More than three decades ago, when guys like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were building technology companies that would change the world, another Ivy League educated geek moved to Port Townsend and pioneered a very different technology – wooden kayaks.
Like Gates and Jobs, John Lockwood was on the front edge of change, but his passions lay in the North Pacific and in the sleek, super-efficient boats that had been exploring these rugged shores for thousands of years.
The result was Pygmy Boats – a tiny Port Townsend boatshop that for 33 years has been designing and shipping do-it-yourself kayak kits to the Pacific Northwest and around the world.
Pygmy didn’t make Lockwood a billionaire. But his enterprise helped transform Port Townsend from a sleepy milltown into a Northwest destination defined in part by the quintessential image of an aging, oxidized Subaru with a honey-hued, wooden Pygmy kayak lashed to the top.
And now, at least for the moment, Pygmy is finished. In a brief Facebook posting last weekend, Lockwood said the company is going into “hibernation” this week. At age 77, he wants to retire. Negotiations with potential buyers ended with the Covid pandemic. So the showroom at Point Hudson is closed, and Pygmy’s skeleton crew has stopped producing kits.
In his posting, Lockwood wrote “I’m proud I have designed boats that could take me and you off the end of the road and into the peace of wild places.”
So that’s that for Pygmy.
Or not. Lockwood leaves open the possibility of re-opening in the future. But, even if Pygmy disappears, thousands of boats he designed and marketed, built by weekenders in garages or backyards around the world, will be around for years to come.
Lockwood’s passion was born 50 years ago, in 1970, when he hauled a collapsible Klepper kayak up to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and floated 900 miles down the Yukon River.
He was hooked, entranced by an ancient boat devised centuries ago by Northwest natives who carved canoes from cedar logs, or by northern Aleuts and Eskimos who assembled kayaks with sealskins on wooden frames. Over the next few years, Lockwood worked the winters writing corporate software, and the summers paddling his Klepper up and down the Northwest coast, camping in a hand-made teepee and living off fish, mussels and clams.
In 1986, Lockwood quit his job and concentrated on his first love, cutting a computer-designed, ultra-light boat kit which he called the Queen Charlotte. That boat gave birth to Pygmy, named for the peaceful Mbuti, or “Pygmy”, people of the African rain forest that he had studied in anthropology classes.
His timing was excellent. Puget Sound had become the epicenter of a kayaking craze, producing fiberglass boats that had become part of the regional landscape. In time, kayaking spread across the nation and around the world.
Fiberglass boats, however, were expensive and heavy. Lockwood’s kits, once assembled, were cheaper, lighter, and flat-out gorgeous. Year by year, Pygmy produced more models that proved to be sleeker, lighter, faster. Most took their names from Northwest seabirds – the Osprey, Murrelet, Artic Tern.
The kits, which most recently sold for about $1200 plus shipping, arrive in a long cardboard box containing dozens of precut plywood panels, fiberglass cloth, epoxy, hardware and several pages of intricate instructions. Assembly consists of drilling holes at the edges of the panels, piecing them together with wire or plastic ties and stiffening the joints with fiberglass cloth and epoxy.
Sounds simple enough. Experienced woodworkers might put it all together in a couple of weeks, but amateurs spend months, working weekends and calling Pygmy now and then for advice.
And no doubt many kits remain boxed or partially constructed, stowed in the garage rafters.
But persistent first-time builders can, with a little help from Youtube videos, end up with a splendid boat weighing some 40 pounds and capable of sliding almost effortlessly across Northwest waters.
Fans of Pygmy Boats, a Facebook group with some 900 contributors, is loaded with advice and tributes to Lockwood and his three decades trying to improve on his designs. “I’ve built three and I’m just getting started,” writes one builder. “Family and friends are clamoring for their own beautiful kayak.”
But clamor may not be enough to resurrect Pygmy Boats. One alternative is Chesapeake Light Craft (www.clcboats.com) of Annapolis which has displayed its boats-from-kits alongside Pygmy’s at the annual Wooden Boat Festival. CLC reportedly expressed some interest in buying Pygmy until the pandemic intervened.
But now Lockwood is going home, leaving his lovely wooden kayaks to ply Northwest seas, or traverse the streets of Port Townsend atop those Subaru roof racks.
Photo © by Joel Rogers
Hello Glenn Naylor here. I think it was 73 when I meet John he was living with Lynn in her house on hippie hill. Anyway lots of history. If any you know John personally please tell him that Glenn Naylor is still alive and doing well. I live in Prince Rupert and I would love to talk, ask the publishers for my cell phone. .
If John is no longer with us it would be nice to know. Thanks!
I had the pleasure of becoming one of Pygmy boats full time builders, in the 12 years I built over 4 dozen of these beautiful well designed kayaks,I’ll always be thankful it was a very rewarding experience. Hopefully Pygmy will be able to open in the future to keep this NW icon going for years to come. Thanks to John for following his dream and opening this one of a kind company.
We learned about Pygmy decades ago on one of our annual camping trips to Ft Flagler across the bay from from Pt Townsend. Being a woodworker, I fell in love with the beauty of the wood and the lines. They paddle very nicely and have hauled us around various adventures. I have 3 Artic Terns and a 4th still in the box to be built. Hoping to visit this trip, found them to be closed. Hats off to John and his crew for their passion and support. I hope Pygmy gets new lease on life but understand John’s desire to enjoy life while still able.
Very sad news. Built and have used and abused a wineglass wherry in 2005. Lives at the beach and needs some love so checked the site to maybe get a tip or two and saw the news. Thanks John and good luck!
There web site is still up and reads: “UPDATE: Our Showroom is CLOSED. Kit production has been temporarily suspended. If you are interested in a boat kit you may place an order via our website. We will not charge your credit card until production has resumed and we have confirmed you would still like the kit at that time. By placing an order before then your order will be put in the queue for when production resumes.”
Obviously, this is indefinite and could mean almost anything, but at least they haven’t officially closed. Maybe and hopefully if John still wants retire they’ll find a buyer.
I just hauled my Arctic Tern down from the rafters after a winter of COVID. It needed a new coat of varnish, but in the process of removing fittings, I damaged some. When I went online to order replacements, I realized that Pygmy is apparently no longer. I’m very sorry about that. It was a great company with great products. I enjoyed building and paddling my boat, and had the pleasure of meeting Freya at a Pygmy boat rendezvous here in Montana on Hebgen Lake a few years ago. But I suspect that my boat will keep going strong for many years, and probably outlive me. John Lockwood can be proud of what he accomplished.
I was lucky enough to build my Ronan a couple of years ago. Josh Baker, if you can’t get a Pygmy, may I highly recommend contacting Joe Greenly at Redfish Kayaks? He is a master craftsman and teacher, and Redfish kayaks are works of art. Had I known about Redfish, I would have actually chosen it over my beloved Pygmy.
I built the14 Artic Turn years ago. Great boat. I also built the Pengino . Pygmy are the best in handling in smooth or choppy water.
I don’t get it. You would rather let it die than give it away? You’re 77! How much time do you think you have left? GIVE THE CAOMPANY to the employees. Move on. But no, he will take it to his grave because it’s “My precious”.
Wow, Thomas Habanek.
say it ain’t so John…
Gratefully I bought one a few months before this occurred. Still in box in my garage as my winter project. I can hardly wait.
This makes me so sad. My wife and I have been saving up the last two years for a couple of kits and we were planning to finally purchase and build them this fall. I guess we’ll jump on that backorder list and hope that everyone can show enough interest that they come back or that someone buys it and keeps Pygmy afloat.
Josh, I was lucky enough to build my Ronan a couple of years ago, and love it dearly. That said, If you and your wife are unable to get Pygmy kits, may I highly recommend contacting Joe Greenly at Redfish Kayaks. He is a master craftsman and teacher, and Redfish kayaks are works of art. If I make another kayak, it will be a Redfish.
Good read Ross, thank you. Along with Bryon Toss, two marine community legends are moving on.
Nice job, Ross and Joel.