• Renn Tolman remembered as craftsman, adventurer, musician and friend to many
By Carey Restino
In the final months of his life, Renn Tolman was busy. He was trying to get a new boat design on a computer program, and finish up an album of recorded music he and some friends had been working on for years. But there was another priority high on his list — attending a very important music recital.
Eight-year-old Slyvia Clemens was playing the violin, and 80-year-old Tolman was not going to miss it, said girlfriend Betsy Street.
That was the way it was with Renn, a man of many accomplishments, the greatest of which may have been his ability to forge connections with people of all ages, interests and walks of life despite a sometimes gruff exterior and an abundance of opinions.
“He really drew people out and engaged them in conversation,” Street said Monday, reflecting on the long life of the boat builder, musician and adventurer. “You just knew he was really interested in what they had to say.”
Tolman passed away peacefully Saturday, July 5 at home in his cabin next to the shop where he built more than 100 skiffs and inspired the construction of hundreds more around the world. He published a book detailing how to build the efficient and affordable Tolman skiff — a staple of the Kachemak Bay boating world. The book, and a later second edition, was intended to enable the average-skilled woodworker to build the dory-style vee-bottom boat using a stitch-and-glue construction process and simple, affordable materials.
Among those who built Tolman’s boats was Kyle Lints, 31, who built three of his boats. Tolman appreciated Lints’ boatbuilding skills and encouraged him to try his hand making a living as a boat builder. Lints said while he passed on that career for fishing, his admiration for Tolman was great.
“His approach to boat-building was like no other boat builders today,” Lints said Monday from Bristol Bay. “He still built a boat with eight-penny galvanized nails. He’s quite a legend.”
Doug VanPatten met Tolman in 1979 shortly after moving to Homer when he noticed a beautiful wooden dory on Kachemak Drive. When he saw it for sale he stopped in and introduced himself to Tolman and his former partner of 30 years, Mary Griswold. He soon bought the boat, selling an airplane to do so, and then another later when Tolman began building boats with Griswold a few years later. The early Tolman boats, however, were flat-bottomed skiffs, convenient for being able to let go dry in Kachemak Bay’s high tidal fluctuations, but a bit of a rough ride on the water.
“They were enough to jar your fillings out of your teeth,” VanPatten recalled.
On a trip to Kodiak, he noticed a vee-bottomed skiff and called Tolman to suggest he look at the design.
The reply was predictable for the salty boat-builder.
“Oh dammit, we don’t build skiffs like that,” Tolman retorted.
But within a year, Tolman had gone to Kodiak, looked at the skiff, and put together a prototype of the modern Tolman skiff. Tolman eventually expanded that design to include several larger-bodied skiffs with houses on them. In his final year, he worked on a new design, the Tolman Trawler, a 26-foot boat with room for four bunks or two bunks and a convertible dinette. Street said the boat was designed for long distance trips with a lower speed cruising and good economy. It is trailerable width and has a semi-displacement hull, meaning it partially gets on plane in the water and partially pushed through the water.
Tolman was born Feb. 23, 1934 in Keene, New Hampshire to a family with deep roots in New England. His early years were steeped in music and dancing that would later permeate his life. Tolman also showed an interest in adventure early on, skiing extensively both in New England and later when he joined the U.S. Army. He served in the Signal Corps in Europe, sending and receiving coded transmissions but was also known for his ski trips in the Alps, where he was regarded as one of the best skiers among his friends, Street said.
“There was an Army ski team and he competed for the Army, skiing all over the Alps,” Street said.
Tolman was also known early on for his intellect and insatiable quest for knowledge of all types.
He went on to graduate from University of New Hampshire in 1959 with a history degree, working at Harvard for a stint and then moving to the west coast in 1963. There he spent a decade pursuing a wide range of professions ranging from hard rock miner to dude ranch tutor, according to his family and friends.
While working as a ski patrol man, he was nicknamed “professor” because he was always reading history books.
But a desire to be able to hunt and fish his own food drew him to Alaska in 1970, where he soon settled in Kachemak Bay, working initially as a carpenter while exploring the region.
His lifestyle was simple and frugal, like his boatbuilding.
“There was elegance in his frugality,” said VanPatten. “He didn’t waste anything.”
Street noted that it was very difficult to put a date on photos of Tolman because he wore the same shirt for decades.
“He was really hard to buy presents for because his definition of worn out wasn’t like the average person’s,” Street said.
Tolman’s boat designs were built out of necessity – his – to create a design that would carry him most efficiently to the many locales he wanted to visit. An avid adventurer, he regularly traveled across the Cook Inlet to Augustine Island to camp and ski the slopes of the sometimes-active volcano.
An article that appeared in Alaska Magazine in 2012 profiling Tolman noted that his adventures took him around the Alaska Peninsula to Bristol Bay and Kodiak Islands, sometimes traveling for more than a month on his skiffs.
Dave Stutzer recalled a recent deer-hunting trip to Afognak Island where they ran into some rough weather coming back.
“We had a one-day window to come back on, and there were 6-foot seas,” Stutzer said. “There were several places in the crossing where the waves were so big you couldn’t see the horizon anymore, but I never felt worried, partly because of his skill and experience and partly because of the boat.”
Stutzer said in his later years, even before a colon cancer diagnosis in 2008, Tolman wanted to share the places he had found and come to love in the region with his friends.
“He’d say, ‘I like to take some of my friends out to these places, so when I’m gone, someone else can enjoy them,’” Stutzer said.
Tolman’s early years were heavily influenced by the New England folk dance style known as contra dance— a Celtic-influenced tradition that draws on dance styles from Europe. Along with that came a love of Celtic music, particularly music from Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, where he regularly traveled. His father played the flute, an instrument Tolman played early in his life. Later, he played the penny whistle and the guitar, until his hands became too gnarled from a life of hand-labor to work the strings. Tolman was avidly involved in a burgeoning folk-dance scene in Homer in the ‘80s, and a regular New Year’s Eve contra dance was held in his boat barn, open to all-comers, with musicians imported from New England and Cape Breton. He was a largely self-taught musician and dancer, practicing for hours each day in his later years.
Street said in recent years, he recorded an album of music titled “Roughly Cape Breton,” recorded in her New England home with musician friends.
“They would play until 2 or 3 a.m. and Renn would come to sleep for a few hours and get back up and start playing again,” she said. “Once he got playing music, he could go forever.”
Tolman also hosted a weekly dance group in his shop on Saturday mornings for years, practicing Cape Breton-style clogging. At his New Year’s Eve dance party, members of the group would enthrall the crowded room with a demonstration of the fast footwork.
Stutzer, also an avid dancer, said Tolman’s love of music and dance helped encourage the now-monthly dances held in Homer.
“He loved to play when there were people dancing,” Stutzer said. “The energy of the dances really enlivens the musicians.”
While Tolman’s accomplishments are notable, most reflecting on Tolman’s life this week said it was his friendship and passion that defined him as much as anything. His friends spanned the gamut, Street noted, as she watched the steady stream of visitors in his final weeks and days and realized many did not know each other.
“He had friends across all walks of life,” she said. “He collected them — he moved easily between fishermen, musicians, artists and writers.”
Like most who knew Tolman, however, VanPatten the connection went far beyond boat-building.
“We hunted together, fished together, partied together, danced together — it was the greatest privilege to be able to walk into his shop and listen to an adventure story with Renn,” VanPatten said.
Tolman’s cousin, Colin Tolman, said he was influenced early in life by the older Tolman during visits to Alaska that started when he was 10. He said while his cousin was gruff at times, he also had a heart of gold.
“As a kid, I got from him that there’s time to have fun and be in the great outdoors and there’s also time when it’s really necessary to get work done,” Colin Tolman said. “There wasn’t a lot of sitting around or being lazy. We were always doing something.”
Many people told Street they felt closer to Renn Tolman than to their own family, and while he was known for his adamant opinions, he also welcomed those who disagreed, many said, especially later in his life.
Lints recalled of his opinionated nature that it went beyond politics to the minutes detail, like a well-loved tool.
“He would tell me about a tool he used to cut fabric for fiberglass work, and he’d say ‘This is the best goddamn tool I’ve ever seen to cut fiberglass with,’” Lints said. “I found his gruffness entertaining, and he had such a rich sense of humor, too.”
Stutzer said of Tolman’s personality that while he certainly had strong opinions, he’d listen to those with an opposing opinion and if you had a good point, he’d acknowledge it. And while he was always a teacher, he wouldn’t tell you how to do something, but rather that this was how he did it, take it or leave it.
“Renn definitely had opinions, but he was open-minded, too,” he said.
As preparations are made to honor Tolman with a celebration of life, the many who knew Tolman said his life serves as an inspiration to them as one who truly embraced life fully and continued learning and sharing until his final days.
“You hear about people living life to the max,” VanPatten said. “He really did it.”
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