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Boatyard Rhythms

Leaving the idyllic village of Stonington, Maine, in our rearview mirror, driving down West Main Street past Allen Cove, my wife, Lindsay, spotted Billings Diesel and Marine beyond the driver’s side window. In an instant, I was like a dog with two tails. I had never visited Billings, but knew of the yard’s reputation for being a salty, serious working yard. Now I could see the huge, shingled shed stretching across the cove beyond the morning fog. For me, a surprise discovery like this is akin to a four-year-old’s virgin sighting of the Magic Kingdom. My eyes strayed from the winding road ahead of me. 

“Do you want to stop, honey?” Lindsay asked, willing to interrupt our weekend B&B tour through Down East Maine to indulge my obsession for the sights and smells of the waterfront. She knew that it was nearly physically impossible for me to pass a boatyard without at least taking a peek—and certainly a shrine such as Billings could not be ignored. 

Boatyards have a rhythm all their own that has pulsed through my veins since I was a young kid, left unaccompanied to explore the waterfront of Annapolis, Maryland, in my aluminum skiff. Today, my father would probably be locked up by child protection services for allowing a ten-year-old to get into a 12-foot boat by himself. (I’m glad he did and that he wasn’t arrested.)

This early responsibility was a good lesson that has served me through my many subsequent boating adventures. The gas in the tank came from my paper route. My two hands applied the varnish on the mahogany seats after my father taught me the art of woodworking over the winter in our cold basement. I put on my PFD before leaving the slip on the Severn River and headed towards Annapolis, hugging the shore. As big as my little ship was to me, I knew she was tender and better suited for cat fishing the shallows. 

And God forbid the boat was left untidy—my father would simply yank my boating use privileges. His sentencing was swift and without trial. The one time I decided to delay cleaning her up until the following morning, the key to the boat’s padlock quietly disappeared from atop the fridge. When I realized this, I flew down the hill on my big five-speed Schwinn with cleaning supplies stuffed in my newspaper bag. I almost scrubbed the paint off that baby. Just as quietly as it had disappeared, the key returned the next morning. Lesson learned. 

My favorite part of these little boat journeys was exploring the variety of boatyards on the Annapolis and Eastport waterfronts. I’m not sure if I was naïve, or if people were more laidback then—maybe both. I was unchallenged as I left my boat tugging at the bulkhead to walk the docks of Petrini’s and investigate the yard. I’d poke around next door at Sarles Boatyard and walk into the covered shed to see what cool projects were happening. There was always a collection of wonderful classics in there—Elcos, Matthews, a Grebe—and proprietor Ben Sarles would take time to chat as I asked him about what they were working on. 

Eventually, my Dad suggested I try to get a job at one of these yards since I was spending so much time on their docks anyway. So shortly after my 12th birthday, I started to clean bareboat charter boats. I admit, my cleaning efficiency may have been compromised as my mind wandered to offshore daydreams. The older professionals, who had loads of experience, took me under their wing, showed me how to hone my fix-it skills, and gently suggested that I speed things up a little. 

This job lasted through high school, some college summers, and even into post-college weekends. The most intoxicating aspect of the boatyard was learning that behind the fences of these special places sat a collection of wonderful boats, as well as the interesting characters drawn to taking care of them. Sure, there were a few negative folks who bitched about everything from sunup to sundown. And of course, there were certain boats we wanted to avoid, the ones where no forethought had been given to after service while they were being built. When we got the short straw, we’d roll our eyes, knowing we were about to lose the skin on our knuckles just changing the oil. 

Yet the life of a boatyard, the smell of bottom paint and barnacles, fresh varnish, and the wind in the rigging remain my siren’s song. This is one reason that our mission each month at Power & Motoryacht is to bring boatyards and their projects to life in these pages. We may not be able to replicate the smells and sounds, but we hope you enjoy the virtual experience. I’ll see you on the docks.