Dick Wagner, Founder of the Center for Wooden Boats

I had the honor of meeting Dick Wagner a couple years ago. He died last Thursday, but The Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) which he founded will carry on indefinitely into the future doing exactly what he valued, getting people out on the water.

I never availed myself of the opportunity to interview him. Fortunately many others have. Here is the obit in The Seattle Times.

His priority was getting people onto the water. His approach was simplify the process. And he broke down the usual barriers. There were no intimidating “Members Only” signs, no big hoops to jump through to just take out a boat for a sail. Or row. The CWB still gives people free rides!

Moreover, he built a community. It became a hub of life for many people. They’d volunteer their time, learn to work the wood in their hands and breathe life back into beautiful old boats that someone – or sometimes everyone – had given up on.

Apparently he could be “brusque” on the docks and not always warm and fuzzy, but he did a great thing for boating in the Northwest.

And while CWB’s scope expanded more than Wagner could have possibly imagined when he started it all, the sense is that they will continue seeing their role on the waterfront as Wagner envisioned, to simply get people on the water. The boats and facilities needn’t be perfect. And needn’t maximize the bottom line. What is needed, I think he would argue, is to get people on the water.

I sure hope his vision continues.

The naval architect Bob Perry wrote of his contact with Wagner on Sailing Anarchy, which provides great insight, and he allowed me to share it here along with a drawing he did for Wagner in 1969:

My old friend and giant in the PNW world of wooden boats, Dick Wagner, died on Thursday at his houseboat on Lake Union.

I met Dick in about 1970 when I was playing in the band and I ran across his boat rental business on Lake Union. I was a very frequent renter and one day Dick said, ‘This is very expensive for you. How would you like to exchange working on the boats for use of the boats?” I jumped at it and we became friends. In time I rented the houseboat next to Dick’s and from time to time I’d watch the rental business when Dick went out of town. I cruised Dick’s 42’ schooner SINBAD.

I won’t even try to document what Dick did for the wooden boat scene in Seattle.  Safe to say he singlehandedly established The Center For Wooden Boats on Lake Union. If not single handed, damn near.

He was really a nice guy, intense with a fiery temper and no time at all for idiots. Dick encouraged my youthful yacht design efforts when others were laughing at me. He gave me little design jobs that looking back I think he gave me to help my confidence along.

Dick was the only person I ever knew who pronounced “block and tackle” as “block and taykle” the way the old timers reportedly said it.

Dick was a very skilled architect but his heart was in the wooden boat scene.

A funny image I have of Dick is when some non sailor would rent a boat. They would have to sail it out of the narrow area between the houseboats off Westlake. Typically this would not go well and Dick would chase them down the dock screaming at them until they were out of ear shot. I think Dick may have gotten more rental money when the renters were too afraid to sail back to the dock.

R.I.P. Dick in a nice old wooden boat that never needs upkeep.


Here’s a video piece with Wagner explaining the thinking behind the CWB and its beginnings.

Here’s the message from The Center for Wooden Boats’ web site.


The Center for Wooden Boats’ navigator and true north, Founding Director Dick Wagner, passed away at home with his family on Thursday, April 20th.  His was a life well lived.

Dick was one of a kind.  A man of uncommon perseverance, he believed profoundly in the power of people.  He helped us imagine the unimaginable, inspiring us to whole-heartedly join the effort to create something brand new.  A graduate of Columbia and Yale, he was trained as an architect and thought like an urban planner.  Some people change skylines. Dick changed Seattle’s waterline.  He showed us how to bring to life a stark shoreline by providing public access to the water.  He showed us that a living museum could have mostly moving parts, and that everyone could be engaged in learning by doing.  The goal was always to get a tool, an oar, a tiller, or a mainsheet in someone’s hand, so they could feel the wood, the water, or the wind as they discovered with amazement what they could do.  That was learning, that was growing, that was living.

Passing skills from one generation to the next, we were preserving the maritime heritage that is integral to human history in the Pacific Northwest.  Dick believed in boats without barriers, serving our community across cultural and economic boundaries.

With a track record of public benefit and creative vision, Dick positioned CWB as a leader in the maritime heritage community.  He profoundly influenced the evolution of Lake Union Park and the urban neighborhood at South Lake Union.  Turn the clock back more than 30 years to CWB’s first days in South Lake Union.  Scan the shoreline from Kenmore Air to Foss Maritime, and it would be unrecognizable but for the cedar-shingled boatshop ably performing every function a fledgling hands-on museum might need.  Today, that boatshop is joined by another floating building and a new one on shore, all monuments to the enduring value of Dick’s vision.  What Dick and his wife, Colleen, started in their home so many years ago has grown into a Seattle treasure and national destination, and the new building is fittingly named the Dick and Colleen Wagner Education Center.  Years later, the State of Washington approached Dick to extend his vision and create The Center for Wooden Boats at Cama Beach State Park on Camano Island.  Still later, King County Metro partnered with CWB to activate a new site near Gas Works Park in North Lake Union.

As an unconventional community organizer and eloquent advocate for youth, Dick inspired a generation of community leaders.  He was committed to democratizing the world of sailing and using wooden boats as a force for good.  He believed CWB should serve all members of the community, especially the young and those with special needs.  He was most proud of our programs that serve homeless youth and people with physical challenges.  He considered our free Sunday Public Sails a critical community service.  There were so many important stories to tell, and a diverse collection of boats helped us tell those stories.

Dick was famously serious about the most efficient way to sail boats with traditional rigs, and if you were smart, you would heed his advice.  His intensity was matched by his impish sense of humor.  A gifted writer, he delighted in unusual metaphors, sometimes nautical, sometimes celestial, sometimes structural in nature.  As an architect and planner, he effortlessly produced surprising and inventive – even fanciful – solutions to old problems and answers to questions that no one else was asking.  Upon hearing a well-told tale or witty remark, Dick’s eyes would sparkle, his whole face would crinkle with a wide grin, and a staccato giggle would burst forth.  He was never without a pen and paper, or a napkin in a pinch, because the ideas were constantly flowing, the to-do lists were without end, and the boat sketches practically drew themselves.   A man of refined tastes, he used to keep a bottle of good scotch in his desk drawer and occasionally raise a glass at day’s end with treasured friends, who were invariably devoted CWB donors and volunteers.

Dick dreamed on a grand scale but delivered results on a human scale.  He favored small boats that could be single-handed over large vessels.  He favored deep, rich educational experiences that change lives over hosting crowds for brief visits with little lasting impact.  He favored handwritten letters packed with personality and inspiration – and a Wagnerian doodle if you were lucky – over mass mailings generated by the miracles of technology.

Ever the expansive thinker, even in the early days, Dick could be heard to say, “Today Lake Union, tomorrow the world!”  He wanted CWB to have the widest impact possible and do the most good for the most people.  The community efforts that Dick helped bring to life from Oregon to Virginia to the Caribbean to St. Petersburg, Russia, seem to signal that tomorrow has arrived.  Dick has left Seattle and the world a better place.

At Dick’s request, there will be no services. CWB is planning several events to celebrate his life. Check our website and social media channels for upcoming details.

Kurt grew up racing and cruising in the Midwest, and has raced Lasers since the late 1970s. He has been Assistant Editor at Sailing Magazine and a short stint as Editor of Northwest Yachting. Through Meadow Point Publishing he handles various marketing duties for smaller local companies. He currently is partners on a C&C 36 which he cruises throughout the Northwest. He's married to the amazing Abby and is father to Ian and Gabe.

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