46-ft WILD GOOSE
An old-fashioned cutter with distinguished lines;
single-handed by her owner, Rupert Broom.
Every day rain or shine from Bainbridge Island,
through the locks to Seattle and return.
Original photo from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©
From such an ignominious beginning came one of the great sailing legends of our time.
Every day for nearly 50 years, Broom commuted from his Port Madison home on Bainbridge Island to Seattle aboard his boat, the most recent being his 46-ft cutter WILD GOOSE. At six am each morning, in rain or snow, whether sunny or foggy, Broom dinghied out to his boat to begin his daily sail to work. Every day for nearly 50 years, the sailmaker and rigger made the single-handed journey through the Ballard Locks to reach his shop, George Broom's Sons, located just on the fresh water side of the Locks on the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Each evening he locked through again to make his way back to Port Madison.
Broom's nonchalance to commuting by boat and the Locks started early in life. As a two-year old babe, he traveled through the Locks with his parents, on the first official boat on the first official opening, 4 July 1917. Shortly after, Broom's father, Thompson George Broom, moved the family to Bainbridge Island and started the family tradition of traveling each day by boat to his sail loft on the Seattle waterfront.
"Rupert grew up with the idea that the only way to get from Bainbridge Island to the mainland is on our own boat, said Bob Campion, a friend and long-time employee of the younger Broom.
In 1992 when the Army Corps of Engineers celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, it honored Broom by presenting him with an award as its best, and probably most frequent, customer. He had become such a fixture at the Locks that one Lock attendant said, "he was like the furniture here."
In some ways it's unfortunate that the legend of Rupert Broom's daily sojourns through the Locks became the focus of the man, a personality quirk in an astonishing life devoted to nautical endeavors. It simplified and overshadowed the life of a true mariner, an experienced sailor, an expert sailmaker and rigger who spent his lifetime on and around the waterfront.
"He loved to sail––it was born in him," said Campion.
Broom gave freely of his knowledge to young people who wanted to sail, and shared with anyone interested, his passion for maritime history. Over the years, he became an expert on the Northwest golden era of tall ships, a period of time he was fortunate enough to experience first hand.
"The sail loft was a center of activity, and Rupert was the focal point of Seattle maritime culture," said Doug Fryer, who once worked in the sail loft for a few years in the 1950s. "A lot of the skippers and captains would stop in during coffee hour and tell stories. Rupert was a source of a lot of local maritime history, that he, of course, never wrote down."
Now it is too late to glean nearly a century of nautical lore and the decades of sailing wisdom from a Seattle legend.
It's the passing of men like Broom that truly signals the end to the era of sail in the Pacific Northwest. Few men remain who knew first-hand the time when the masts of sailing ships dominated the city skyline, when square-rigged schooners and barks and brigantines lined the harbors of Puget Sound.
But it was on such ships and in a time when they crowded the waterfront of Elliott Bay that Broom learned his trade of sailmaking and rigging Seattle's growing eminence as a trading center created a bustling port with nearly every kind of ship imaginable. While steam ships had been in Puget Sound for years and the Mosquito Fleet was already well established, large sailing ships still dominated long-distance commerce, plying the oceans of the world with their cargo of Northwest lumber and goods under miles of billowing white canvas.
Like many sons of his generation, Broom followed the career path of his father, George, a sailmaker and rigger who in 1910 took the experience gained from a couple of decades of working in some of Seattle's earliest sail lofts to establish his own business on the waterfront at Pier 8. George Broom's business took off during World War I when the navy contracted with him to rig 25 five-masted Diesel auxiliary schooners. The Broom ship rigging business flourished.
Schooner C. S. HOLMES
Original photo from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©Just out of high school in 1933, young Rupert heeded the urging of his father and sailed to Point Barrow, AK, north of the Arctic Circle, as a crew member on the four-masted schooner, C. S. HOLMES. Later, he signed on as crew on the PENNSYLVANIAN, a freighter making the run down the West Cost, through the Panama anal and up the East Coast to Boston.
Following the death of his father in 1935, Rupert and his brother Grenville took over the sailmaking and rigging business at Pier 59. Not long after Grenville's death in 1944, Rupert moved the shop inside the Ballard Locks, and began his daily ritual of locking through to work. As the age of sail gave way to Diesel engines, Broom's business shifted from sail canvas to cables, shrouds, chaffing gear, trawl wire, and machinery covers.
While Broom purposely avoided working on yachts, preferring to rig and sew for the commercial fleet, his influence and respect among the yachting community was just as profound. He was the sailing mentor for a generation of young men.
Many of them spent time working in the sail loft, sharing the weekdays learning about chaffing gear, rigging and canvas.
Captured by James A. Turner, Seattle.
Only photograph of this vessel in the archives of
the S. P. H. S.©
One of many local sailors who learned to handle a boat under the tutelage of Broom was Doug Fryer. While still a teenager, he first sailed with Broom, later worked in the loft and remained friends with the man throughout his life.
"The guy loved to sail, Fryer said. He taught me a lot. I spent my formative years sailing with him. He taught me how to take a cruise to the San Juan Islands in a weekend. Many people still don't know how to do it. If you pick your tides, you get there Saturday about noon, and you leave Sunday. Maybe you can get a couple of great sails across the Straits en route.
"Rupert loved to go out and sail in tough weather," Fryer added. "Which was pretty exciting for me. If the glass was going down and a big front was coming in on a Friday night, I would go sailing with Rupert. And the winter was more fun that the summer because the wind blew harder. It was a tremendous opportunity for me because there weren't many guys around sailing on a regular basis both winter and summer who wanted to take a young kid sailing."
Fryer remembers his early years of sailing with Broom with fondness, but even more clear is his affection for the man. "Rupert was full of life and just fun to be around. He enjoyed life, all aspects of it. He loved his work, he was a good cook, he was an adventurer. There was always something going on, fishing, clamming, oyster digging. He always had a sense of humor."
The sail loft, George Broom's Sons, remains open and in the family, managed now by Broom's nephew, George Broom and his wife Sharon. A century creates a lot of momentum, though the couple admits that it won't be easy to maintain the family business and its reputation.
"He never advertised, never did any marketing," Sharon Broom said. "He didn't have to, Rupert knew everyone on the waterfront and they knew him."
"People always came to Rupert for work," added George. "He wouldn't lie to you, and he wouldn't let something leave the shop if it wasn't right."
|Sail loft at Pier 8 on the Seattle waterfront;|
established by George Broom. Operated at this time
by his sons Grenville and Rupert Broom,
Original photo from the archives of S.P.H.S. dated 1943.
The steady clack, clack, clack of one of five large, commercial sewing machines is the only sound coming from the loft. As he has done for decades, sailmaker Andy Mills is sitting at the machine, working the foot pedal to make a straight, even seam in a long, blue tarp.
The walls of the loft and the small back office are lined with old black-and-white photos of every kid of ship imaginable––square-rigged schooners and brigantines, sloops and ketches, freighters, fishing boats and tugs. Most of these boats have a personal connection with Broom. He either worked on them, outfitted them or owned them. The photos represent much of the nautical history of the Pacific Northwest and span the era when Seattle and the region flourished and grew, in large part, because of its great shipping fleet.
Bits and pieces of that maritime history survive in the next generation of sailmakers and riggers, sailors and old salts, in people like Doug Fryer and George Broom. But one more thread that held them all together and wove them into the tapestry of our own past has been broken. There are precious few men left like Rupert Broom who have seen the tapestry and who helped weave its design.
Text by Jeffrey D. Briggs for 48º North, August 1994
Rupert Broom, ago 78, passed away 5 April 1994, working almost up to the day he died.