Photos by Billy Black
Sought out the world over for their skill and workmanship, these Antiguan varnishers found a home (and plenty of work) in the sailing capital of Newport, Rhode Island.
For as long as history has been documented, boats have symbolized connection. First, they connected continents and civilizations, spurring trade and commerce. Today, they connect passionate owners with the water, family and other boaters. But perhaps the most significant connection is that between a boat and the people who play a part in its serviceable life. The tie between a boat and its owner is often told, but behind the scenes, dedicated crews pour hours, days, even years into keeping these vessels alive, learning them from the inside out and playing an important role in their story. Such is the tale of the professional varnishers of Antigua.
Every winter, yachts from around the world head for the warm Caribbean waters, where the weather is friendly and the yachting community is thriving among a well-developed infrastructure. Here, owners have their yachts serviced while enjoying their escape from the hospitable weather in northern climes. In particular, their attention often turns to brightwork, for they are among some of the most skilled tradesmen in the industry. Dubbed the “Varnishing Capital of the World,” the island of Antigua has become the go-to location for everything from routine maintenance to extensive refits, with Antiguan varnishers earning a reputation for their reliable, quality work.
In his book Ultimate Classic Yachts: 20 of the World’s Most Beautiful Classic Yachts, author Nic Compton recalls how owner and skipper Richard Oswald hired an Antiguan crew to strip and add 10 layers of varnish to his 112-year-old wooden schooner. “Each island [in the Caribbean] is good at different things,” Oswald told Compton. “You do the most visible varnish in Antigua because they do the best job.”
Today, however, American owners no longer need to cross oceans to employ these world-renowned craftsmen. As Antiguan and other Caribbean varnishers’ reputation has grown, they have recognized new business opportunities in other parts of the world where yachts travel during the Caribbean’s off-season, allowing them to maintain a steady workload year-round. One of the most notable locations is Newport, Rhode Island, the Sailing Capital of the World, which also sustains a vibrant culture of classic boats, superyachts and everything in between.
It’s a blistering August day when I arrive at the Newport Shipyard, and the harbor is abuzz with yachts, owners and crewmembers optimizing the last days of the summer season. With every slip filled and so much action on the docks, you would never guess that only a few days prior, Hurricane Henri had moved through Rhode Island, forcing the marina into storm-preparation mode. As quickly as the Shipyard locked down, however, it rebounded with activity, because boating is not merely a part of Newport’s culture—it is pivotal. For varnishers, that culture is good for business.
Brothers Marcus and Guy James came from Saint Lucia and launched MJ Yacht Maintenance 37 years ago. They have been varnishing boats in Newport ever since. I met them on the classic yacht Valero, where they were working on the interior floorboards.
“Newport is one of the best places on the East Coast to get maintenance work,” Marcus says with a smile as he steps away from the woodwork to speak with me. “There are at least 10 to 12 crews here that come from all over.”
Marcus started varnishing in Saint Lucia, where yacht owners who were wintering there told him he had to see Newport. So, he sailed up as a crewmember on a ship, and he continued crewing once he got to America—until he decided he wanted to have a home to go to at the end of the day. He decided to start his varnishing company, bought a house in Newport and got married. Since then, his business has continued to grow through word of mouth. “It’s a small community. Anytime you do good work, your name goes around,” he says.
The best thing about Newport, Marcus says, is that there is always an abundance of boats. “There is a little bit of competition [between crews], but there’s so much work,” he explains. “It’s more about keeping your name and having a good reputation. If you have a good reputation, there will always be work.”
The James brothers certainly keep busy. Although spring is the busiest season, they have worked on three different boats over the past week alone, always putting in 8-hour days to stay on the owners’ and captains’ schedules as they finish varnishing and painting. “The season is so short, and people want to use the boat between work, so you’re pressed for time,” Marcus says.
Because of the short season, Marcus and Guy, like many other varnishers, head for warmer climes in the winter months. While many return to Antigua for the season, the James brothers winter in Florida, following the boats wherever they go. And they often work on the same boats each season. They have been working on Valero for 10 years and even delivered her from Savannah to West Palm Beach last winter. “Some boats you get attached to,” Marcus says. “Valero is one of my favorites.”
Valero also happens to be one of their more challenging projects due to her age and abundance of woodwork. Marcus tells me that some woods are more difficult to work on than others. Yet those challenges often yield the greatest results. “It can be very rewarding when you get everything done and see the finish,” Marcus says. “That’s when you appreciate the beauty of it.”
A few docks over, working on the yacht Anemoi, another varnisher is just starting his career in the trade, having only been on the job for one week. For Joseph O’Garro, the decision to move from the Caribbean to Newport was not merely a business opportunity, but rather a decision that was rooted both in family history and the desire to forge his own path. A third-generation varnisher, he is now working for his uncle at JJ Boat Work, the company he started after branching away from his father’s—O’Garro’s grandfather’s—varnishing business.
“If I have the opportunity to pick up a new trade, I always take the chance,” says O’Garro, who used to sing, dance and debate before pursuing this new occupation. Today, he is dressed for work in the sun wearing a bucket hat, shades, gel knee pads and a long-sleeve T-shirt bearing the company name. If the heat has gotten to his head, he certainly doesn’t show it. He beautifully articulates his zeal for the trade.
“I enjoy working in the quiet, learning new things, getting things done,” he explains. This job fulfills all three, allowing him to work independently with his hands doing varnishing, painting and fiberglassing. A typical workday spans from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., though they will work later if necessary, as jobs need to be wrapped up in two weeks tops so owners can get back on the water. JJ Boat Work is usually working on three to four boats at a time, trying not to turn away any requests.
For O’Garro, who is following in his uncle’s and grandfather’s footsteps, it is his connection to family that led him down this path. Yet, he is also fiercely independent, leaving behind his closest family back home—including his mother, who is a member of the Royal Police Force, and his father, who owns a construction company—to make his own name and discover his own calling. “I test everything to see what path suits me,” he says. “Test it and perfect it.”
While Newport Shipyard is perhaps the most populated hub for varnishers, crews travel to different marinas around the area, wherever there are jobs. As these dedicated craftsmen continue to work on vessels at the shipyard through the heat of the day, I head to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, to meet one more crew at Hinckley Yachts. Here, another, albeit less busy, waterfront awaits, but the boat I’ve come to see, a wooden sailing vessel, sits on the hard. Four varnishers rest in the shade cast by her hull, taking a short break from the taxing work. They all work for the company Original
Varnish, owned by Ricky Thomas.
“I’m well known around Newport and all over the United States,” says Thomas, who goes by the name Rankin. “I have a high-level knowledge of doing varnish.”
Rankin left Antigua for Newport 30 years ago and now oversees 12 people at his company, which also works on houses. His decision to come to the States was simple: “Less competition,” he says. “I travel to wherever the job is.”
Now, Rankin’s list of clients includes such well-known builders as Sparkman & Stephens, and he has worked on everything from 14-foot Downeast Peapods to 12 Metre racing sailboats. His preference, however, is to work on classic boats, though he won’t name a favorite. “The most rewarding part of the job is putting varnish on, and the boat looks like a million bucks,” he says. “Especially if someone comes by and says, ‘Wow!’”
Rankin often returns to Antigua for a month in the winter, where he can visit with family and work on more boats. Our conversation shifts to how vastly different the culture surrounding varnishing is in Antigua than it is in America. In America, Rankin explains, varnishing is often considered undesirable work, as people want to work inside an office and keep their hands clean. In Antigua, however, it is a revered and sought-after career that creates unimaginable opportunities for the tradesmen.
“Varnishing is a traditional thing in Antigua,” Rankin says. “Lots of people travel there from Europe because we’re the best at it. I just use my talent.” He echoes Marcus in saying that reputation is everything, and he is proud of the name he has built for himself in Newport and beyond; it keeps him perpetually busy.
If there is one thing that every varnisher in Newport shares, it is pride for their work and their reputation, and both are pivotal to success in this career. Connections run strong through the industry; being connected to a network of boat owners, captains, managers and builders ensures a steady workflow, and being connected to other tradesmen allows varnishers to continually refine and perfect their craft. With word-of-mouth being the biggest driver of business, forming these connections and delivering on your reputation with each job is the only way to sustain a living.
But this career is not just about earning a living. It is about tradition and family. It is about working independently and perfecting a craft. It is about seeing the world from the decks of magnificent ships. And most importantly, it is about leaving a mark on some of the most beautiful classic boats on the water, becoming a part of their story forever.