Renn Tolman

Homer boatbuilder and musician Renn Tolman passed away peacefully in his tiny beachfront cabin on the afternoon of Saturday, July 5, 2014. He was 80.

A celebration of Renn’s life will be held at his boat shop on Kachemak Drive in Homer at 4 p.m. Saturday, July 12, 2014.

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 Feb. 23, 1934, in Keene, N.H. 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 U.S. Army as an intelligence unit radio operator, he returned to graduate from the University of New Hampshire in 1959 with a bachelor of art degree in history. He taught in a private school, did graduate work briefly at Harvard University, 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.