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Cape Cod institution still a family affair

Howard Walker was a commercial fisherman, but not much of a swimmer. When he fell from his one-man dragger off Cape Cod — saving himself by grabbing onto the net and pulling himself aboard — his family decided it was time Howard found a new career.

Howard Walker was a commercial fisherman, but not much of a swimmer. When he fell from his one-man dragger off Cape Cod — saving himself by grabbing onto the net and pulling himself aboard — his family decided it was time Howard found a new career.

And so, Nauset Auto and Marine (they have long since dropped auto from the operation) was born when the Walkers, along with the Deschamps family, bought a Gulf service station in Orleans, Mass., in 1961.

“At that time it was a little mom-and-pop gas station,” says Dawson Farber, an employee since 1966. “It was a postage stamp-sized piece of property.”

After 45 years, Nauset Marine has four locations, is consistently ranked the largest Boston Whaler dealer in the world, and builds its own line of custom boats. Farber, who related the tale of the late Howard Walker, was named company CEO in October 2005.

When the auto and marine business opened, with a one-bay garage and a two-hole outhouse, a typical day might find employees fixing cars, boats, telephone and electric company trucks, or lawnmowers.

Farber, a high school student, raced sailboats against Philip Deschamps in those days. Deschamps, the original president of Nauset, offered Farber a job.

“I started out as a mechanic, as we all did,” says Farber, who is 58. “We all learned how to scrub toilets and wash bottoms, and rig boats and deliver boats.”

Nauset has been a Mercury dealer since the early 1960s, and in the same era became one of the first Boston Whaler dealers — if not the very first — Farber says.

Boston Whaler has recognized the yard as its largest retail dealer in the world.

“Cape Cod’s an island; you’ve got to have a boat on an island,” says Farber, in trying to explain Nauset’s success. He also says the area is tourist-driven — many local houses are second homes — so there is a relatively wealthy clientele at hand. And in some ways Nauset subsequently avoids economic peaks and valleys, he explains, by being on Cape Cod.

Today the company also is a dealer for Robalo and Starcraft boats, and Yamaha outboards. Some of the brands it has dealt in the past include Cape Dory, O’Day and Pearson sailboats, and Albin, Aquasport, Chris-Craft, Contender, Glastron and Highliner powerboats.

Nauset builds custom boats in addition to selling new boats and being a used-boat brokerage.

“The custom part of the business is a small part of the business, but an important part,” says Farber.

It started in 1970, the same year Farber graduated from college, with Nauset finishing up bare Dyer 29 hulls as workboats.

“We really started building lobsterboats to keep our guys busy in the winter,” he says. “That’s before we got our own molds.”

Nauset managed not only to keep its people employed — “We have never laid anybody off since 1961, since the company started,” says Farber — but did a brisk business.

“From there we saw an opportunity to build little custom recreational boats,” he says. Recreational boat production took over when the fishing industry experienced a downturn in the late 1970s.

Nauset currently offers 25-, 28-, 30-, 33-, 36- and 38-foot models.

The company has bought most of its hull molds at auction. Nauset was a dealer at the time Cape Dory went out of business and bought up much of its tooling.

The Cape Dory 33 powerboat has become the Nauset 33, and is available in configurations such as hardtop, bridge deck and aft cabin.

The Nauset 28 was the Harris Cuttyhunk 28, which was built in Falmouth, Maine. A handful of the Cape Dorys, now or once built as Nausets, used to be Bruno & Stillmans. On the other hand, F.L. Tripp & Sons of Westport Point, Mass., build the former Nauset 24 and 27.

“Molds just don’t really go away,” says Farber. “The molds, if you take care of them, last forever.”

Farber, who says he always keeps his eyes open for new molds, came across a Cape Dory powerboat that he originally sold years ago. A customer traded it in for a new Boston Whaler, and the Nauset custom shop went to work refitting the Cape Dory. The old boat, which is being brought up to 2006 standards, has already been sold.

Farber says projects like that make his job fun.

“I’m one of those guys that has a job that’s truly a hobby,” he says.

The company has built about 400 boats to date, and has many repeat customers. Many Nauset owners are coming out of bigger boats while others start out in a Nauset 25 and move up the line. (The 25, Nauset’s own design, is a hard-chine, planing hull while the rest are semidisplacement hulls.)

There is a close relationship between a custom boatbuilder and its clients, Farber says. “What started as a Boston Boat Show custom boat sale turned into a lifetime friendship,” he says of a recent visit to a longtime customer’s home.

Similarly, the company itself is close-knit. Still family owned, a new generation of Deschamps and Walkers work at Nauset. Philip Deschamps, now 78, and his brother-in-law, Peter Walker, who is Howard’s son, are still around. Philip’s sons, David and Ron, run the custom boatbuilding business and service department, respectively. Todd Walker, who is Peter Walker’s son, manages the store, the parts department and the bookkeeping office.

“I’m not a family member, but I’ve always been treated like a family member, from Day 1,” says Farber of his 40 years with the company.

Nauset has 55 year-round employees — that number grows by five or six in the summer — in all facets of the operation.

“We’ve got a lot of long-term employees, and we’re constantly bringing in new, younger employees,” says Farber. “I would prefer to bring somebody in young and train them the way I want them to do the job.”

The company has a profit-sharing program, and culls prospective employees from technical high schools on Cape Cod. Farber describes the company as well-thought-out with the future — and future generations of the family — in mind.

Nauset is working on opening its fifth location. In addition to its Orleans, Pocasset and Marion offices, and marina location in East Orleans, the company is planning to improve its coverage with an office in the Hyannis area.