Vessel Design: Ben Jensen

In 1961, Benjamin F. Jensen left his job as vice president of a successful Seattle shipyard to start a one-man firm, designing boats for the emerging West Coast fishing industry. Ben Jensen had earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington, and had served his country as a Chief Engineer on a Navy destroyer escort during World War II. When the war ended he was ready to start his career. After receiving his professional engineer’s license he helped establish Marine Construction & Design (MARCO), where he designed a series of popular and beautiful fishing vessels. In 1961 he left MARCO, and opened his firm in downtown Seattle to continue designing fishing boats for the local fleet.

Doug Dixon is the manager of Pacific Fishermen shipyard in Seattle. Dixon says Jensen designed 16 of the boats built at Pacific Fishermen Shipyard. “He designed seven of them from the house forward and eight from the house aft,” he says.

In the early 1960s Dixon’s wife, Maryanne was reading the classified ads in the local paper and saw an ad looking for a draftsman, “no experience necessary.”

“He wanted a good printer,” Maryanne Dixon says. Jensen saw her printing and hired her on the spot.

“He hired me with no drafting experience because he thought I had potential.”

At the time her husband was working for Jensen’s replacement at MARCO, chief naval architect Bruce Whittemore.

“Doug and I had just gotten married,” Maryanne remembers. “He thought it would be funny to hire someone whose husband worked for MARCO.”

She says there were few women working in the engineering fields when Jensen hired her. “We had a woman who was a secretary, but a lot of clients did a double take when they saw a woman sitting at the drafting table.” One of the engineers once asked Maryanne to make a pot of coffee. “The joke was on him – I didn’t know how to make coffee.”

One of the naval architects taught Maryanne how to draw boats. “We used a pen on vellum,” she remembers. “They all smoked… a lot of the drawings had little burn holes,” she says.

In the days before computers and auto cad, Maryanne says the plans coming out of Jensen’s office had to be uniform. “We all had to print exactly like Ben,” she says.

In 1972, Jensen moved his firm to Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal. By that time Jensen’s firm had grown to include a staff of 10, with almost all of the firm’s work centered on fishing vessels, with tugs and workboats filling in the gaps.

During the 1970s, Bristol Bay became the center of the biggest boom in the history of American fisheries, and the Bristol Bay king crab fishery went from a catch of nearly nothing to 13 million pounds in 1971. By 1980 the total catch was 130 million pounds, accounting for 80 percent of the king crab catch in Alaska and the largest king crab harvest ever seen.

From the mid 1960s to the early 1980s, more than 200 crabbers were built in Seattle, many of them to Ben Jensen’s designs.
Jonathan Parrott is now the senior naval architect at Jensen Maritime. He was hired by Ben Jensen right out of Webb Institute in 1979.
“I did a summer internship working at Boeing Marine Systems when I was in school,” Parrott says. “I enjoyed the work we did in hydrofoil preliminary design,” he says. “We were a small group of engineers in a room in the corner doing pretty much whatever we wanted,” he says.
“Then I was moved into the main engineering group – just row upon row of engineers sitting next to each other all day.”
When Parrott graduated Jensen had a vacancy and Parrott found a home.

“The first five years or so I was doing mostly stability and incline tests,” Parrott recalls. “I would show up to a job and the client would say, ‘Who’s this young kid?’ Now we’re the old guys.”

Parrott says Jensen was a great boss. “Ben was really a good guy to work for. I had a car totaled not long after I started there – Ben cosigned a loan so I could get a new car.”

Parrott says Jensen was kind to his staff, co-workers and clients alike.

“Ben was wonderful to all his employees,” Maryanne Dixon remembers. “He was strict but very kind to everyone. He expected everyone to work hard, but he treated us like a second father.”

With an eye toward retirement, Jensen sold a majority interest in the firm to Maritime Technical Consultants Corporation, a Norwegian-owned firm, and the name of the company was changed to Jensen Maritime Consultants, Inc. (JMC).

The Norwegian ownership came at a time when the fishing industry was facing a downturn. Ben Jensen’s former partners and employees were able to gradually purchase the Norwegian shares and buy the firm for themselves.

Today, Jensen Maritime is owned by Crowley Maritime Corporation, but the Jensen name is still respected along the West Coast and Ben Jensen’s colleagues continue to design beautiful and seaworthy vessels.