. The rest come from Wrangell and very few from Sitka, Ellis said.
Marshall Lind of Juneau has become one of Ellis' repeat customers over the last several years. Lind said he looks forward each year to traveling to Wrangell in his 49-foot Grand Banks Alaskan vessel, the Nookta, to have it serviced at Ellis' boatshop.
"I have had that boat for over 25 years and try to maintain it in top notch condition," Lind said. "Pat and his crew have helped us to be able to do that. He does good work, I trust him and I find that he's very honest and knows what he's doing. He's also been able to hire some good people to work with him. They take a personal interest in what they're doing. They show a definite interested in their customers' boats. They certainly do in ours."
ONE OF ITS KIND
The Boatshop consists of two covered repair haulouts separated by a structure that houses the tool workshop and office. The smaller covered area can house a vessel as long as 46 feet, and the larger side can take a vessel up to 65 feet in length and 50 feet from the bottom of the keel to the top of the mast. Ellis said he's happy to work on larger vessels, and he and his crew often employ the use of the Port of Wrangell's Travel Lift to do just that.
Working inside of a covered structure is the advantage that Ellis has over other repair businesses in the region.
The structure has changed hands a few times and has survived a fire since its original construction in 1928.
"It's been overhauled and modified a bit in the last 80 years," Ellis said. "So far as I know, this is the only covered (boatshop) that is still functional and has been continuously."
Zoning issues make it difficult for similar businesses to open their doors, with the noises and smells of tools and chemicals seen as a nuisance to neighbors in residential areas. For now, the Boatshop remains complaint-free.
"Wrangell is pretty cool in that they know that this is what this beachfront area is for and they're perfectly fine with that," Ellis said. "They're not interested in views. They're interested in keeping their town alive and keeping the industry going. But in general, we don't make that much noise and we don't make that much stink. We contain ourselves pretty well."
Since Ellis has owned the business, his calendar has been full. He schedules repairs as far in advance as possible. His current schedule includes bookings through July and as far in advance as September.
The marine repair cycle is similar each year. Spring is typically thick with repairs to the fishing fleet, many of which arrive in a frenzy directly before fishing season begins.
"The first of April rolls around and they all wake up and go, 'I've got to go fishing tomorrow!'" Ellis said. "'All that stuff that I broke last summer and didn't bother to fix, I need to fix right now!'"
As summer gets underway and the fishing fleet is out to sea, the yachts arrive.
"In July we get the accidents, because yachts are forever running over rocks, hitting logs and twisting up their propellers," Ellis said.
By fall, Ellis and his crew launch into major repairs. This September they plan to embark on two paint jobs, one on a steel boat and one on a fiberglass boat. They'll also work on a wooden Ketchikan vessel, replacing about two dozen ribs and refastening its stern, among other repairs.
Ellis finds many aspects of his business rewarding, including the variety of day-to-day tasks. But he is most fulfilled in knowing that he's "doing something useful."
"If I can get a fishing boat up and running, I'm helping someone make a living," he said. "Depending on the boat, there may be five guys depending on it to get out there and fish to help their families. I like getting fishing boats back doing what they're supposed to be doing."
Ellis is confident that his business can sustain itself even if fisheries decline in the future.
"The amount of basic maintenance (fishers) do is probably never going to change," Ellis said. "What will change is the fancy stuff-the bling."
Ellis expects that other marine repairers will construct covered areas at the Travel Lift yard, but he doesn't see it as a threat to his business.
"To me, the whole point of competition is that it keeps you on your toes," he said. "If you're not good enough to survive without having a monopoly, then you shouldn't be there."
Libby Sterling may be reached at email@example.com.