As I drove down Hope Street in Bristol, RI, I rolled down my window and slightly tilted my head back. It was a cold day, but the ocean aroma of Bristol Harbor reminded me of how long it had been since I’d been near the water. As I crawled past Walley Street, I knew I’d be coming up on the historic Burnside Street momentarily and I kept my eyes peeled. Then, looming around the corner in a small clearing, was the 75′ America’s Cup racing yacht “Defiant.” Just the sight of her was one to behold. A boat whose every square inch and every line is carefully designed specifically for speed.
Being next to a boat of this size and grace is enough to make the hair on my neck stand up, but walking down historic Burnside Street and seeing signs for The Herreshoff Museum and Bristol Boat Company made the racing yacht fade in comparison. Burnside Street is truly one of those streets that you can say, “This is where is all began.”
I was scheduled to meet Dan Shea Jr in a couple of minutes. After a couple photos of “Defiant,” I made my way over to Bristol Boat Company and walked in. It is a large, very old wooden building with much of the paint chipping off from the years of exposure to the salty air of the nearby harbor. As I entered, I was immediately struck with that familiar aroma of freshly cut wood, but all that stood in front of me was a set of stairs and what looked like a closet door. I walked up the stairs, down a long dark hall, and back down a set of stairs. There, my only option was a door to the outside. I retraced my steps and started over, but I tried the closet door this time.
The small door opened to a giant room with various boats under repair lined up in boat stands. It became immediately clear that this was a Herreshoff shop as I could immediately identify a couple of 12 1/2 hulls, including one upside down being completely rebuilt. I found a gentleman making some very precise measurements on the upside down 12 1/2 and asked for Dan Shea. “Yup, he should be in the next room,” he said in a friendly tone.
As I walked in, I found a man standing hunched over a 10′ batten. The batten was bent around some nails and clamps on the bench. I watched and the man continued to work on getting it exact. The line he was drawing was about 2′ long and the ends of the batten hung lengthily off the bench. I went over and introduced myself and he graciously stopped was he was doing and we started what would be a long and “rich” conversation.
Bristol Boat Company is a vision. Dan Shea Jr runs a tight ship and demands perfection in both his and his carpenters’ work. But it isn’t as if Dan is just some anal retentive, curmudgeon boat builder. Actually, quit the opposite. Dan is filled with passion for boats, boating, boat building, and boat design. He studies lines constantly and has for many years. His knowledge of boats and boat building is exceptional and his graciousness in sharing it all is fantastic. You see, Dan is not this way just because he loves boats, Dan feels an obligation and an accountability to various people and with every boat.
The typical boat in the Bristol Boat Company shop is a wooden sailboat (although they recently restored a Chris Craft). Dan’s feelings of obligation and accountability start with the designer of the boat. Whether it was designed 10 or 100 years ago, Dan feels that simply repairing a boat is not enough and that the true meaning of his work is getting that boat as close to what was originally intended by the designer as possible. His next obligation is to the owner of the boat. Dan’s repairs are near flawless and each one is true to the boats history. Dan encourages customers to come in during the restoration process to get status updates and to see the work involved. He feels that relationship is critical. Finally, Dan feels accountable to his family and putting food on the table. That ensures that Dan works efficiently and effectively to keep projects moving through the company. This is evident in Dan’s shop.
The shop is setup very strategically with work stations for different tasks. Just about every thing in this very large space has a place and a purpose. The large power tools are cleaned and covered every night and checked in the morning. Tools are sharp and readily available wherever they are needed. There is very little time wasted moving things around or rearranging anything to accommodate a task. The Bristol Boat Company shop floor is the culmination of decades of experience honing various shops and using the space to the full potential.
As you can tell by the length of this blog, I greatly enjoyed my interview with Dan Shea Jr at Bristol Boat Company. Dan shed a new perspective on boat building and boat restoration for me. If you wanted to create the perfect boat builder/shop manager, the path Dan has followed through his career is ideal and if anyone could have been perfectly trained for the role, it was him. In addition, he was simply delightful to chat with and his passion for the world of wooden boats should be cherished and passed on to future generations. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. You can listen below and don’t forget to register for the Heritage Boatworks Monthly Newsletter so you don’t miss a single episode.