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In the Margins: Bruce the boat whisperer keeps history afloat

Posted on May 17th, 2023 By: Chris Phillips

Ask those who have owned an old wooden boat, and it’s likely they will tell you a story involving family lore, lessons learned, and a few blissful moments on the water.

In the 1920s and ’30s, when the Skansie brothers were building commercial fishing boats in Gig Harbor, another pair of boatbuilding siblings — the Croswell Brothers —were working in a similarly small Canadian town known as Parry Sound, Ontario. Both towns were hearty, self-made communities, each relying on timber commerce, ferry boats, and nearby railroad terminals.

In 1934, my grandfather, who spent a lifetime of summers messing about in boats near Parry Sound, purchased a long-nosed 22-foot launch from the Croswell Brothers. He named her “Miss Buzz” in recognition of his eldest daughter’s propensity for conversation.

During four generations and nearly 90 years of nautical tinkering, we have kept Miss Buzz afloat. In 2016, we shipped her cross-country from Parry Sound for some more rehab. At Gig Harbor Marina, lift operator Mark Rybin delicately unloaded her from a flatbed truck in the same historic boatyard where the Skansie brothers built their legendary purse seiners — iconic local vessels such at Oceanic, Avalon and Shenandoah.

Suddenly the burden of owning an antique wooden boat hit me like a 25-pound anchor landing on my worn Topsiders. I needed help, but neither the Croswells nor the Skansie brothers were getting my panicky text messages.

Take it to Bruce

Fortunately, 40 years ago, Gig Harbor native Bruce Bronson quit his auto mechanic’s job at the local Dick Boyles Chevy dealer. Bruce traded in his GM wrenches to pursue custom restoration of wooden boats.

Bruce Bronson works to restore a hydroplane from the 1940s.

His father, co-owner at Hollywood Boats in Tacoma, was building mahogany plywood outboards. He was skeptical, but he knew his son needed to pursue his passion, naïve or not.

Bruce donned his trademark blue coveralls and took the plunge, buying his first fixer-upper in 1984. Ever since, he has been quietly working in the same shop — and perhaps the same coveralls — to rehabilitate countless aging heirlooms.

From a cluttered man cave in the back end of a nondescript industrial building, Bruce breathes new life into aging pleasure boats from another era.  Much like the boats he resuscitates, he is one of a kind.

I desperately hauled Miss Buzz over to Bruce’s shop for a deck makeover and an engine swap. Once I stepped into his shop and engaged him in storytelling, I nearly forgot about the task at hand.

Miss Buzz, a family obsession for generations.

Nautical time capsule

Visiting his workplace is like peering into a hidden attic of nautical relics — a legacy time machine that stopped at 1960. Welcome to Bruce’s cathedral of sawdust, wood clamps, and varnish. If you listen carefully, the souls of aging wooden boats speak to you, each boasting about their glory years on the waters of Puget Sound or Lake Chelan.

Even the vintage refrigerator in the back corner has been humming along since 1950, although some of the contents probably should be tossed. History is not so kind to aging tuna sandwiches.

Bruce takes calls from customers on, what else, but an old-school wall phone.

Name any wooden pleasure boat from the first half of the 20th century, and chances are Bruce has restored it. His favorites are 20-foot Chris Craft Custom mahogany runabouts — speedy, small enough to trailer, and large enough to host a happy family.

His toughest projects have involved Fairliner Torpedos from the ’40s because their curvaceous hulls are shaped like, well, sleek torpedos. This month he’s reincarnating a 1948 hydroplane that looks like a mahogany spaceship that should probably come with a chiropractic care plan for its next pilot.

Apart from the business of born-again boats, Bruce has been known to delve into two other passions – coastal surfing and vintage cars. On weekends, he often shifted his energy into surfing at Westport or building customized hot rods alongside his boat projects. Basically, his life has resembled a Beach Boys album cover.

He started surfing at Westport in 1977 when the Pacific beach crowd consisted of five die-hard dudes seeking the “coolest” wave. Whatever the dream, Bruce seems to jump in with both feet and learn as he goes.

The Ford Falcon

When it comes to old cars, his white whale was a 1963 Ford Falcon convertible. The car was sold new to Gig Harbor physician Charles Bogue back when the doc was married to Ruth Bogue, a warm-hearted community leader who went on to become a two-term mayor of our fair town during 1978-85. As a kid, Bruce lusted after the pearl-colored Falcon and saw it pass through several local owners until someone with a heavy foot blew the car’s engine in the early ’70s.

A timeless collection of tools, some of which Bruce inherited from his father’s boatbuilding business.

In his youth, Bruce got a job picking apples in Wenatchee until he earned $75 cash and was able to buy an imported bicycle. Then he talked a friend into trading the fancy bike for Dr. Bogue’s broken-down Falcon.

He installed a fresh engine and drove the car for several years before passing it along to another friend in 1976. The car eventually disappeared, but he never stopped looking for it.

Some 25 years later, he got word from a friend that a Port of Tacoma longshoreman was collecting old Ford Falcons in a Puyallup garage. As luck would have it, one of the cars had a seat sewn up with fishing line and an original license plate stashed in the trunk. Bruce had found his white whale. With some friendly nagging of the owner, he bought the car (again), fixed it up, and never let it go. It’s still tucked away in his shop, not far from the antique Frigidaire.

‘Do good work’

With that same persistence and passion, Bruce, now 70, has a carved out a rewarding life and a remarkable vocation by breathing new life into our old relics. Never mind a business model — he relies on analog tools inherited from his father and a keen appreciation of people and their special treasures. He has a love for his craft, relentless energy, and deep respect for the artifacts of our maritime and automotive past.

“If you do good work and treat people like you would want to be treated, you’ll be busy for the rest of your life,” said Bruce.

Jim Giesy, 88, is a local boat lover and a self-described perfectionist when it comes to vintage runabouts. Ask him about Bruce and he talks more about the man than the boats.

“He’s a first-class person. I never met a more honest and sincere individual in my life,” said Giesy, who had Bruce refurbish two pristine 1950s boats for his summer place on nearby Mason Lake.

So, if you’re dreaming about old wooden boats, you might want to visit Bruce’s boatbuilding cathedral, or stop in at Gig Harbor’s Eddon Boat Park to see how many splinters your hands can withstand. You can reach Bruce on that old-school phone at (253) 851-5763.

You’ll create some of your own family lore, lessons learned, and perhaps a few blissful moments on the water. Otherwise, come by my garage with your coveralls and some 80-grit sandpaper. Miss Buzz always needs another coat of varnish.


Christopher Phillips, a Gig Harbor community member since 1981 and former managing editor of The Peninsula Gateway, is a retired journalist and communications executive who worked for Russell Investments, the Port of Tacoma, and the Washington State Investment Board. His column, In the Margins, explores our community’s people, places and experiences, some of which might not otherwise come to our attention. Suggestions are welcome at [email protected].