Finding yourself in the bilge of a boat.
This is the story of second chances. Fifteen or so years ago Bill Kenyon was your typical middle manager at a food services company, working seventy hours a week, as he had been doing for the previous 25 years, and wondering what it was all for, what it was all about; why; and what the heck? The grind, the appalling hours, the endless travel were all beginning to take a huge toll on him, had been taking a toll on him, to be honest, for a long time. He and his wife were on a boat in St. Martins celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary when he decided to quit, just chuck it all and start something new. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he knew it wasn’t going to be managing breakfast, lunch and dinner, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
His wife suggested attending the International Yacht Restoration School – it had just started the year before, and on frequent trips to Newport they would visit and watch the shave and drill of boats being built. It took some convincing, but he eventually enrolled in the two-year program and graduated in June of 2006. He then went to work at Hinckley Yachts in Portsmouth as a carpenter and then jumped to East Passage Boatwrights as a full-fledged boatbuilder. He came back to the IYRS as an instructor in 2010, and this past year was made Director of Education under the new President Jay Coogan, who I also had the pleasure of meeting. Impressive, accomplished good man too.
Are you still stuck behind that large steel desk, your excuses, under a despised boss’s thumb, a nagging wife, an unhappy childhood? Or maybe you’re a hormonal teen, fed up with video games and the vacuous alluring promises of an educational system that seems more like a panicky liberal narrative, crammed down your choking throat? You could also be the type who hates routine, the certainty of subtle degradation, and wants some meaningful dirt under your fingernails, now. If you are, one or all, or just a wooden boat lover, then read on.
All of the students in the CNC program have to learn how to use the basic machine tools of their trade first: lathe, drill press, table router, etc. And then they have to make their own bench hook out of hardwood, with properly mitered corners – a useful tool that’s beautiful too. Then and only then do they begin the begin. Bill lamented the fact that the past couple of generations have gotten away from manual labor; in fact manual labor is now practically a dirty word in America. Back in the day almost everyone had “Farmer’s hands” because they were out weeding the garden or milking the cows, or splitting firewood. There’s an invaluable tactile and practical self-reliance you get from growing your own food and fixing your own vehicles and heating your own house that’s almost completely lost today – an everyday commune with the vagaries and nature and the fickle cycle of life – to everyone’s diminishment. Part of the mission of IYRS is to restore the dignity and respect manual labor deserves, to sync up the rhythms of the sea and the self. “We are makers” its website avers. I couldn’t agree more.
IYRS was founded in 1993 by Elizabeth Meyer and John Mecray, inspired by classes taught at the Museum of Yachting, and their own experience and love of sailing and the sea. John was a noted marine artist, and Elizabeth had just spent years restoring the classic America’s Cup yacht Endeavour, successfully, which she sailed for the first time in over 50 years on June 22, 1989. Elizabeth then organized the first J-Class race of the modern era, pitting Endeavour against Shamrock V right here in Newport. Elizabeth was “a force of nature” according to Bill, and she would have to be to overcome the nightmare unknown and numerous naysayers and financial challenges of founding such a world-class school.
I started working at Williams & Manchester Shipyard on May 10, 1981, the day after I resigned my commission in the U.S. Army. Howard Wharf back then was pretty working class – most of the “yachts” that came in and out were a mix of stern-trawlers and fishing boats, with the occasional sailboat or cabin cruiser chucked into the mix. I lived right behind Fifth Ward Liquor, and used to have breakfast every morning at Gary’s Handy Lunch. Bar fights that spilled out onto Thames Street were not unusual during Fleet Week, mostly between sailors, but sometimes included a duke-it-out with blustering townies, or with some Army knuckleheads. I just bumped into an old-timer the other day who was stationed in Newport at the time, and he said lower Pelham Street, now Bannister’s Wharf, was famously known as “Blood Alley.” I bring this all up because I used to park my Dodge Dart on Howard Wharf, right up against a boarded-up warehouse that sat empty for years and years. I never imagined that when I moved back to Newport four decades later it would be the headquarters of an internationally-renowned yacht restoration school. But it is. And what a marvelous shrine it is. The abandoned Aquidneck Mill Building, built in the 1800s and empty since at least the ‘60s has been fully restored and renamed the John Mecray Aquidneck Mill Building, the shiny-new headquarters for IYRS. It also houses the James Gubelmann Library, which serves as a student and open-to-the-public resource for the Museum of Yachting collection, which was acquired in 2007, as well as the central resource for IYRS’s growing collection of books and periodicals. The Dart Swinger Special has, I’m sure, long gone on to its own reward. But what a car – an old D-body Dodge with that indestructable slant-six – an ugly, reliable heap of dogbone tired delight. Wait, maybe you guys should also start an International Auto Restoration School…
Seriously, IYRs reputation for instilling the time-honored principles of hard work, discipline, perseverance, excellence, hustle, humor, and, well, the simple joy of just being alive while at the same time teaching valuable boatwrighting skills to dedicated craftspeople precedes it. Theories and textbooks are all well and good, and skinned-knuckles and elbow-grease definitely build character, but the real objective of this school seems to me to be all about nurturing an independent, can-do attitude that will enable and inspire the students way beyond the sawdust and sweat, and help them find meaning and purpose in their lives, whether that’s knee-deep in the bilge of a boat or at sometime in their careers seated at a desk in the C-suite. And its success speaks for itself.
The basic program is two years, and all first-year apprentices restore a traditional plank-on-frame wooden catboat, called the Beetle Cat, starting with measuring and lofting, and then drafting the standard three orthographic projections – bow/stern, profile and elevation. The students then build a half model, using the offsets from the drawings, and then graduate to the actual restoring (or rebuilding) of the boat itself. Teamwork and time-and-project management skills are inherent in the process, not incidental, as is honing a designer’s eye. Bill told me that one of his heroes, Nathaniel Green Herreshoff used to design his boats simply by carving the half-models. He never drew up plans – he just carved the half-model, a 15-inch long version of his vision, that when actually built, was 80 or more feet of fleet sailing perfection. It’s hard to overstate how astounding an achievement this is – the guy had a keen mind and eye almost unimaginable that up until now is still practically unrivalled.
The second-year students, budding boatbuilders, face a larger challenge: restoring multimillion dollar classic American yachts to the water. I spoke with a couple of the younger sophomores, and the verdict was almost unanimous across the board: building boats saved them from the ignominious fate of video game crack, as well as the expensive and futile hell of a four-year college. Now they love going to school every day – they were working with their hands and their buddies; learning something new all the time; and had opportunities open to them when they graduated that they could only have dreamed about a year or two earlier in their claustrophobic Woonsocket or Pawtucket worlds, full of thwarted ambition, boredom and the inevitable economic and educational tumult and inertia.
Bill told me about two students who had graduated from the Composites Technology Program, which I forgot to mention, or maybe it was the Digital Modeling and Fabrication Program, which I also forgot to mention, who both got jobs with a UK-based company that repairs wind farm turbines as soon as they graduated, just like that. What a future for them. He told me he had just had a chat with one of them last week, and the kid said he never dreamed he’d be rappelling 100 feet down the fan blade of a wind turbine to fix something broken by an errant seagull or flock of Canadian geese in East Treestump, Arkansas, but he was. And then on to some similar minor disaster in Willocoochee or East Beachside the next week, eight months of the year, at around $70,000 base salary, with benefits. Never.
Our conversation continued for almost 2 hours, and when Bill finally excused himself to go to a meeting, he told me to have a look around and take any pictures I wanted. So I went for a long walk down the dock, and out onto memory lane. Williams & Manchester is now an empty lot; the rigging shed and office are gone, the marina belongs to the condo next door, and there’s a swimming pool where the marine railway used to haul out Buccolo’s fishing boats. The old chandlery building is still there, empty and alone on the sea of parking lot tarmac –my buddy Bobby used to run it – he had married the owners Fred and Enid Bucci’s daughter, and he had the cushy job of literally minding the store. I’ll never forget when the yard was up for sale for a million dollars, Bobby told me that I should buy it – he had more than that in inventory alone. But I was a fatuous imbecile then, and maybe am still one even now, only a bit less dumb in not wiser, for sure – so I didn’t even know what I was passing up.
I wandered into the temporary building that houses the luxury schooner yacht Coronet, built for the oil tycoon Rufus T. Bush in 1883, and it’s a glorious133-foot long tribute to another time and place, and one of the last survivors of that golden era of sailing and promise. Bush was so proud and sure of his light-foot lass that he offered a $10,000 prize for a transatlantic challenge, and Coronet and the Caldwell Hart Colt designed yacht Dauntless raced across the big pond in March 1887. The victory made a Bush and his triumphant Coronet famous – in fact the New York Times devoted its entire front page for March 28, 1887 to the story.
Coronet, currently owned by Robert McNeil and Coronet Restoration Partners, is a continual work-in-progress, with a small staff of IYRS graduates and interns carefully and painstakingly restoring the classic back to her original grandeur. Just a wispy note of nostalgia to close out this monograph, and as a writer chiming in – think of all the glorious sailing lore and unique and fun phrases and parables and references and idioms and the rich tapestry of language and ideas that’ll fall by the wayside when the last of these vestiges, weighted with the freight of adventure and mystery from a bygone era vanish. I propose that we try to keep our vocabulary from shrinking and sinking too. Look what we have to lose: batten down the hatches; Shipshape and Bristol fashion; three sheets to the wind; walk the plank; the cut of your jib; fly by night; let the cat out of the bag; wearing an albatross around your neck. In ten or fifteen years who’ll even know what a devil’s claw is? Or a gudgeon, a scupper, or futtock? Is there anybody out there who can tell me what a dolphin striker is?
If you’ve read this far, you’ll see that there are a lot of second chances in this story. You’ll also know there aren’t a lot in life. So, what are you going to do with your few years left?