In his debut column, Michael Rybovich of Michael Rybovich & Sons Custom Boat Works waxes on memories made at the yard.
For most people, there is a connection between sensorial stimuli and memory. You may hear an old song that takes you back to your first car or your first love. You might smell evergreens while hiking and think of Christmas and that fresh cut tree in your home as a child. You might be at the beach, with the smell of the sea breeze in your face, listening to the low roar of a boat offshore and recall your first sailfish. It’s probably not a good idea to discuss what I recall when I smell tequila. Memories—good and bad—are forever tied to our senses.
My family blessed me with the greatest gift anyone could give to a young man—the gift of learning the family business from the bottom up. Throughout the course of my vocational education, a myriad of different materials and chemicals were introduced to me by many great craftsmen (and colorful characters) in the construction and maintenance of boats and machinery. During the course of the day, I am struck by sounds and smells that bring past events and acquaintances to mind. There are distinct sounds and smells in a boatyard that would be hard to find together anywhere else. I’m sure that many of you are transported back, as well, as you visit ours or any other busy boatyard.
My career began on the “Bottom Gang.” When I smell fresh bottom paint, I immediately think of Marshall Ray. Everyone called him “Ray.” He came to work for my grandfather in 1941, just before our entry into the Second World War. When the boys went off to war, Pop and Ray carried the load, along with my aunts, Ethyl and Mary Irene. Ray was in charge of hauling, cross-hauling, launch and everything mechanical from the boot-top down. As a child, he was the first man I would see as I walked through the yard, on the cross-haul winch, painting a bottom, replacing a worm shoe or pulling a set of wheels. He was family and we always treated each other as such, never getting caught up in the cultural differences between a Southern black gentleman and his Eastern European employer. It simply didn’t matter. When it came time for me to join the payroll, I went to work for Ray. That strong, gentle soul who greeted us as kids with hugs and kisses was now my boss. He was tough on me because he needed to be. The eyes were watching the boss’s kid, and Ray made sure that I got no special treatment. “You don’t get no breaks on the bottom gang, Michael,” he’d say with counterfeit fire in his eyes. I think it broke his heart to be harder on me than the rest of the crew, but I understood perception and, to this day, I respect him that much more for it.
Each time I walk into one of our sheds and smell that wonderful odor of pure spar varnish being stroked on a toe rail or transom, I hear the voice of Gormy Covar, telling me to “Hurry every chance you get.” Gormy signed on at the yard in 1953. He was a brush master, something that is damn near impossible to find today. Gormy took a shine to me and taught me the finer points of enamel paint and varnish. We finished miles of mahogany together, and we still teach his method of prep and stain at our yard to those who will listen. He was sure that Hank Williams was the greatest musician that ever walked the earth. Every time I hear a Hank song, I’m transported back to the smell of Interlux Red filler stain, Pettit 120 and Dolfinite 1100. We’ll never get out of this world alive, old friend.
Our machine shop has its own set of stimuli. The smell of cutting oil and the sound of the old South Bend lathe and the Bridgeport conjure up fond memories of Dick Myers. Dick, or “Indiana” as he called himself, was a real character. He was an incredible machinist who could make anything out of a rough metal billet and was a great help to Johnny in the development of chair and rigger parts, back when we built and sold those things to the rest of the industry. Dick kept us all in stitches with his country-style humor, hilarious profane outbursts and his propensity for minor injury and mishap.
When I hear the buzz of the welder, I can see Charlie Troendle at the welding table, fabricating a new set of tower legs or a sleeved bow rail in his corner of the shop. Charlie was another of the great employees who I knew from the time I could walk the yard on my own. His arms were browned from welding, and the anchor tattoos from his hitch in the Navy were faded from the tanning. He engineered and built most of the chain and cable controls and steering for Dad and assembled and installed all of our riggers. In addition to his mechanical skills, Charlie had a great eye for the changing radius’ and ellipses that Tommy demanded in making metal hardware, another aspect of his art form.
Over on the other side of the machine shop, a whiff of flux and solder hangs in the air, and my thoughts turn to Curt Wills, with one foot up on a stool, making some complex problem seem like child’s play. Curt was sort of a Swiss Army Knife of mechanical and electrical ability. When he applied to the yard, he explained to my father that he was capable of anything asked of him. Dad thought he was full of shit and ignored him. Curt pestered Dad relentlessly until he finally gave in and gave him a shot at certain failure. Curt turned out to be even more capable than his interview indicated and was a huge part of the innovative electrical and mechanical systems in our boats for over 30 years. He was the king of factual one-liners in the shop, my favorite of his being: “Good economy is expensive.”
The carpenter shop is where I cut my teeth, and the memories associated with those sounds and smells are more vivid than all others. When I hear the sound of the thickness planer, with its knives dulled by a recent run of covering board stock, I recall the greatest carpenter I have ever known. Jack Rhodes was a hard ass. If you left him alone, he could build you what you wanted, better than you wanted, in a fraction of the time it would take any other carpenter on Earth, including Jesus. If you interfered in any way, he’d close his tool box, throw a clamp across the shop, and head to the local watering hole on Broadway, the “Wonder Bar.” After training on the new hull crew for a couple of boats, Dad handed me to Jack and said, “Teach him something.” It was like working for Almighty God with a short fuse. Jack had no patience for wasted motion or wasted time. When he handed me a board with a line and a bevel, I had better cut that line to the mark. If I left any extra for hand work, all hell would break loose. “Trust the mark, you idiot. Cut the damn line!” His approach was simple: Excellent work takes no longer than bad work. The cuts are all the same. The difference is planning, which leads to confidence. Eventually, I earned Jack’s respect, and it was his advocacy that led to my installation as carpenter foreman when he retired to his beloved Apalachicola.
The smell of fresh-cut fir and mahogany fills the air around our new hull structure and the screams of electric hand planes echo in the open shed, bringing to mind the greatest boat-building tool ever invented, the Skil 100 electric plane. In the right hands, the Skil 100 was like a trumpet in the grasp of Marsalis. These are the sounds and smells of wooden boat building that put us on the map. When I hear one of our hull crew boys on a 12-inch pad, I can see my uncle Tommy, long after dark, with a whining 1750 Milwaukee, arms outstretched to reach the chine, prepping the hull for the crew to start the next planking layer in the morning. In the hum of the bench grinder, I can hear Bill Jackman in his Yankee brogue, explaining to Gary Hilliard and me how to hollow-grind and whetstone our jackplane and spoke-shave blades to shave the hair off our arms. The vapors of hot epoxy light a mental picture of planking with my brother Marty, glue from head to toe, repairing a jammed anchor-fast nail gun, knowing we better hurry. That Epi-Cure was kicking in the summer heat, and disaster was just around the corner...
A thought breaks up my nostalgic reverie: It’s going to be another late one, and I have to pick the kids up from after-care.
These are but a few of the many treasures from the attic triggered by the senses throughout the ritual of each day in the yard. Those great craftsmen have long since joined the payroll in God’s boatyard, but the memories and lessons learned from them are permanent. We have now become the old-timers and have a duty to pass the torch to the next set of craftsmen, if they’ll put down their devices and pay attention. Good luck with that!
At this very moment, I hear the sound of a ridiculous personalized ring tone out on the dock. The sound invites images of distraction and annoyance. It’s the sound of non-applicable social engagement, useless information and non-productivity. Man, do I hate that sound. Time to throw a clamp and head to the Wonder Bar. Save me a cold draft, Jack!