Traditional wooden boatbuilding is an increasingly diminishing art. Fiberglass production boats have taken the water by storm in the past 60 years, with wooden vessels now mostly available on the used boat market or as one-off custom projects. But there are still a handful of builders that specialize in wooden construction on a semi-production scale. They create unique vessels that are bursting with character. One such builder is First Light Boatworks in Chatham, Massachusetts, where owners Woody Metzger and Jim Donovan build wooden power and sailboats at a yard that also does its fair share of refit and maintenance work.
Metzger has logged countless hours at sea. Raised on Cape Cod by a commercial fisherman, he learned to fix up old boats—“pieces of junk,” as he calls them—from a young age in order to get on the water. He has since owned a succession of vessels, including Novi skiffs, catboats, Lyman lapstrake designs and Blue Jay dinghies.
Boating has also been in Jim Donovan’s blood since childhood, when he started building skiffs with his uncle when he was a school-age boy. The two men first crossed paths at Arey’s Pond Boat Yard on Cape Cod, where Metzger did finishing work and Donovan did construction. “Young age is the best time to learn,” says Metzger of his early years fixing up boats. “Nothing is daunting.”
Though Metzger would eventually leave the industry for a stint to work in residential construction and coastal management, he brought that same curiosity and work ethic with him when he accepted a general manager position at Pease Boat Works in Chatham, a shop that specialized in hand-built wooden boats, from skiffs to 36-foot ketches. His first day on the job, he recognized that owners Mike and Brad Pease seemed ready to step down. So, he called Donovan that same day with a proposition to purchase the business together. Donovan had also stepped away from the industry to build houses, but he agreed to take the plunge. Eleven months later, in January 2017, they officially purchased the business and renamed it First Light Boatworks.
Today, First Light operates with a staff of about 10 people, with Donovan managing the floor and Metzger in charge of marketing, client relations and sales. Their shop on the waterfront is where they build and refit boats; it also has a marine railway, pier and private mooring field for First Light customers.
“The Pease brothers left a platform for Jim and me to jump off of,” Metzger says. Following in the footsteps of the previous owners, Metzger and Donovan began building their own wooden boats using traditional construction methods, adopting some of the Pease brothers’ designs and bringing on their own naval architect, Max Tringale, to make improvements and expand their lineup.
Metzger and Donovan’s first major undertaking as new owners was building the Empress of Blandings, a 34-foot double-ended ketch inspired by Danish fishing boats. It launched in the summer of 2018. The custom, in-house design is a carvel build with a full keel that was designed as an ocean-goer and outfitted as a daysailer. “It was a completely traditional build, rather than one made with modern epoxy construction,” says Donovan, who still calls this boat his favorite four years later.
Although Metzger and Donovan are sailors and took on a sailboat as their first major project, First Light is perhaps most known for its lapstrake powerboat semi-production series, which Metzger says accounts for approximately 70 percent of demand.
When the Pease brothers sold the business, they left Metzger and Donovan with the designs for the Monomoy First Light 26. This lapstrake, wood-epoxy open boat featured a self-bailing cockpit and was powered by a 115- or 140-hp Suzuki outboard mounted in a well and concealed by a hinged engine box. With the help of Tringale, Metzger and Donovan improved that original design—they made it completely airtight, for instance—and started offering it to their customers. They also expanded the series to include a runabout called the Tashmoo 26 and a wheelhouse version dubbed the Pocasset 26, both based on the same hull design.
First Light continues to power its 26-footers with a 140-hp Suzuki outboard, which Metzger claims is far superior to inboard propulsion in terms of exhaust and noise mitigation—two major turnoffs for someone who has always been a sailor. The boats are built using a seam-epoxied, monocoque construction method, which means there are no fasteners present when the build is complete. The wood and epoxy composite is extremely lightweight and strong, with the 26 weighing less than 4,000 pounds. “It’s a 26-foot boat that goes 30 knots,” Metzger says. “It can go in the skinniest waters or the Gulf of Mexico.”
Tringale has also designed 18-foot and 22-foot lapstrake boats for First Light. The 22 can be built as either a runabout or a center console, and it is powered by a 90-hp Suzuki outboard. Additionally, First Light has designs for everything from a 16-foot lapstrake to a 30-foot Carolina boat, a 36 sedan cruiser, a 42-footer and even a wooden kayak.
Clients can request one-off custom boats of different sizes as well. “Our favorite thing is to have someone come in and say, ‘This is what I want,’” says Metzger, who invites clients to take part in the build process and offer their input along the way. “Every single boat is different, tweaked to the owner’s preference.” First Light does not keep an inventory of boats, and according to Metzger, the current delivery period is just over a year.
One of the most characteristic features of First Light’s lapstrake series is the array of hull colors offered, from whites to pastel greens to deep turquoises. Most colors are custom-made at the shop, and when paired against the prominent brightwork, they give the boats a striking look that draws the eye, which was always Metzger’s intention. “A boat can be breathtaking,” he says. “Having been in a billion different boats, I wanted something that was exquisite but still strong and enjoyable to use.”
In addition to building beautiful, seaworthy boats, First Light is committed to sustainability. Not only is the shop 100 percent solar-powered, but the company has also been exploring electric propulsion options for its boats. According to Metzger, a customer can order any boat with an electric Torqeedo outboard and BMW i3 battery instead of a Suzuki, though the 22 is most appropriate for that package. “We’re ready. We’re just waiting for the first client,” he says. “If the boat stays here, it could charge on the pier and probably make it to the islands.” Currently, Metzger and Donovan are working on repowering their 1972 Bob Baker schooner, which they use for fun and to promote sailing to their customers, with a Torqeedo to further prove electric propulsion’s viability, especially for island hopping around the Cape, where most of their customers reside.
In total, Metzger and Donovan have built between 16 and 18 boats since acquiring the company. Ten of those models were lapstrake powerboats. “Since 2017, we have not been out of production on a new build,” says Metzger. “It’s been five years of full-tilt, pedal-to-the-metal work.” Now, they are taking a small step back to catch up on refits, rebuilds and maintenance work—they perform annual service on almost all of the boats they have built at their shop—while gearing up for more new builds in the future.
Given Metzger’s background in sailing and his success building powerboats at First Light, you might wonder if he still prefers sailing over powerboating. “I would always have said I prefer sailing, but having logged so many miles in these power boats, I have to admit I enjoy them just as much as sailing,” he says. Metzger recalls the time he launched a Pocasset 26 at First Light and delivered it to a client in the Gulf of Mexico, the ultimate test of the boat’s performance at sea. “Noise and exhaust were not an issue,” he says.
Still, he hopes to build more sailboats at First Light in the future, and maybe someday change the balance of power to sail from 70-30 to 60-40. Above all else, however, First Light’s main motivation is to continue creating unique, traditional, American-built boats with character. “These boats are offshoots of our personalities,” Metzger says. “I’m proud to be manufacturing a product in this country.”
This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue.