You don’t have to be a boatbuilder or a maritime historian to appreciate the Island Star. The jewel of the OARS fleet, the sleek, fast and beautifully crafted gig is a favorite with many OARS members, and it draws admiring glances and instant interest when it’s displayed at local events or on the road at regional races.

But knowing the Island Star’s provenance and understanding the effort OARS members undertook to build it certainly adds to the respect and admiration so many have for a boat whose origins go back two centuries.

The Island Star is based on a Whitehall rowboat, the American Star, built in the early 1800s by two brothers in Brooklyn, N.Y. — and the two other replicas constructed from her lines.

Competitive rowing was a popular activity back when the American Star raced to fame in New York Harbor on Dec. 9, 1824 before 50,000 enthusiastic fans. The four-oared gig beat the Dart, a gig from a British warship, in a racing competition that has been described as equivalent to today’s Super Bowl – with $1,000 (almost $30,000 today) in prize money going to the winners.

The boat was gifted to General Lafayette on his last visit to the United States in 1825, to show gratitude for his role commanding French forces during our Revolutionary War. He preserved the boat at his estate outside of Paris in a pavilion constructed especially for that purpose. 

The American Star was still in France at Lafayette’s estate when Kenneth Durant, who was researching the origins of the Whitehall rowboats, found it in an empty carriage house in 1968. It was quite a find, one of the oldest surviving small craft of its type.

In a cooperative effort between the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and John Gardner, famed maritime historian, educator and boatbuilder, the lines were taken off the hull in 1972. The first replica of the American Star, the General Lafayette, was built in the Mystic Seaport Museum in 1975.

The story moves to the Pacific Northwest when another replica, the Salish Star, was built in Port Townsend during the winter of 1998 using Gardner’s plans with a few modifications. It was commissioned by the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Foundation to be part of the rowing program fleet and completed by the Point Hudson Boat Shop.

A third replica was started in 2000 by the San Juan Islands Maritime Heritage Society, with encouragement from Port Townsend boatbuilders and support from a small grant from the Traditional Small Craft Association's John Gardner Foundation.

OARS member David Jackson, a professional boatbuilder, was well-acquainted with all the gigs and was a key figure in getting the Island Star built. He first heard about the American Star from John Gardner himself in 1976 while at a symposium in Bath, Maine, and he had often checked on the progress of the Salish Star when it was being built in Port Townsend.

In 2004 he and Michele Pope saw what was to become the Island Star in its beginning stages on San Juan Island. The boat had the molds, backbone and five planks fastened a side. 

But the project stalled in Friday Harbor, and through Jackson’s efforts the unfinished boat was deeded to Crew 81 of the Anacortes Venture Scout Troop along with a $2,000 endowment. It was brought to Emerald Marine, where it hung in the rafters.

The years went by, and when OARS started thinking about a new boat, Jackson and Emerald Marine co-owner Andy Stewart proposed that OARS take on the Island Star build.  

While there was some trepidation about the project and much debate, OARS members in the end voted to go ahead, agreeing to an estimated cost to the club of about $10,000 that would go to Emerald Marine plus the cost of finishing materials. The work would be supplemented with volunteer labor provided by OARS members.

Stewart said he and his partner James McMullen took on the Island Star project because it was an opportunity to build a beautiful boat in a manner not often done — something that takes high craftsmanship. 

With use of their Anacortes shop’s workspace and tools, work on the Island Star began at the end of February 2010.

One of the first tasks was to remove the flawed original planks. The replacement planks came from sawn red cedar that had been stored for 25 to 50 years, depending on which story you want to believe. The wood was near-perfect with a narrow, straight grain. 

The three 7” x 7” x 25’ timbers originally belonged to George Pocock, part of a dynasty of boat builders that came from England and founded Pocock Racing Shells in Seattle in 1911. The business built shells for college racing crews, including many for the University of Washington. 

The wood changed hands and ended up at the Port Townsend Maritime Center. OARS purchased it to plank the Island Star. 

All the previous designs for the American Star and the replicas were modified slightly, and then tweaked some more, for the Island Star.

The Island Star has more strakes of planking — eight planks on each side compared to six on the American Star — to give it more room and make it rounder. More space between the thwarts (seats)and modifications to the bow and stern make it easier to row. Scantlings were also beefed up from the very lightly built American Star to make it a more useful club boat. 

The boat is clinker planked, copper riveted at the frames and clench nailed in the laps. In addition to the red cedar planking, other woods include Oregon white oak frames, fir thwarts, and gunwale, local locust floor timbers, transom and knees, and yellow cedar or carbon fiber oars.

The lapstrake planks were arranged around wood molds — the same molds used to build the Salish Star. When the planking was complete, the boat was turned right side up — with much celebration — so the framing and other interior work could be completed ­ 

The framing work alone meant attaching 3,000 roves (small metal circles) and rivets (square copper nails). The roves are driven onto the rivets against the planks using special tools.

The interior work included putting in the grown crook floor timbers, which Jackson had been saving for a special purpose, inner and outer gunwales, breasthook, quarter knees, thwarts and stretchers for the rowers’ feet.

The build took about eight months in all. Volunteers were at Emerald Marine all hours of the day and all days of the week.

The Island Star’s maiden voyage came on Sept. 2, 2010. More than 100 people came to Cap Sante Marina on Launch Day to welcome the Island Star into the rowing fold.

Members taking the Island Star on her first voyage were key players in the build. Donn Wilson served as coxswain while the rowers were David Jackson, Captain Tom Gates and Andy Stewart and James McMullen of Emerald Marine.

Also on hand were Colin Hermans, one of the San Juan Islands Maritime Heritage Society volunteers who got the Island Star work started, and John Weiss, president of the Traditional Small Craft Association.

Hermans praised OARS members for completing the boat. “We’re very proud of you to have done it and proud of us for starting it,” he told the Anacortes American.

Days later came a race with the Salish Star in Port Townsend at the Wooden Boat Festival. Manning the oars were David Jackson, Andy Stewart, James McMullen and Torgy Torgersen. Donn Wilson was cox.

The 1.4-mile short course "warm-up" race was won by the Salish Star crew, who figured that they might be able to do the same in the longer challenge race following. Once the real challenge race began, the Port Townsend crew soon realized that they might have been artfully played by the Island Star crew, which pulled out to an early lead and soundly outpaced their rivals.

Since then the Island Star has been in many races around the region, crewed by Lady Oars rowers and others, always drawing admiration for her beautiful lines and workmanship. A notable event was the Seventy48 race from Tacoma to Port Townsend in 2018. The Island Star crew – Andy Stewart, Adair Orr, Matt Orr, Missy Holland and Shawn Huston – finished 21st overall, rowing into and through the night for 16+ hours.

Most of the time, though, the Island Star can be found out on Fidalgo Bay, manned by OARS crews that row her weekly and can appreciate firsthand the craftsmanship and care put into this beautiful and historic boat.

– Jack Darnton

This history draws heavily on published articles about the Island Star. Sources include:

  • Anacortes American reporter Joan Pringle’s May 5, 2010 article in the newspaper’s Anacortes Waterfront Festival guide and a launch follow-up article on Sept. 7, 2010
  • An April 5, 2012 blog by Emerald Marine’s Andy Stewart (
  • Alex Spear’s Sept. 21, 2010 article in the Port Townsend Leader
  • George Sherlock Maynard’s article in Wooden Boat magazine Issue 139 (Nov/Dec 1997)

 Special thanks to David Jackson for his fact-checking and additional information.