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In a cavernous redwood warehouse in Noyo Harbor, the scent of fresh-cut wood mixes with the smell of sea water and the sound of barking seals.

Fort Bragg's Noyo River laps at the base of a cement and wooden ramp leading into a haul-out bay, where cradles on railroad tracks bring boats into dry dock.

Soft-spoken Howard Makela grew up hanging around this shop, where his father, Fred Makela, and uncle, Nick Makela, built and repaired wooden boats as the Makela Brothers partnership for 40 years.

"They launched their first one here at Noyo in 1941, then they got drafted," Makela said. "Out of this shop, they launched their first in 1949."

It was only natural that he followed in their sawdust-outlined footsteps as a shipwright, a painstaking craft that still relies on hand tools and a practiced eye, although now supplemented by power tools.

"It has been around for thousands of years," said Ed Von der Porten of San Francisco, a maritime historian. "Ships from plans as we know them today only go back a couple hundred years. It takes remarkable skill with wood and metal and no matter what you do you do it by eye."

But if his craft is not dying, it's at least fading. Makela is the only shipwright between Sausalito and Eureka and is sought out to keep the fishing fleet of mostly wood boats afloat.

He works alone and speaks thoughtfully, unhurried, allowing that being a shipwright and a one-time fisherman may be in his genes.

His grandfather, Att?Makela, immigrated from Finland to the North Coast a century ago to work in the woods, buying the bare land alongside the Noyo River where the Makela Brothers shop was built.

"The Fins came here to work in the woods and fish and they were shipbuilders in Finland too," Makela said. "They gravitated to the water."

The schooners that hauled lumber from the North Coast to San Francisco in the 1800s and 1900s were dubbed the Scandinavian Navy, sailing into the many tiny "dog hole ports" that dotted the coast.

A board on the wall lists the 14 fishing boats launched by the Makela Brothers, from the 44-foot Condor in 1941 to the 56-foot Debbie Marie in 1976.

"Some people are just traditional," he said of the preference for wood boats. "But they ride better, they are quieter," Makela said. "I think the only nostalgia is that wood was first."

Makela, 54, has built three boats of his own, all sailboats from 26 to 41 feet that are in San Francisco, San Diego and the Puget Sound. Now his skills are used almost exclusively for repairs.

"Every major port has a shipwright, but if you don't have a haul-out facility, you spend a lot of time on the road," said Makela.

Chris Iversen, a Fort Bragg fisherman, said, "I'll have him come over, he taps on it to make sure the nails are good. We found a worm in the keel last time," he said.

Makela said the work is steady and it provides a good middle-class income.

"There is just one job after another, there is not a lot of downtime between jobs," Makela said. "There's enough work to keep me busy."

The oddest job may have been last year, when he took the 50-foot Gayle, built by his father and uncle in 1971, cut it in half and added five feet to make it a more functional crab boat.

Tied up in the river behind the shop last week was the fishing trawler Sharon, on which Makela is replacing the forward deck in a very traditional way.

"Generally this was how it was built," Makela said. "But I'm making it stronger, the decking is closer together. It was rotten and all the fasteners had rusted out."

Makela uses a chop saw, power planer, chisel and wood mallet to coax the new Douglas fir planks into place.

"The real enemy is freshwater. It promotes rot and that's how fungus lives," Makela said. "If a fishing boat is worked, it may look bad, but the salt is a preservative, it slows the rot down."

Makela also appreciates somewhat wistfully that he will be the last of the family shipwrights, a craft that can be duplicated by others in a new shop with modern tools for boats made of new materials, but not replace the Makela Boatworks.

"You'd be in a metal shop with a cement floor and the roof wouldn't be sagging," Makela said. "It wouldn't have the same feel."