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Kodiak transplant carves niche as boat caretaker

Posted: November 19, 2012 - 3:40am
Matt Dawson, founder of AK Small Boat Services, poses next to a wooden boat under construction on Nov. 13, 2012 in Kodiak, Alaska. Dawson, from Scotland, has started a new business to care for Kodiak's smaller boats. (AP Photo/James Brooks, Kodiak Daily Mirror)  James Brooks
James Brooks
Matt Dawson, founder of AK Small Boat Services, poses next to a wooden boat under construction on Nov. 13, 2012 in Kodiak, Alaska. Dawson, from Scotland, has started a new business to care for Kodiak's smaller boats. (AP Photo/James Brooks, Kodiak Daily Mirror)

KODIAK — Kodiak’s newest business owner grew up 13 miles north of city limits — and about 5,000 miles east.

While he’s a world apart from his hometown, Scotsman Matt Dawson seems to have set roots in his new Kodiak home by establishing AK Small Boat Services, a maintenance and caretaker service for the dozens of small boats that crowd the city’s harbors.

“My wife is from Nebraska,” he said of his arrival 2 years ago. “She got to choose what country we lived in, and I got to choose where in that country, and I chose Kodiak.”

Dawson trained as a fisheries biologist at the University of St. Andrews and chose Kodiak for the abundance of job opportunities in that field. When he arrived, he found a community similar to his hometown in Scotland — an 80-person village accessible only by boat or livestock path.

That town had the same flavor as Kodiak, but with slightly warmer weather thanks to the Gulf Stream.

When Dawson arrived in Kodiak, he brought more than memories of that place. Thanks to seven summers working on a salmon farm, he was as familiar with skiffs as anyone who grew up in Kodiak.

He kept up his skills working on skiffs at the NOAA Marine Science Center on Near Island.

Last winter, a friend asked him to keep an eye on his boat, which remained on Kodiak’s in the water through the second-snowiest winter on record.

After three small boats sank in the harbor, Dawson began thinking about the business opportunity. “As I was thinking about the need for it, it seemed pretty clear,” he said.

Friends were already asking him for help installing electronics or winterizing their outboard motors, so in October he made his part-time job official by starting AK Small Boat Services.

He said his goal isn’t to compete with Kodiak’s big marine maintenance companies, just fill a gap he thinks they’ve missed. “I realized there was a market for that kind of small boat work which sometimes the bigger outfits don’t really want to worry about,” he said.

As a sideline, he also offers a licensed and insured watchkeeping service for boat owners who leave their boats in harbor while they return to the Lower 48.

While his regular job keeps him busy for 30 hours a week, he walks regular patrols of his clients’ boats and performs whatever maintenance is needed.

When he’s not working, he heads into a shop to work on a wooden skiff, a hobby he’d like to someday turn into a job.

Dawson’s father built wooden boats before becoming a math teacher when Dawson was 14. “I grew up in his workshop, so I saw it all happening,” he said.

Though he never got the chance to work with his father in the shop, Dawson remembered those days. When Kodiak College offered a wooden boatbuilding class last winter, he jumped at the chance.

“That was amazing to learn the process to everything I had seen done, and it all came just very naturally,” he said.

Dawson’s project is a Viking-style rowing tender adopted to use modern plywood and epoxy. Sturdy and seaworthy, it will weigh only about 150 pounds when complete.

While he understands the reasons why aluminum skiffs are common in Kodiak, he can’t help but wonder if there’s a chance that boats popular in Scotland might also work here.

“I guess one of my hopes is that with this boat. people will start to see wooden boats around,” he said.

If his business takes off, that prediction may bring Scotch flavor to more than just Kodiak’s drinking glasses.

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