At 95, retirement is not one of Nourdine Jensen’s birthday plans

Nourdine Jensen, turns 95 today. He has no plans to retire from the shipyard his father founded in 1910. Bottom photo, a portrait of the boatwright as a young man. - Top photo: Journal / Richard Walker. Bottom photo: Jensen family
Nourdine Jensen, turns 95 today. He has no plans to retire from the shipyard his father founded in 1910. Bottom photo, a portrait of the boatwright as a young man.
— image credit: Top photo: Journal / Richard Walker. Bottom photo: Jensen family

In September 1914, islanders were dancing in the new Masonic Hall and enjoying movies and live shows in the new Fribor Theater.

Victor J. Capron was pulling triple duty as town doctor, mayor and state representative. Islanders were getting accustomed to driving the Capron-sponsored State Road (now Warbass Way), which led from town past the original U.W. Friday Harbor Labs.

Down the road in a cove, shipwright Albert Jensen was building fishing boats, tenders and tugs at his young but bustling shipyard. Jensen’s first boat, the Nereid, was in her third year of service to the Friday Harbor Packing Company, motoring between Neah Bay and Friday Harbor.

Most islanders farmed, fished, or worked in the canneries or lime kilns.

In Olympia, Ernest Lister was at the helm of Washington state as governor. In Seattle, pianist Nellie C. Cornish founded the Cornish School; it would attain a national reputation with such faculty as dancer Martha Graham, painter Mark Tobey and musician John Cage.

Elsewhere, political alliances in Europe were propelling the world into a four-year war.

This is the world into which Nourdine Jensen was born on Sept. 17, 1914.

Over the ensuing years, Jensen left his imprint in the maritime industry and in community affairs. And, by virtue of his longevity, he’s a living encyclopedia of island history who brings an educated perspective to discussion of local issues.

Jensen celebrates his 95th birthday today in a private party at the San Juan Island Grange Hall. Undoubtedly, he will have put in a full day at the office before going to the party.

Retirement is not in this nonagenarian’s plans. When asked when he plans to retire, he answered, “When they carry me out of here.”

From his office above the ship’s store, Jensen surveys all the activity at the shipyard. It’s a business he enjoys and treasures — Albert Jensen & Sons Shipyard is the oldest family owned business in San Juan County. 

Boat-building history dates to 1890s
Jensen’s paternal grandfather, Benjamin Jensen, was a fisherman from Norway. “Like many fishermen, he wanted to be a farmer,” the grandson said.

The elder Jensen immigrated to Iowa but after his crops were destroyed by grasshoppers, he took the Oregon Trail west in search of new opportunities. He helped build a school in Seattle and found his way to San Juan Island, where he took up boat building.

Jensen’s father, Albert, built his first boat, a wooden sailboat, at Griffin Bay in 1896. He went on to earn an engineering degree from Washington State College — he milked cows to pay his way through school — and worked on steam ships around the sound. He returned to the island to build boats and established the shipyard in 1910.

In 1913, Albert Jensen married Julia Frits, a school teacher who would later become county superintendent of schools. Her father was John W. Frits, county auditor; her brother, Virgil Frits, was town clerk and editor of the Friday Harbor Journal.

The cove was a much different place then. The spit where the Shipyard Cove Marina office and boat landing are was tidelands. The place where the Jensen Shipyard boat lift is now was a lagoon. “It was 3 to 4 feet deep and would get warm when the tide came in. We swam in it as kids,” Nourdine recalled.

By the 1920s, the road to Shipyard Cove led from the gravel quarry at Bald Hill. From about 1929 to 1935, between the shipyard and what is now Shipyard Cove Marina, gravel was shipped out of the cove. The operation later moved to Griffin Bay. The spit where the Shipyard Cove Marina office and boat landing are was created out of gravel from the quarry.

During his childhood, Nourdine baled hay and oats at his uncle Frank Jensen’s farm, part of which is now Channel Vista. And he was no stranger to his uncle Virgil’s newspaper office. After he learned the machinist’s trade, he converted the Journal’s press from gas to electric.

He has fond memories of his uncle, who was editor-publisher of the newspaper for 51 years.

“Virgil was a good talker,” Nourdine said. “He was also very honest. He wrote his news not the way he saw it, but as it happened.”

Nourdine met Vera Smethurst of Seattle while she vacationed with her sister and friends at Kwan Lama. When he returned to the University of Washington, he looked her up. They were married in 1938 in Seattle.

By 1940, Albert Jensen had built more than 100 boats. Then, upon the start of World War II, he leased the shipyard to a consortium that had a contract to build three tugs and four barges for the Army. Nourdine, who was working in a machine shop in Seattle, came back to manage the construction. 

After the contract was fulfilled, in 1942, Nourdine joined the Navy and worked as a machinist for a ship repair unit in the Admiralty Islands, in the South Pacific off New Guinea. After his discharge in 1946, he returned to Friday Harbor and joined his father at the shipyard.

The list of boats built at the shipyard tell a story about the change in prosperity in the post-war years. Before the war, the boats built by Jensen’s were commercial. After the war, most of the boats built by the shipyard were pleasure craft. The largest was 108 feet, but most were in the 30- to 80-foot range.

The Jensens built boats of their own design, but they also built boats designed by famed marine architects Bill Garden and Ed Monk. Author Ernie Gann’s boat was built at Jensen’s.

In 1958, Nourdine assumed leadership of the shipyard upon his father’s death.

During Nourdine’s tenure, he built at least 150 boats, many of which are still cruising Puget Sound. In the 1960s, fiberglass boats became more prominent and Albert Jensen & Sons, Inc. shifted from boat building to maintenance, repair, storage and moorage. 

“Today, the yard has 30 covered permanent slips and dock space for about 45 other vessels,” the company Web site states. “The machine and prop shops are still actively in use and the store is full of new (and old) merchandise.”

During his tenure at the shipyard, Jensen also made time for the community. He served on the first Friday Harbor Port Commission from 1950-1973, on the Friday Harbor Town Council from 1953-59, on the OPALCO board from 1965-69 and 1975-2008, and as a school board member and a volunteer firefighter.

Today, he’s not without opinions — and vision. He said Warbass Way is a “sore subject” for him; he said it’s been turned into a “parking lot” that has added to congestion on the narrow road. He advocates putting traffic signals on Spring Street at First and Second streets; the lights would be controlled by the ferry landing to allow offloaded traffic to travel unimpeded up Spring Street.

The latter idea is not without precedence. There once was a traffic light on Spring Street. Jensen said it was controlled by the fire department to keep the street free of traffic in the event of an emergency.

Today, Jensen’s daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter continue the family’s legacy of service to the shipyard — and to the community.

Daughter Jeri Ahrenius served on the Board of Freeholders and is a cemetery district commissioner.

Son-in-law Mike Ahrenius is a Friday Harbor port commissioner.

Granddaughter Alisa Schoultz is a San Juan Island Park and Recreation District commissioner.

“He inspired by example,” Jeri said of her father’s influence on her. “He and my mother always made things available — they supplied piano lessons and tennis lessons. But they never pushed in any way.”

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