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Ross Sommers: His Own Man

By Steefenie Wicks

During my interview with Ross Sommers I asked him, “ What’s it like to have your father considered, the ‘King of the Sausalito Waterfront?’ As the son do you find that hard to live up to?”    Ross laughed and said, “No, I don’t even come close to that, my dad was all about the sea and me, I’m about more than that.  I like to hunt, and have since I was 10 years old.  I have two brothers and two sons and I’m the only one that really took to the water.  But once I opened up my own shop, I got to work.  I think that’s what it’s all about, your own personal accomplishments.  And I have been lucky because I have been allowed to live my dream and that’s what I’m doing.”

Ross Sommers, the son of ship builder Harold Sommers, is the new face at the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center.  He is the new Yard Manager and his job is very close to what he does in his own Yard at Gate 3, the Richardson Bay Boat Works.

His talents are much like his dad’s; he believes if you aren’t ‘hands on’, then things can get nasty.  He goes on to say, ”With today’s pricing in boat yards you want to have a ‘hands on’ guy so that you can stay alert.”

Ross and his two younger brothers grew up in Oakland, his parents were divorced when he was 10, and at 12 he started to go sailing with Dad.  He began to come to Sausalito on the weekends and go sailing with his father aboard the ‘FREDA’, a vessel that he would later call home. He remembers sailing the ‘FREDA’ but says the best was the first sails aboard the ‘WANDERBIRD’ …  those were special times.

From the time he began sailing up until he was almost 30 he did a variety of jobs that had to do with either shipbuilding or delivery of yachts.   For 5 years he sailed with Bob Sloan aboard the vessel, ‘SPIKE AFRICA’ where he continued to perfect his sailing skills.  But it was the rebuilding of the ‘WANDERBIRD’ that served to teach him to become a skilled marine worker.   “I consider myself a jack-of all- trades kind of guy, but mostly I do boat repair and have been doing so for the last 40 years on the Sausalito, waterfront.”

He goes on to say,” I was an ‘indentured servant’ on board the ‘WANDERBIRD’ and that’s how I learned boat building and boat repair.   My father would come by and see me sitting and say, ‘ while you are resting here’s a piece of sand paper -- that area needs some work’.   But there was a lot of community involvement with the ‘WANDERBIRD’, with guys like John Linderman Sr., he did a lot of the spar work and Ray Speck and his group from Gate 3 would come and over and pull the plywood off the deck.  You got to see ’hands on’ procedures by talented craftsmen, which is today a dying art.”

Other people would come by and volunteer their time working on some project that needed to be done on the ‘WANDERBIRD’.  During this time Ross lived on board the vessel in a small house-like structure that sat on the deck at the stern.   He says this was a time when people were not so rushed and they wanted to be part of a project that was considered special to the entire waterfront community.

‘There was the time my Dad received funds from I’m not sure who, but we ordered 3 units of Port Orford Cedar (from Oregon) in the rough.  A lot of people don’t know this but myself and a friend of mind rebuilt all of the bulwarks, the deck, the frames, the beams and the planks from the water line up. It took three and one half years, working everyday for 5 days a week while resting with a piece of sand paper in my hands.”

I asked Ross  whether he has seen any big changes since he has been working on the waterfront, and he pointed out that there are so many more restrictions than there used to be.  He explained that before you could do a few things that were easy for you like not having to lock up all the time.  For 15 years he   never locked up anything in his yard, but now he finds that something is stolen from the yard at least once or twice a year.  It gets a little depressing when you start to see that kind of change in a place that has always been considered ‘safe’.

Getting back to his new job at the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center, he says that he really likes the place because it’s like going to work in a big barn and he likes that feeling.   Having built his own home in San Anselmo, which has a barn, he feels at home at Spaulding.  He believes that the work that has been done on the ‘FREDA’ makes her a better-built vessel than when he sailed and lived on her.  Going to work each day seeing this classic that he learned to sail on, what he sees now is not only part of his past but the future of all of the new sailors who will walk her decks and pull her into the wind.   This is exciting.

Spaulding Center is hosting an Open House on Saturday, July 13 from 11 AM -3 PM.

Included are free guided boat rides with a Sausalito Historical Society Docent on board.  For information go to www.spauldingcenter.org or call (415) 332-3179.


Ross Sommers

Portrait by Steefenie Wicks






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