Masters of Magic - Soundings Online

Masters of Magic

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The skill and passion of a small boatyard in Connecticut have quietly been keeping wooden legends in top shape.

As a seaport of historic import, Mystic, Connecticut, faces south, toward the swells of the Atlantic. That’s where business was, and that’s where the ships plied their trade. Therefore, driving away from the water and into the hinterlands to find a link to nautical tradition seems counterintuitive.

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But turning off Flanders Road at the weathered red wheelhouse parked in the shrubs leads to the shop of McClave, Philbrick & Giblin, which specializes in the restoration of classic sailing yachts that might be a century old or more.

The trip takes only a few minutes, and it ends in a place that offers up the sweet fragrance of fresh-cut cedar, oak and larch; the whine of table saws and planes; and the staccato of rubber mallets, all mashed up with the raspy sound of classic rock that pours from a dust-covered radio.

A couple of shipwrights are bent over two stripped-down hulls, which are elegant but dated in their shape. They belong to a Buzzards Bay 25 and a Buzzards Bay 15, two classes that Nathanael Herreshoff designed before World War I. Somewhere in this orderly chaos is a whiteboard with cryptic notes about tasks on the job list. The upper right corner is occupied by the words “Project Terror Alert.” But on this day the space next to them is empty — in other words, no sweat.

When fiberglass replaced wood as the building material of choice, boats could be stamped out on an assembly line like other mass-produced items. Fiberglass boats were more durable and affordable, but they were indistinctive, short on character and often of limited aesthetic appeal. When the pendulum swung back in the early 1980s, old wooden boats suddenly became hip. Classic collectibles, perhaps. And restoring them is the livelihood of MP&G.

“We like to go for the big, thorough projects,” says Andrew Giblin, one of the partners, defining the firm’s core business.

Andy Giblin has a rare quiet moment in the MP&G shop.

Such jobs can be daunting in their magnitude and infinitely complex and granular in their details. Restoring Spartan, for example, the only surviving New York 50, a 72-foot Herreshoff design from 1913 and the nautical equivalent of the last unicorn. Or resurrecting Amorita, a New York 30 from 1905 that was sent to the bottom off Conanicut Island, Rhode Island, in a collision during a race several years ago. Or working on Mink, the Buzzards Bay 25 that her owner wanted restored to launch-day 1914 condition, including little flaws such as inserting the same shims that shipwrights used to level her deck beams. Scrupulous sleuthing for historical details is part of the job, as is tapping a network of hoarders and sources that can re-create missing bits and pieces that are true to the originals.

Works of art

Rising from the sawdust of successful restoration projects, the firm started in Ben Philbrick’s barn in Stonington, Connecicut, circa 1980. Giblin joined in 1987 as the jobs got bigger and more complex. In 2000 they opened the new and expandable shop in the current location, but Philbrick, a skilled shipwright and a “calm and reasonable presence,” in Giblin’s words, left to work in the solar industry. His partners stuck to their guns and continue to create boat magic.

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They always have been selective with their projects. “We work on Nevins boats but mostly on Herreshoffs,” Ed McClave says. “They were built better than most others, so they held up longer and became objects of restorations.” And accumulating knowledge, he adds, speeds matters up. “Knowing the specific problems and how to fix them makes us more efficient than other shops that also do nice work.”

Serendipity was an ally, too. Elizabeth Meyer’s lavish refit of the 1934 J Class yacht Endeavour in the mid-1980s kicked off a boom for high-end restorations. It helped create and expand the market for the folks in Stonington. “We were a good deal,” says McClave, with a laugh. “We were poor at the time and didn’t care to get rich.” But they did good work, which became good advertising.

Like generations of boatbuilders before them, McClave and Giblin had to learn to close the delta between what they wanted to do and what their customers were willing to pay for. Quality craftsmanship is a key factor in restorations, but so is winning the owner’s trust. One builds on the other, and it helped MP&G build a customer base that generated both new jobs and repeat business. “There is an intrinsic peace of mind working with these guys,” says Bill Doyle, who co-owns several yachts that are regulars at the shop. “They treat the boats as if they were their own.”

Over time MP&G became a kind of family physician to the wooden-boat community in this area, knowing the patients’ personalities and their health records dating back to birth. One of those patients is Salty, a 1945 New York 32 by Sparkman & Stephens that was built at the Nevins yard in City Island, New York, and has been a regular at MP&G for nearly 20 years.

But the scene is changing, Giblin observes. Owners have become better educated and sophisticated, wanting specific materials and construction techniques. Engineering now is an integral part of big restoration projects, such as Spartan’s, which 100 years ago represented the state of the art in racing-yacht technology. “I’ve been working on her half of my life,” jokes McClave.

MP&G started a structural restoration that took several years in the 1980s. However, the owner suspended the project and the boat wound up sitting on the hard at the Herreshoff museum in Bristol, Rhode Island, until two moonstruck owners bought her and commissioned a full restoration. That job lasted from 2006 to 2010, stretching the shop’s and Giblin’s capacity to their limits with up to a dozen men on the crew and easily as many contractors.

During the off-season, these yachts are stored in sheds at Noank Marine Service, a few steps from MP&G’s workshop, or by the water at Mystic Shipyard. These facilities have moisture-retaining dirt floors and sprinkler systems to prevent planks from drying out, shrinking or warping. Visiting is like spelunking in a place where the Wild Things are, except they are slumbering high up in their cradles.

Spartan’s sinuous body and manicured condition are evident despite the protective covers. “You’re a curator of art while you’re also running a boat that was designed to race,” says Charles Festa, Spartan’s captain. He took over from Andrew Coughlin, who was part of the restoration crew before he was hired as the yacht’s first mate. Before becoming captain, Coughlin served as the “warranty guy” to help with the transition from project boat to racing yacht because Spartan is not your garden-variety 72-footer. There is no other boat like her, and she can be a handful when she carves up the course, flying her 2,000-square-foot main, a club tops’l and assorted headsails. Maintaining her perfect appearance and keeping her out of harm’s way is a full-time job. Asked to quantify the amount of work, Festa offers a simple answer: “Oh, man.”

Builders and counselors

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Racing is another pillar of MP&G’s strategy. It’s the ultimate test for classic vessels that are babied 24/7 — hence the term “trailer queens” — but get whipped around the buoys to their owners’ delight. Giblin and his associates often crew during the regatta season, not just for thrills but also to maintain relationships. It’s smart psychology, too, because the owners of winning boats are more likely to write checks for more than minimum maintenance.

Minimum maintenance never was a topic for Doyle and Ed Pearsall, who co-own Amorita, the most prominent of the surviving NewYork 30s. During 110 tempestuous years, that vessel demonstrated a flair for drama and a rare skill: cheating death. The first time was in 1975 in Ohio, when she was more flotsam than boat. But Neptune had mercy and sent a good soul who bought her the minute before the wrecking ball was about to come down. She was repaired and later completely restored before moving to New England in the 1980s, where she became a darling of Newport’s rarefied classic-yacht scene. Doyle says her hull — “the canoe” — still contained a good share of original substance that required considerable effort — and obsession — to be kept intact.

After a collision in 2007, it was painful to see what had happened to Amorita. But the owners knew MP&G, which had worked on her original restoration, would meticulously return her to perfect shape.

Her second run-in with Davy Jones occurred on the ominous date of 07/07/07, when she was T-boned by the 94-foot ketch Sumurun and sunk off Beavertail Light — luckily without injury to her crew. The ghastly pictures of that accident went around the world. At MP&G the news hit like a sledgehammer; Amorita had been family since she first came in for work in the mid-1990s.

“When we towed her in after she was raised from the bottom, Andy was there, choking back the tears,” Doyle recalls. “Yet he assured us to have courage and faith that this can be fixed. Only later did he admit that he wasn’t so sure himself at that time.”

Thanks to dedicated owners and skilled artisans, Armorita has come back from the brink more than once and lived to race again.

To the insurer, Amorita was totaled. After a prolonged legal tussle, Pearsall and Doyle settled but still took a hit when they decided to resurrect the boat. “Had we let her go, we would never have been able to sleep at night,” Doyle says. “It would have been like pulling the plug on your daughter.”

Much had to be replaced, but many pieces that were frantically plucked from the water right after the sinking, and collected after they’d washed up on the beach, were reused. And when the boat was recommissioned in 2011, Doyle noticed with great satisfaction that “every tangible part felt exactly the same as before.”

Both McClave and Giblin are well aware that repairing and restoring boats is but one part of their job. The other is dealing with the psyche of the people who wander into their workshop to smell fresh-cut wood, listen to classic rock and watch the shipwrights tend to their boats, which possess the magic to make their dreams come true. “If it’s not fun, they wouldn’t do it,” Giblin says, adding that “budgets can be big, but they are not unlimited.”

'If it's not fun, they wouldn't do it,' Giblin says of MP&G's customers, who appreciate the shop's comfortable atmosphere. 'Budgets are big, but they're not unlimited.'

By the looks of things, though, the terror alert level remains low because boatwrights and owners see eye to eye. It’s a beautiful business but hard work. And doing it as long as MP&G has, with as many different customer personalities, is perhaps the real magic of this boat shop tucked away in the woods, a few miles inland from the old seaport of Mystic.

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