Passing of Renn Tolman



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  • Passing of Renn Tolman

    Thought I'd post this. I know there are a few folks here with Tolman skiffs and some that are interested in the design.

    Obituary – July 9

    Renn Tolman

    Homer boatbuilder and musician Renn Tolman passed away peacefully in his tiny beachfront cabin on the afternoon of Saturday, July 5. He was 80.
    A celebration of Renn’s life will be held at his boat shop in Homer at 4 p.m. Saturday, July 12.

    Renn was well-known in Alaska coastal communities for designing and building the Tolman skiff, a practical dory-style v-bottom boat that found wide use among hardy seafarers on Kachemak Bay and around the world. His two do-it-yourself books, describing an economical “stitch-and-glue” construction process involving plywood and epoxy resin, sold thousands of copies. Tolman skiffs can be found in Germany, Norway, Australia and other countries. An old-school outdoorsman, Renn traveled far across open water on hunting and fishing trips. At his death he had just completed a new design, the Tolman Trawler.

    As a flute and pennywhistle player in local bands and a step-dance teacher, Renn played a central role in Homer’s thriving contra dance scene, providing an authentic link to the New England and Cape Breton traditions he treasured. Every New Year’s Eve, his boat shop was thronged for a community dance, sometimes featuring ringer musicians flown in by Renn. He recorded a CD of Cape Breton and New England tunes, due to be released this fall.
    Renn Tolman was born February 23, 1934, in Keene, New Hampshire. The Tolmans ran a small four season resort in Nelson, N.H., converted from the family farm, and played an important role in the revival of square and contra dancing. Renn’s father, Newt, a well-known flute player and writer of curmudgeonly Yankee charm, introduced the instrument to his son.

    Renn left Tolman Pond for prep school at Vermont Academy, but flopped in his first attempt at college. After a three-year stint in the Army as an intelligence unit radio operator, he returned to graduate from the University of New Hampshire in 1959 with a B.A. in History. He taught in a private school, did graduate work briefly at Harvard, and then moved to the West in 1963. He was a tutor at a dude ranch, a hard rock miner, a carpenter and became a pioneer ski patrolman at Aspen, Colo. and Jackson Hole, Wyo.
    He moved to Alaska in 1970, settling in Homer and finding work as a carpenter before moving into boatbuilding and then developing his own skiff, which he considered a practical boat for a working lifestyle.

    “It’s not one of these god**** weekend toy boats and it’s emphatically not one of these god**** antique boats,” he told a reporter in 1991. “Those are for starry-eyed young dropouts or retired business executives.”

    By turns courtly and cantankerous, but always generous, Renn fired off salty opinions in a raspy voice without ever quite shedding his New Hampshire vowels and prep school grammar.

    Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008 and given a poor prognosis, Renn continued to live an active life, hunting and fishing, playing flute, traveling regularly to New Hampshire to visit his girlfriend, skiing each winter in Idaho and Wyoming, and providing a vigorous step-dancing demonstration at his New Year’s dance six months ago.

    He was preceded in death by his parents, Newt and Janet Tolman and Beth Barrell, and a sister, Sarah Barrell. He is survived by his late-in-life love, Betsy Street of Nelson, N.H.; his former partner of many years, Mary Griswold of Homer; a sister, Elizabeth Skinner of Mohawk Valley, N.Y.; and, among other relatives, cousins Barry Tolman of Nelson, N.H.; Mary Robinson Shonk of Dublin, N.H.; Susan Woodward Springer formerly of Seldovia; and Colin Tolman of Homer.

    Memorial contributions may be directed to Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, 315 Klondike Ave, Homer, AK 99603.
    Those that are successful in Alaska are those who are flexible, and allow the reality of life in Alaska to shape their dreams, vs. trying to force their dreams on the reality of Alaska.

    If you have a tenuous grasp of reality, Alaska is not for you.

  • #2
    Wow, that sucks. I was always amazed when I saw one of his boats out on the water, what a neat piece of work they are. RIP Renn


    • #3
      Thanks for posting that Paul, I have long admired his boats, sounded like he enjoyed life.....!
      “Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.”
      ― Eugene Ionesco
      "FREEDOM" Only those that are denied truly know what it means.


      • #4
        Very sad news indeed. Renn was a cool dude. I corresponded with him, but, regrettably, never had the opportunity to get down there and meet him. Tho his passing marks the end of an era, his boat designs are truly brilliant, and timeless. His legacy will live on forever.
        ...he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. ~Thomas Jefferson
        I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief. ~Gerry Spence
        The last thing Alaska needs is another bigot. ~member Catch It


        • #5
          May you RIP Renn
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          907 775 1692


          • #6
            I was fortunate to meet Renn a couple of times, the last time we'd stopped at the Gear Shed to pick up a few items before hitting the water and he was just walking back to his shop when he spied one of his boats pulling into the lot. He went through the boat commented on some of the ways I'd configured it and pronounced it good. I'm glad my wife suggested we get a picture with Renn before we went our ways.

            Renn's boat building books were unique as I can't think of another boat design where the designer had used the boat so extensively nor had the designer produced the boat commercially. His construction techniques were well thought out in terms of being as efficient as possible. Everyone who has built one of his designs and came up with a "better" way of doing something always came to the conclusion that the "improvement" just took longer and cost more.

            He will be missed, but his life should be celebrated as one well lived.
            Those that are successful in Alaska are those who are flexible, and allow the reality of life in Alaska to shape their dreams, vs. trying to force their dreams on the reality of Alaska.

            If you have a tenuous grasp of reality, Alaska is not for you.


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