Dave Ullin: a life lived with purpose

It’s likely that if you live on Bainbridge Island, you knew him, perhaps even if you didn’t know his name.

A hard one to miss with a broad build, and thick hands that suggested he was no stranger to hard work, Dave Ullin could often be seen walking along the streets of Bainbridge with his canvas tote in hand or rowing a dinghy across Eagle Harbor to his home, a tugboat moored in the harbor named “Spruce.” Ullin lived his life as an example of how simplicity, harmony with nature, and meaningful work can bring happiness and contentment.

Growing up

As a small boy, Ullin along with his parents and sister, spent their vacations on San Juan Island living out of an Army tent while they worked to build a small cabin on their 4-acre property along Wescott Bay. It was there they rebuilt a Bristol Bay hull into a gillnetter which they named “Fouruvus” and would later use to commercially fish the waters near their home for many years.

Ullin possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of tools, woodworking techniques and practical shipwright’s wisdom, all patiently compiled over the course of a lifetime spent doing what he often called “purposeful work.” Purposeful work, for Ullin, could mean anything from pulling weeds to fixing wooden boats.

Jeannette Franks runs the Bainbridge Island Weed Warriors, which focuses on the preservation of local ecology through the extermination of invasive non-native species. Franks said Ullin was a friend and frequent volunteer with the group.

“I’m sure the tools that Dave used sometimes were hundreds of years old,” she said.

“He was very good at showing me how to maintain the tools we use for Weed Warriors and parks,” Franks said, recalling Ullin’s propensity for fixing worn-out equipment.

“He’d see a pair of pruning shears that had just been battered to death working with Weed Warriors and he’d take them home and bring them back just like new. It was amazing,” she added.

Franks was not alone in her recollection of Ullin’s affinity for tools. Tami Allen, another one of Ullin’s many friends on the harbor, noted the lessons she learned from Ullin’s meticulous care of his hardware.

“All of his tools were hand tools — he didn’t use power tools, they were all hand tools — and they were always in really good shape and well-oiled and well-protected,” Allen recalled.

“When he got finished with a tool he oiled it again and then he put it away,” she said.

“I’d watch him and I would think, ‘OK Tami, you need to slow down and oil your tools.’ It was his way of doing things that he did them slow enough to do them right.”

Ready to help

Ullin, said Allen, was also not one to stand idly by while something was in need of fixing. He was notorious around Eagle Harbor for finding little things to fix on the other boats tied up in the marina.

“He always had a little piece of seizing line in his pocket,” Allen said.

“He couldn’t pass a piece of line that was frayed. He had to stop, get a little piece of seizing line and he’d always whip the ends of lines that were frayed, instead of just tying a knot like other people. I loved that,” Allen said.

“Every time I whip the end of a line, I think of him and I’ll continue to not leave frayed ends because of Dave,” she said.

Slow and steady

It was Ullin’s thoughtfulness in conversation that appears to be ubiquitous among his friends and acquaintances. Allen said it took her a while before she became accustomed to Ullin’s contemplative pauses during their interactions.

“The first three or four times that I had a conversation with him, I could hear myself speeding up and then making myself slow down because he would make me do that,” Allen said.

“He would be explaining something to me and I would have to stop the urge to interrupt and let him finish his thought and it wouldn’t come fast; he would think about what he was going to say for a long time. He would stand very still and kind of look in the back of his head and organize his thought and then he’d say something,” she explained.

“At first I didn’t know what to do with it; I just stood there quietly. Then, eventually, I realized that it was worth waiting for,” Allen said.

“I learned that from him — to slow down and listen and let people finish their sentences,” she said.

When he was young, Ullin’s mother taught him to be careful not to step on or injure the young plants as the two worked away in the family garden back on San Juan Island. Ullin carried with him a respect and reverence for the natural world all his life and “leaving a small footprint” was a central theme in all his endeavors. It was because of this reverence that Ullin did not drive anywhere, instead preferring to walk, or row his boat.

While moored in Eagle Harbor, Ullin also decided to have the newly rebuilt Buddha engine in “Spruce” removed. Ullin regarded this as doing his part to minimize the impact and damage that he felt was being caused by the internal combustion engine.

First impression

Paul Svornich was sawing up a large log for boat lumber when first he met Ullin.

Svornich had found the log floating off the west side of Bainbridge Island and towed it back to the beach. At the time Ullin had already spent several years fishing in Southeast Alaska, and while he enjoyed his time fishing, what Ullin found he liked even better, was pulling logs off the beach with his boat, towing them to Petersburg and selling them to the sawmill there. When Ullin approached Svornich it was with no small amount of knowledge of what he was up to.

“It was on my dad’s beach in Eagle Harbor and we were sawing it up with a chainsaw mill and this big guy came over in a beautiful Banks Dory and was very interested in what we were doing,” Svornich recalled.

When Svornich told Ullin his intention to build a boat with the lumber, Ullin couldn’t hide his enthusiasm.

“He just lit up with a big smile and he’s pretty much been a really close friend ever since,” Svornich said.

Ullin, being the man he was, couldn’t resist the urge to help Svornich with the construction of his boat.

“He taught me more than anybody else, by far. He was a frequent visitor; he helped us with a couple of projects on the boat. When we needed some special tool related to wooden boat building, he’d just pull it out of his boat somewhere. He just always had it, if you needed a barefoot ship auger that was an inch-and-a-quarter in diameter and 3 feet long, he’d just row out to his Dory and come back with one,” Svornich said.

“In more recent decades, he always got his mail at our house and used our phone when he needed a phone. He was like family; he was close,” he said.

A different outlook

Over the course of their friendship, Svornich learned about how Ullin arrived at his outlook on life.

“We talked about philosophy and his values a lot and how he came to them. I can’t really do them justice but in a nutshell, he felt that our culture was really headed down the wrong path. He felt that our culture sort of impresses upon us at a very early age, a falsehood of personal satisfaction coming from material gain and extravagant lifestyle,” Svornich said.

“He felt that personal satisfaction, contentment, really came from a much closer personal relationship with nature, doing meaningful work and having very little impact upon the earth,” he added.

“And he strongly believed in helping others with whatever they needed. And he felt an obligation to do the best he could to share his values with others because he could see humanity in general suffering greatly because of its addiction to an illusion,” Svornich said.

“He felt it was his personal duty to try to point out the ignorant path that humanity was following,” he said.

“He sorta took that on his shoulders, which is a huge burden when you start taking the ignorance of all humanity on your shoulders personally. But he really did because he cared so much about others and their suffering and their ignorance,” Svornich said.

Later in his life, Ullin fought for anchor-out liveaboards, a group who he considered to be living a very low-impact lifestyle. Ullin argued for the rights of the liveaboards to continue living in Eagle Harbor, which at the time was the last such community remaining in the Puget Sound. Ullin eventually lost this battle but was spared having to leave the harbor he had called home since 1982, when a close friend of his offered him a slip at the marina. Though he preferred life anchored out, Ullin accepted the offer.

Last winter, Ullin’s boat developed a leak due to gribble worms and was hauled out in Seattle for repairs. While still making repairs to his tugboat “Spruce,” Ullin settled into his bunk on the evening of May 12 and passed away peacefully in the morning hours of May 13 at the age of 74.

Ullin leaves behind not only his family and the many friends he met along the way, but also a legacy of living with purpose, intent, care for nature and a deep compassion for those around him.

For a man who took such great care to ensure he never left a footprint, Dave Ullin has certainly left a lasting impression on his community and the people who were fortunate enough to call him a friend. A remembrance of his life will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 17 at the Waterfront Park Community Center in Winslow.