At 4pm yesterday I was told I was heading down to Cape Cod today for a meeting. Again I scrambled to take advantage of the opportunity to get another interview for my podcast. I decided to tap into Wareham, MA. It is a town rich with boat building history including two legends of the trade, Beetle Inc and Cape Cod Shipbuilding. I will be interviewing the folks at Beetle Inc next month. For today I set my sites on Cape Cod Shipbuilding Company. I arrived unannounced and met a man named Michael Magni. Michael is the Purchasing Manager at Cape Cod Shipbuilding and the former Yard Foreman. He graciously offered me a tour of the grounds while we waited for the President, Wendy Goodwin, to arrive.
Typically in these posts I mention a tour of the “shop” and not a tour of the “grounds.” Cape Cod Shipbuilding is a different animal. The grounds span 9 acres of land on the banks of the Wareham River. We started our tour down at the boat lift ramp with the lightship Nantucket across the river in the background. It was a beautiful New England scene of rust colored steel plates and old wooden pilings, but nothing I had not seen at other waterfront shops. I snapped a couple of pictures and listened to Mike explain the items before me. He then pointed out a couple of railroad tracks coming out of the sand about 30 feet from the waters edge and continuing down into the water. As Mike explained the network of railroad tracks to move boats around the property to their various stations, I could feel my mind traveling back in time and imaging the whole elaborate operation as it was in early parts of the 20th century. As we walked up from the waterfront to the main buildings, those feelings grew until I was immersed in this history rich mecca of boat building.
The pictures below will do more justice to this beautiful place than my words can, but with every building we entered, I was simply awestruck at the care and preservation of the art of boat building. Mike’s knowledge of the company’s history and boats was astounding and I could not have asked for a better tour guide. As he said, “Technology moved very quickly right up until the war (WW II), but from there it really hasn’t moved much at all here because of the boats we build.” While technology can make a process less expensive and more efficient, it can also cut corners and quality from a boat. For that reason, Cape Cod Shipbuilding has elected to preserve many of the processes that may take a bit longer but yield a higher quality result.
During wartime, Cape Cod Shipbuilding was producing 1.5 tugboats per week with about 100 employees! Perhaps the most impressive part of the operation was the wood mill and the lay-up shop, between which was an underground mine railway so that they could transport the boats back and forth without the temperature change effecting the setup of the epoxy. The wood mill itself was an insurers nightmare in its operational days. Old saws with giant spinning wheels and thick rusty blades illustrate the “old yankee way” of practical, sturdy, and effective machinery with little regard for the operator’s safety. Thankfully, most of the older machines are not operable, but Mike says they do fire them up on occasion just to keep them operational.
As we moved over to the active fiberglass and wood working shop, we walked into an oddly shaped building. A small room on the right housed a pallet full of rolls of fiberglass mat and a large cutting board for cutting the fiberglass to shape. To the left, a large room was filled with that glorious epoxy resin aroma and a number of molds, mixing buckets, templates, and the like. The ceiling was low in the middle and rose up about 10′ on each side. These heights continued running parallel to the end of the room. At the top of the higher portions of the ceiling were large i-beams and chain falls. This was clearly a building built for a very specific purpose; to work on boats efficiently and to be able to easily move them into the next room (the woodworking shop). In the area farthest from us, two men were hand laying the fiberglass mat with epoxy rollers into a Daysailer 17′. As Mike proudly informed me, all boats are hand laid. They actually purchased a fiberglass chop gun years ago, but were not satisfied with the quality of results (see previous comment regarding technology cutting corners).
As we moved on to the wood shop, templates of all shapes and sizes adorned the walls. I was actually amazed at how the epoxy odor completely vanished when we closed the door in the temporary wall between the 2 rooms. In the corner of the wood shop a man worked on a small Herreshoff sailboat. mike informed me that all of the woodwork was being replaced and the man added, “The grandkids beat the tar out of this poor girl boat every season.” It was clear the community that Cape Cod Shipbuilding has created. Wendy Goodwin mentions on the interview that half the joy of owning a business like this is the community they create. Folks purchase, service, and store boats at Cape Cod Shipbuilding. Over the years and through 3 generations of Goodwins, Cape Cod Shipbuilding has established an amazing trust and repetoire with their customers. The boats are of the utmost quality which means they are passed down from generation to generation. With that passing comes the tales mentioned in my blog, but also comes the trust of future generations. If Dad and grandpa bought and serviced the boat at Cape Cod Shipbuilding, the next generation will inherently continue that trust and patronage. Obviously that is something the Kennedy family found important when electing a boat builder for their H-12’s (http://www.capecodshipbuilding.com/site/kennedy.htm).
In summary, Cape Cod Ship Building is a top-quality boat builder with a rich history. In addition, it is a truly special place that is a true glimpse back into the early days of boat building in New England. There are many shops that still build boats in wood, but Cape Cod Shipbuilding stuck with the technology advances just a bit further into the fiberglass age and then stopped when that craft was perfected. The lay ups are done by hand in a building where the temperature and humidity is meticulously controlled to yield the finest possible cure. The boats are truly works of art and they have been that way for over 75 years.
Visit them on the web for more information and enjoy the interview with Wendy Goodwin, below.
Thank you for reading!