Walt Fossek is 88 years young, and his boat, the Otter, is 104 years old. Both wear their age well. Fossek is active, mentally sharp and a great storyteller and the Otter draws daily interest from tourists who wander around the marina, wondering at the elegant lines and excellent condition of the old wooden boat.
If these visitors are lucky, Fossek will be on board and in a storytelling mood, sharing tales from his 50 years as the owner and operator of the well-maintained antique vessel.
Fossek celebrated his birthday in August by doing one of his favorite things in life — working on his boat.
“I always like to talk about boats, especially wooden boats. There is quite a revival in the area of wooden boats and a lot of people are really interested in Otter, because over time this has become a historical vessel, and now it is over 100 years old. Originally, I thought of it as an income producing, but now it is more of a piece of history,” he said.
Fossek is an angler and a farmer and has been living in Florence since World War II. He has seen the area change significantly in the intervening years, moving steadily away from an agriculturally based economy.
One thing has remained the same during that time, however, and that is the Otter.
At more than a century old, the boat is one of the few things in Florence that is a working example of an earlier and simpler lifestyle.
“The Otter was built in San Diego in 1913 and I bought it in 1953. I really wanted a fishing boat, but there were none available at the time, so my brother and I converted this one,” Fossek said. “Wooden boats were my hobby before I got into fishing. I’ve always liked wooden boats and it’s kind of neat when you can combine your hobby with your work.”
Fossek worked as a commercial fisherman for 40 years, earning his living, as did most of his friends and neighbors, by working the land and the water — a lifestyle no longer available to most residents of Florence.
“When I first came to the coast in 1944, tourism and retirement weren’t the big thing it is today. Everybody was busy logging, sawmilling, farming and fishing,” he said.
Fossek doesn’t consider himself retired, but he hasn’t commercially fished since 1994.
He takes the Otter down to Reedsport Machine and Fabrication for a semi-annual bottom painting job.
Fossek pointed out the durability of the Otter, as well as the need for continual maintenance.
“Wooden boats will last a long time if you take care of them. I spend a good deal of my time puttering around with it. If it’s sunny weather, I usually come down here and do some painting and maintenance,” he said. “Most of the woodwork on the boat is done by hand. That’s because it is odd shaped; it’s not like doing cabinetwork.”
According to Fossek, very few of the wood joints are square.
“Steaming works good for bending and shaping it, or even boiling the wood will work good,” he said.
Fossek has mixed feelings about all the changes he and Otter have seen take place around them over the last half century, especially the dramatic shift in the economy.
“It’s a little scary for the area to have all of it’s eggs in one basket, but I guess tourism is pretty secure and probably won’t go away,” he said. “It’s just a little sad, I wish there was just a little more of the old still around to mix with the new, but I guess that’s just the way things go.”