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Boat builder, musician, dancer dies

Renn Tolman, creator of classic Kachemak Bay boats, leaves large legacy

Posted: July 9, 2014 - 3:52pm
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Renn Tolman  Photo provided
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Renn Tolman

Throw a monkeyfist-knotted rope in the Homer Harbor, and odds are you’ll hit a Tolman skiff. From its versions as open skiffs to stout cabin cruisers, the classic Kachemak Bay boats can be seen not only in Homer, but up and down the Alaska and Pacific coasts and even as far away as  Norway and Australia. 

Renn Tolman, 80, the designer and builder of the Tolman line of boats, died Saturday afternoon, July 5, 2014, at his Kachemak Drive beachfront home. Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008, Tolman continued a life of adventure, music and dancing, dying peacefully at home with family and friends present.

Born Feb. 23, 1934, in Keene, N.H., to Newt and Janet Tolman, Tolman came from a musical family. He and his family lived on a four-season resort, Tolman Pond, they ran in Nelson, N.H., considered the capital of New England contra dance culture. In Homer, while Tolman skiffs have earned him a legacy as a master boatwright, his influence also extends into Homer’s contra dance and music culture. Tolman’s dad was a musician and his mother a dance caller.

In 1989 with the late Sally Kabisch, Tom Kizzia, Willy Dunne and Mary Griswold, Tolman founded Rather Be Dancin’, a group that shook the house at monthly contra dances and especially at the annual New Year’s Eve dances held in Tolman’s boatshed. Tolman played flute and pennywhistle.

“He made us all feel really legitimate because of his ties to New England,” said Kizzia, who played piano in the group. “We felt like we had a taproot into the real thing because of him.”

Tolman went to prep school at Vermont Academy, but got expelled “for not doing my studies, getting drunk and raising hell,” he told the Homer News in 1991. He flunked out of the University of New Hampshire and then joined the U.S. Army in 1953. He was an intelligence unit radio operator and in the Army Ski Patrol.

He tried college again, and in 1959 he graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a bachelor of arts in history. After college he did graduate work at Harvard University and taught at a private school. He went west in 1963, working as a tutor at a dude ranch, a miner and a carpenter. 

An avid outdoorsman and skier since childhood, he was a pioneer ski patrolman in Aspen, Colo., and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

In 1970 he moved to Alaska, settling in Homer. He worked as a carpenter before eventually becoming a boat builder and designer. In 1974 he built his first boat, a 27-foot St. Pierre dory. With Griswold, he built the 34-foot Pennywhistle in 1983. 

Tolman eventually realized that if he wanted the perfect boat, he’d have to design and build it himself. He has developed four versions of the Tolman boat, a dory-style, V-bottom boat that can be built by amateur carpenters.

The Tolman is made with marine plywood, fiberglass epoxy resin and the “stitch-and-glue” method, where panels are held together with wires. Sealed chambers in the bottom give it floatation. They’re so tough that when one drunk mariner ran a Tolman skiff into the Green Can, the buoy off the Homer Spit, even though its bow was smashed, the skiff stayed afloat. 

Tolman himself built at least 100 Tolman skiffs. One of the last skiffs he built was with his cousin, Colin Tolman, in 2011. Tolman wrote two books, “A Skiff for All Seasons” and the revised “Tolman Alaskan Skiff,” and from them fans of the boat have built thousands more of the Tolman skiff. 

Shortly before he died, Tolman had designed a fourth version, the 26-foot Tolman Trawler, Dunne, his bandmate, said.

Dunne has owned two Tolman skiffs. People didn’t just buy a boat from Tolman, though. He knew every boat he had ever built.

“You bought not only the skiff, you got a history lesson from Renn,” Dunne said. “You got lessons in seamanship and good places to take the skiff. It was more than just buying a skiff. It was developing a relationship with him.”

A ubiquitous boat builder at the annual Kachemak Bay Wooden Boat Society show, Tolman held court from a Tolman boat he’d taken across Cook Inlet. He’d tell stories like the time on a Kodiak hunting trip a grizzly bear swam out to his boat and snatched a deer from the stern. 

Later in life, Tolman took up Cape Breton style step dancing, practicing daily for a lunch break. After being diagnosed with cancer, Tolman told the Homer News in 2011 he looked to exercise and dancing as part of his treatment.

“So dancing is all part of exercise, and lots of times. if you don’t feel too well, the music and the dance get you going,” he said. “When you dance you kind of forget what’s ailing you.”

Dunne said Tolman would start every morning playing the pennywhistle and flute. Tolman told the Homer News that the annual New Year’s Eve boathouse dance started with a house party, where he brought friends and musicians from New Hampshire to Homer, including cousin Harvey Tolman, Colin’s father, a Cape Breton style fiddler, and composer and piano player Bob McQuillan. Through his New England and Canadian connections, he brought a steady stream of musicians to Alaska.

“Renn was just a museum of old traditional tunes,” Dunne said.

“He had this sort of encyclopedic knowledge of the form,” Kizzia said. “Whenever we were inspired to live up to his high expectations, we were much better.”

A celebration of Tolman’s life will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday, July 12, at his boat shop on Kachemak Drive. A later service will be held in Nelson, N.H., in the fall.

Tolman was preceded in death by his parents, Newt and Janet Tolman and Beth Barrell; and a sister, Sarah Barrell. He is survived by his late-in-life love, Betsy Street of Nelson; his former partner of many years, Mary Griswold; a sister, Elizabeth Skinner of Mohawk, N.Y.; and, among other relatives, cousins Barry Tolman of Nelson, N.H.; Mary Robinson Shonk of Dublin, N.H.; Susan Woodward Springer, formerly of Seldovia; and Colin Tolman of Homer. 

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