Every winter, yachts from around the world head for warm Caribbean waters, where the weather is friendly and the yachting community thrives in a well-developed infrastructure. Here, owners have their yachts serviced while enjoying their escape from the inhospitable weather in northern waters. In particular, their attention often turns to the brightwork on their boats, because in the Caribbean there are among some of the most skilled tradesmen in the industry. Dubbed by some as the “Varnishing Capital of the World,” the island of Antigua has become the go-to location for everything from routine maintenance work to extensive refits, with Antiguan varnishers earning a reputation around the world for their reliable, quality work.
Antigua’s varnishing industry began in the 1950s. The region was becoming a popular destination for yachts that, at the time, were still made from wood and required timely maintenance. To service these yachtsmen, the Antiguans first started to learn how to varnish through trial and error. Eventually, they received more formal training through paint and varnish manufacturers. The industry has thrived ever since.
In his book Ultimate Classic Yachts: 20 of the World’s Most Beautiful Classic Yachts, author Nic Compton recalls how owner and skipper Richard Oswald hired an Antiguan crew to strip and add 10 layers of varnish to his 112-year-old wooden schooner. “Each island [in the Caribbean] is good at different things,” Oswald told Compton. “You do the most visible varnish in Antigua because they do the best job.”
Today, however, American owners no longer need to cross oceans to employ these world-renowned craftsmen. As the reputation of Caribbean varnishers has grown, they have recognized new business opportunities in other parts of the world where yachts travel during the Caribbean’s off-season, allowing them to maintain steady work throughout the year. One of the most notable locations for these tradesmen is Newport, Rhode
Island, where there’s also a vibrant culture of classic boats, superyachts and everything in between.
It’s a blistering August day when I arrive at the Safe Harbor Newport Shipyard. The harbor is abuzz with yachts, owners and crewmembers making the most of the last days of summer. With every slip filled and so much action on the docks, you would never guess that only a few days prior, Hurricane Henri had moved through Rhode Island, forcing the marina into storm preparation mode. As quickly as the yard locked down, however, it rebounded with activity, because boating is a critical component of Newport’s culture. For varnishers, that culture is good for business.
Two varnishers who are fixtures in Newport are brothers Marcus and Guy James from Saint Lucia, who co-own MJ Yacht Maintenance and have been working here for 37 years. I meet them on the classic sailing yacht Valero, where they are working on the interior floorboards.
“Newport is one of the best places on the East Coast for maintenance work,” Marcus says with a smile as he steps away from his work to speak with me. “There are at least 10 to 12 crews here that come from all over.”
Marcus had originally started varnishing in Saint Lucia, where yacht owners who were wintering there told him he had to see Newport. So, he sailed up as a crewmember on a ship, and he continued crewing once he got to the U.S. He then started his own varnishing company, bought a house in Newport and got married. Since then, his business has continued to grow through word of mouth. “It’s a small community. Anytime you do good work, your name goes around,” he says.
The best thing about Newport, Marcus says, is that there is always an abundance of boats. “There is a little bit of competition [between crews], but there’s so much work,” he explains. “It’s more about keeping your name and having a good reputation. If you have a good reputation, there will always be work.”
The James brothers certainly keep busy. Although spring is the busiest season, they have worked on three different boats over the past week alone. “The season is so short, and people want to use the boats between work, so you’re pressed for time,” Marcus says.
Because of the short season, Marcus and Guy, like many other varnishers, head for warmer climes in the winter months. While many varnishers return to Antigua for the season, the brothers winter in Florida. And they are often working on the same boats each season. They have been applying their talents to Valero for 10 years and even delivered her from Savannah, Georgia, to West Palm Beach, Florida, last winter. “Some boats you get attached to,” Marcus says. “Valero is one of my favorites.”
A few docks over, working on the yacht Anemoi, another varnisher is just starting his career in the trade, having only been on the job in Newport for one week. For 19-year-old Joseph O’Garro, the decision to move from Antigua to Newport was not merely a business opportunity, but rather a decision that was rooted both in family history and the desire to forge his own path. A third-generation varnisher, he is now working for his uncle, John O’Garro, at JJ Boat Work, the company John started after branching away from his father’s varnishing business in Newport.
“If I have the opportunity to pick up a new trade, I always take the chance,” says O’Garro, who used to sing, dance and debate before pursuing this new occupation. Today, he is dressed for work in the sun in a bucket hat, shades, gel knee pads and a long-sleeve T-shirt bearing the company name. But if the heat has gotten to his head, he certainly doesn’t show it. He beautifully articulates his zeal for the occupation.
“I enjoy working in the quiet, learning new things, getting things done,” he explains. This job fulfills all three, allowing him to work independently with his hands doing varnishing, painting and fiberglassing. A typical workday spans from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., though they will work later if necessary, as jobs need to be wrapped up in two weeks tops so owners can get back on the water. JJ Boat Work is usually working on three to four boats at a time.
For O’Garro, who is following in the footprints of his uncle and grandfather, it is his connection to family that has helped lead him down this path. Yet, he is also fiercely independent, leaving behind his closest family back home—including his mother, who is a member of the Royal Police Force, and his father, who owns a construction company—to make his own name and discover his own calling. “I test everything to see what path suits me,” he says. “Test it and perfect it.”
While Newport Shipyard is perhaps the most populated hub for varnishers, crews travel to different marinas around the area, wherever there are jobs. As these craftsmen continue to work on vessels at the Shipyard through the heat of the day, I head to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, to meet another crew at Hinckley Yachts. The boat I’ve come to see, a wooden sailing vessel, is on the hard. Four varnishers rest in the shade cast by her hull, taking a short break. They all work for the company Original Varnish, owned by Ricky Thomas.
“I’m well known around Newport and all over the United States,” says Thomas, who goes by the name Rankin. “I have a high-level knowledge of doing varnish.”
Rankin left Antigua for Newport 30 years ago and now oversees 12 people at his company, which also works on houses. His decision to come to the U.S. was simple: “Less competition,” he says. “I travel to wherever the job is.” Now, Rankin’s list of clients includes such well-known builders as Sparkman & Stephens, and he has worked on everything from 14-foot Downeast Peapods to 12 Metres. His preference, however, is to work on classic boats, though he won’t name a favorite. “The most rewarding part of the job is putting varnish on, and the boat looks like a million bucks,” he says. “Especially if someone comes by and says, ‘Wow!’”
Rankin often returns to Antigua for a month in the winter, where he can visit with family and work on more boats. Our conversation shifts to how vastly different the culture surrounding varnishing is in Antigua than it is in America. In America, Rankin explains, varnishing is often considered undesirable work, as people want to work inside an office and keep their hands clean. In Antigua, however, it is a revered and sought-after career that creates good opportunities for the tradesmen.
“Varnishing is a traditional thing in Antigua,” Rankin says. “Lots of people travel there from Europe because we’re the best at it. I just use my talent.” He echoes Marcus in saying that reputation is everything, and he is proud of the name he has built for himself in Newport and beyond; it keeps him perpetually busy.
This career is not just about making a living. It is about tradition and family. It is about working independently and perfecting a craft. It is about seeing the world from the decks of magnificent ships. And it is about leaving a mark on some of the most spectacular boats on the water, becoming a part of their story forever. “It can be very rewarding when you get everything done and see the finish,” Marcus says. “That’s when you appreciate the beauty of it.”
This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue.