The Carpenter building a boat in his backyard
From the moment you walk into the backyard of his San Pedro home you know, he’s a carpenter. You would think it is the huge boat under construction that gives it away. But instead, it is his garage, a museum of sorts, comprising a collection of carpenter’s tools and supplies that date back to when he began his career in the trade over a half century ago. And, despite the relative disorder of things, Henry navigates it all with ease, stopping frequently when an item conjures a memory worth retelling.
You may have heard of the Los Angeles Local 630 Shipwright building a boat in his backyard. He has quite the following among his Los Angeles Brothers. Bill Baxter, Southwest Local 409 Team Lead, explains – “Henry is not only a Master Shipwright and Master Carpenter but an expert storyteller.” Now retired, Heinrich (Henry) Gorlitz is dedicating most of his time to finishing the personal project he started in the late 1980s.
So, one morning over donuts and coffee we sat down with Henry to learn more about his storied life as a proud union shipwright, a career that would take him around the world before settling him down in the United States.
Henry is a longtime Los Angeles resident, shipwright, proud American and family man. His story begins in Germany, where he was born just after WWII. When Henry was young his dad took him to the docks in his hometown of Hamburg. Ever since he has been infatuated with boats and the sea. “For me, I just like ships,” he says with a grin while inhaling deeply – he can still smell the cod fish and cigarettes that remind him of that first day at the docks. Little did he know that he would become a shipwright, marry an American lady from Long Beach and put down roots in Southern California as a Southwest Union Carpenter with Local 630.
Henry’s dad did not approve of his desire to work at sea but made him a deal – once he finished his final exams in high school he could leave to find work on a ship. Motivated by the deal he struck with his father, he remembers studying hard for his final test. He was so motivated he remembers, it only took him 10 minutes to finish the exam. Without skipping a beat he adds, “I got a perfect score too.”
That summer his family went for a trip around Southern Germany. Instead of returning north to Hamburg, Henry split ways with his family and headed south to Vienna. It is there that Henry got a taste of the outside world. He met American missionaries, began learning English and tells stories of mischief he got into with an Egyptian historian.
His goal was to make it to Genoa, Italy where he had heard he could finally find work on a ship. Henry eventually did make it to Genoa but, not before making ends meet working at a bakery and vegetable market. The year was 1955.
In Genoa, after several attempts, he secured his first job as a mess boy on a Swedish tanker. Three months later he was promoted to seaman and began developing his craft as a shipwright. For eight years he traveled the world on commercial ships, visiting the ports of Spain, England, Germany, Norway, Finland, Sweden, South Africa, Senegal and several North African countries. Each location has its own stories, the ones from South Africa include a comical escape from an immigration detention center.
While his ports-of-call would change one thing stayed constant – he always joined the local union, first with the Norwegian Shipfarers Union. Then, when his ship began making regular trips to New Orleans he joined up with the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. His ships began sailing to Portland and he joined up there too.
Then one day he was docked at the Long Beach port and he got into a car accident with an acquaintance he never quite trusted. Not able to return immediately to work and supported by union benefits, Henry stayed in Long Beach to recover from his injuries. It is then that he met his wife.
Married, Henry settled down in Long Beach, and joined the Southwest Carpenter’s Local 630 and quickly became an active member. Baxter later told us that he “always looks forward to our Local 630 membership meetings where Henry is not shy about approaching the microphone to share with all his fellow members something from his storied past or to let everyone know how proud he is to be a Union Carpenter.”
Before his wife passed away, his time in America had been, as Henry beautifully puts it, “three months and three days short of 48 years of married bliss.”
Using everything he’s learned in his career, Henry is now set on completing the boat he has been building for decades. Henry is building, by hand, every piece of the craft. From the mast and the port holes, to even the on-board shower. Later in the morning, he showed us how he practiced braiding the iron cables he made by hand. He has built it all.
If you ask Henry what he plans to do with his boat once he’s finished he won’t tell you. “I’ve only told three people and two are dead.” He wouldn’t tell me who the third person is. “If I tell people then they’ll know if I fail.” You see, for Henry, his life is not about what he’ll do with the boat once it is complete, it’s not about the finish line. It’s about the process, the adventure, and the craftsmanship.
As we were packing up to leave, we wanted to know what advice he would give to a young Union Carpenter. “Go to the meetings, be involved.”