The handy New Englander is immersed in his love of maritime craftsmanship.
This alumni profile originally appeared as part of 10 Minutes with Two Alums in Vol.87/No.3 of the Alumni Magazine.
Interview by Ken LeSure '65
I remember in Middle School, when woodshop was required for all, that you (unlike the rest of us making napkin holders and pencil boxes) took it upon yourself to build a two-foot-long model sailboat hull. Seems your interest in boat building began at an early age.
As far back as I can remember, I was interested in drawing. My parents sent me to the Yuditsky School of Art, a block away from my dad’s medical office in downtown DC, before I even got to Sidwell Friends. Later on, from around age 8, my family got interested in boating, and I gravitated toward drawing boats. We did quite a bit of sailing, out of the West River on the Chesapeake Bay, on a variety of sailboats. In high school, my father inexplicably allowed me to take our 28-foot sailboat out without adult supervision, with the likes of classmates Todd Parnell, Stuart Wilson, and Alex MacLean for crew. Miraculously, we never ran aground or collided with anyone else.
My Norwegian maternal grandfather, Christopher T. Ness, ran away to sea on a square-rigger at age 14. His entire life was spent as a fishing boat crew member or captain, often out of Boston. Later on, he became a merchant marine captain on oil tankers until his retirement in the late 1950s. He always brought me wonderful gifts of model boats created in the Far East; two remain in my shop today. (My paternal great-grandfather, Carrol S. Page, was a Vermont governor and US senator. I didn’t realize until much later which genes would be passed on to me.)
How did boat building become a career for you?
After college and some post-graduate gap years, I went to the University of Vermont for a master’s in community planning. Subsequent stints in urban planning and civil engineering convinced me that I needed to make a midlife vocational course correction. In 1981, I went to the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine, for a two-week exposure to the joys of wooden boat building. My instructor, a classic Down East character named Gordon Swift (aka Swifty) advised me to stick to planning, not boat building. I prudently ignored that bit of advice. It confirmed that I needed to make a living working on boats, which led a few months later to my employment at a local boat shop in Charlotte, Vermont.
And what have you done since—are you a marine carpenter? Boatwright? At one of our class reunions some years ago, you told me that you were a “retail therapist.”
I now have 33 years of experience repairing, building, and restoring boats. Making that transition was one of the best decisions I ever made. With only a few exceptions, working on boats of all sizes, materials, and shapes gives me great pleasure. Equally important, I find it so rewarding to meet and deal with a broad range of customers, many of whom remain personal friends. I kind of like the variety that a zero advertising budget brings through the door. I’ve also been fortunate to have crewed on a dozen or so offshore sailboat deliveries, frequently putting my maintenance and repair skills to the test.
What was your first professional boat restoration project? What attracted you to Lake Champlain?
The projects I’ve been involved with range from building an 8-foot dinghy to serving as one of three professional shipwrights in the construction of the 88-foot Lois McClure, a replica of an 1862 Lake Champlain Canal schooner for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. The opportunity to work on the Lois included the challenge of learning to scuba dive. This was instrumental in the construction of the schooner because we were able to carefully inspect two similar vessels resting at the bottom of Lake Champlain, just off Burlington Harbor. The 39-degree water temperature at 40 to 80 feet left these boats very well preserved, and me shivering despite a full wetsuit. All in all, it was the gig of a lifetime and one that I am profoundly grateful to have had.
Many people around the country, including myself, are part of a growing movement in historic preservation in general. Are you currently restoring another historic boat?
I also got to work on the restoration of a 113-year-old Buzzards Bay 30 sloop designed by Nathanael Herreshoff, a seminal figure in the history of sailing yacht design. At present, I am finishing up the complete restoration of an 18- foot, 48-year-old fiberglass Golden Eye sloop, also designed by Herreshoff. Last winter, I did an extensive restoration of a 45-year-old Lyman sea skiff; before that, a 40-year-old fiberglass Marshall Catboat.
Do you have any future plans in the historic restoration field?
I will continue with the same MO: Whatever and whomever walks in the door will probably command my attention. (Though I do not work on Jet Skis or Miami Vice speedboats.) I really don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have the shop to go to (a two-second commute).
Interviewer Ken LeSure ’65 retired to the Poconos after a career teaching college psychology. He has owned several sailboats and nearly sank one of them in Lake Erie. He is the author of the cyber-thriller Cold Feat; his biblical parody, A Gospel According to Bubba, will be out soon. Ken’s grandson, Nat, was the most recent of four consecutive generations of his family to attend or work at Sidwell Friends.