Since the early 1970s, Jock Williams has built hundreds of boats. This summer, his yard, John Williams Boat Company in Mount Desert, Maine, launched a Williams 28 Bass Boat named Sea Shepherds. Sitting at one of the boatyard’s docks on Somes Sound—a yard that Jock built out of an abandoned stone quarry—the 28 fits right in with Maine’s lobster boats.
That’s not a coincidence. The 28’s hull is a Lyford Stanley design. Most of the boats Jock built over the past 50 years were designed by Lyford, a native Mainer who built wooden lobster boats on Mount Desert Island.
Jock is not a native Mainer. He is, as they say in Maine, “from away.” He grew up in Englewood, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City where his father operated a company that made knitted goods. “We had a very pleasant, easy life,” Jock says. That easy life included a home on Martha’s Vineyard where Jock’s boating career began at the age of 14, when he was hired to run the new gas dock at Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard in Vineyard Haven.
Jock quickly picked up sailing and shared the gas dock job with his brother. On the weekends, when most of the regattas took place, Jock would hire someone else to pump the gas. “We were constantly sailing and working,” Jock says. Over eight summers, he did seven Bermuda races, skippering one of them.
He also raced in a 1960 transatlantic race aboard Ondine, Sumner “Huey” Long’s 57-foot yawl, which allowed him to visit his brother who was then serving with the U.S. Army in Europe. Together they visited Paul Molich’s boatyard in Denmark. “I got to know Paul well,” Jock says, “and he invited me to come and work for him as an apprentice.”
But he had to finish school. He returned to Maine’s Colby College, graduating in 1962, attended Naval Officer Candidate School and got shipped off to Pearl Harbor to satisfy his military service requirement. He served on a 350-foot fleet tug that was converted to a survey vessel and was sent off to the Vietnamese coast for a year. “It wasn’t horrible,” he says about that experience.
He spent the next two years as the varsity sailing coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he helped devise the Kennedy Cup, a competition in which 10 college teams from around the country competed in 44-foot Luders yawls. The Naval Academy crew did well, and an admiral allowed Jock to skipper one of the yawls on a transatlantic race to Copenhagen.
When Jock got out of the Navy, he called Molich. “He said, ‘Ja Ja, you come,’” Jock recalls. Jock got on a military plane with his wife and two kids, bought a VW bus and drove to Denmark. The next day at 5 a.m. he went to work.
The yard was building two Sparkman & Stephens 36-foot sailboats with varnished mahogany hulls. Rod Stephens was there every six weeks. “I got to know him pretty well, “Jock says.” I didn’t get to know Olin, even though he was there, but Rod was right on the floor with us.”
Unlike the other apprentices who worked on one discipline for years, Molich exposed Jock to every aspect of boatbuilding. Jock lofted, built frames and learned the boatbuilding process from beginning to end. “I was so lucky,” he says. But after a year, making $35 per week, he ran out of money. “I had a marvelous time,” Jock says. “It was plain pleasure. I got to work in a field that was very much alive then.”
He returned to the States and regularly talked to Bob Hinckley at the Hinckley yard in Manset, Maine. He interviewed with Chris-Craft and other builders, but after about six or seven of those interviews, Bob Hinckley asked him, “Why don’t you come work for us?”
When Hinckley decided to build a brand-new shop for fiberglass work, Jock was picked to run it. He was told that if he did well, he could become the general manager. “That did not happen,” Jock says. Henry Hinckley, Bob’s father, returned to the yard and started running things again. “He was a one-man band,” Jock says. “He never talked to Bob or his brother. He just said, ‘do this, do that.’” When Henry hired a guy to run the line and Jock didn’t even get a crack at the job, Jock quit. “At the time it was painful,” Jock says, “but it worked out really well.”
Meanwhile, Lyford’s wife, Norma, who’d worked with Jock at Hinckley, had encouraged him to join forces with her husband. “She was smart,” Jock says. “She said, ‘you and Lyford need to get together and build a fiberglass boat.’”
Lyford was self-taught, but his boats were fast and well-built. “You know how people in Maine can be really smart, but they have no credentials?” Jock says. “Lyford was like that. I don’t think he got past eighth grade.”
In 1973, the two men joined forces and began what would become a lifelong friendship. At first, they worked at Lyford’s place in Bass Harbor. Lyford had designed and built a 36-foot wooden lobster hull. Jock, Norma and Jock’s wife, Debbie, made a mold off it. They finished the wooden boat, shipped it to the owner, and moved the mold into the shop. “It was crazy the way we lived,” Jock says. “Lyford had a little trailer, and we had a big skillet. We’d have venison in the skillet with onions and we’d go back to work.”
That Christmas, at a cocktail party, Leon Pierce, the best line fisherman in the area, turned to Jock and said, “can I buy that 36-foot hull that’s in front of Lyford’s place?” They moved the fiberglass hull into Lyford’s shop where Lyford finished it. “I got that order, and I was so excited,” Jock says.
In the interim, Jock’s father had found a piece of property on Somes Sound, the old Hall Quarry site that at one time had employed 2,000 people and provided granite for the Library of Congress, Philadelphia’s U.S. Mint and the JFK Memorial. Jock’s father bought the water frontage. Jock finished off a second fiberglass 36-footer. They moved to the quarry location, word got out about the fiberglass Stanley 36, and business boomed.
“I had 10 to 15 orders for a long time,” Jock says. “We were cranking.” All the boats they built in the 1970s were lobster boats. They would build the hull, put the bearings, the main shaft, the engine beds, and sometimes also the engine in it, install the rudder, clean the boat up, paint the inside and provide a flange for the deck and the platform. Then, Jock and Lyford would send the hull off to another builder or fisherman to be finished out.
“It was pretty crude, and it was quick,” Jock says. “We built a hull that was practically indestructible. It was thick and heavy. It had a nice flat runout and a fine entry, so when you rounded up on a trap you wouldn’t blow off it. In the new lobster boats, they lightened the hulls up with cores. What the new guys contended is that they got you out there farther and faster. I had no interest in that. We wanted something you would come home in. We would put a 1-inch layer of solid glass down, then foam, and then 6 inches of glass. If you took the keel off the boat, you wouldn’t sink.”
In 1982, they built a 36-foot pleasure boat for the Milliken family. They took it to Annapolis, Maryland, for the boat show, brought it back, and when another customer wanted more room in the forecastle, they added 36 inches to the middle of the hull to create the Stanley 38. After that, they built more pleasure boats.
Always carving half-models first, Lyford designed the Stanley 39, Stanley 42 and Stanley 44, which they built for yachters, commercial fishermen and sportfishermen. They also built a Stanley 28, which Lyford felt would make a great launch, but they also turned into a pleasure cruiser. “It would go like hell.” Jock says. “About 28 knots. It was dry. Great for fishing. We built one and then I sold another one.”
But gradually, servicing became the big moneymaker. In 2007, Lyford passed away while he was working on a Stanley 42, and when the economy tanked in 2008, the boatbuilding really slowed down. Until they built Sea Shepherds this year, the company hadn’t built a boat in 10 years.
The Williams 28 Bass Boat basically uses the same hull as the Stanley 28 cruiser but from the deck up it takes its design cues from the Crosby bass boats. “I really liked the Crosby,” Jock says. “I liked the crown in the deck and the way the windshield sits quite forward on the deck.”
To show me how the boat performs, Jock gets behind Sea Shepherds’ wheel. He adjusts the custom-designed helm seat and takes me and the yard’s general manager Jaime Weir for a ride on Somes Sound. Jock shows me how the boat can turn in its own radius, how quiet the inboard is at full throttle, how the huge teak windshield was designed to keep the driver dry even when water is coming over the bow, and how the windshield’s height was calculated so the caprail, which got its profile from an old doorknob, wouldn’t obstruct the driver’s vision while standing.
While Sea Shepherds was being built, the yard would email pictures to Jock at his winter home in Hawaii. “I’m pretty dictatorial when we build a boat,” Jock admits. When he didn’t like something, he’d tell them to change it. “It costs us money to do that, but I don’t care,” he says. “I really don’t want to build a boat that isn’t right, that isn’t good. That’s the gist of it. I want to build a boat that talks to you, that responds to you, and you respond to it.”
But Jock says he is tired. “I’m 83 going on 84,” he says. “It took me 50 years to build this business. To look at it today, nine buildings, two Travelifts. We have 240 boats in storage, and we just built the 28-footer. I could sell more boats, but I’m not gonna do that now. I have a bad valve in my heart. I’m going to replace that valve, but I’m not going to go back running the business tooth and nail. I want to look out the window. I looked out at the water for five days from my house above the yard. For days, nothing happened, and on the fifth day there was a big splash in the upper harbor. It turned out to be a seal, probably eating pogies.”
As Jock steers Sea Shepherds back to the dock he asks Jaime what kind of prop is on the boat. Jaime gives him the prop size, but Jock wants to know whether it turns to the left or the right so he can reverse the engine to bring the stern into the dock. I suggest he use the thruster, but Jaime, who is standing next to me and knows Jock all too well, shakes his head. “He won’t use it,” he says. “Jock’s old school.”
Jock noses the bow up to the dock, reverses the 260-hp Yanmar engine and brings the boat parallel to the dock. Jaime and I tie the boat off and help Jock get off. Jock has to get to his car. He has a doctor’s appointment. As we walk up the ramp, I spot a classic Stanley with a black hull and varnished topsides. I ask if it’s a 36 or a 38. “That’s a 36,” Jaime says.” That’s Jock’s boat, Hokulani.”
When Jock hears the name of his boat he stops in his tracks and his eyes light up. “I want to take that boat to Europe and go through the canals,” he says. “I’ll take it through Britain and up to Denmark. That’ll be fun.”
Jock Williams may say he is tired, but when he gets a new heart valve, I doubt he’ll spend all his time staring out the window waiting for a seal to appear. The man is indefatigable.
This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue.