"Oh, we got to. We don't know how to do nothing else but build boats; we're going to have to build something. My whole family's here. We ain't got any choice but to build it back. Besides, we've been here for so long - we've got a fair reputation so ain't no way in the world we'd let it go." - Tiffany Cockrell
Tiffany Yachts has built far more than a "fair" reputation since the first boatbuilding shed went up in 1949. The Burgess, Va.-based company has built more than 178 boats and repaired countless others.
In doing so, the "fair" reputation spread across the continent as the legendary Tiffany Cockrell and his family created beautiful, seakindly boats of rare and true quality.
Then came Feb. 2, 2010: a freezing cold day in the snow-covered countryside of Virginia's Northern Neck. A fire started in one of the large sheds in the Tiffany Yachts yard.
More than 100 volunteer firefighters and a huge array of equipment from many localities quickly rallied to fight. But before it was over, they'd lost two buildings, three boats and a great deal of equipment.
‘All the boats we could build'
My wife, Mel, and I had visited the yard and talked with Tiffany in November, a few months before the fire, enjoying a long conversation, sitting in one of the sheds that are now gone.
Tiffany Cockrell, now 88, got out of the Navy (where he'd worked on boats) in 1945. "My father and I were working on the water, oystering, ‘drudging,' working buyboats. But damn, it was cold in the winter. So we said, ‘We got to build a shed so we can work inside.' "
That first shed, built in 1949, was around 30 feet wide and 50 feet long. They built mostly dredge boats around 45 feet long. Because there hadn't been any built during the Great Depression and World War II there was a pent-up demand for boats, he says.
"Everybody started haul seining and they were catching a lot of fish so we had all the boats we could build. My father retired and I started building yachts. Some of them were pretty; some weren't that pretty."
Tiffany loves building wooden boats and says he feels lucky to have built so many in his lifetime. He used to build five boats at a time and rarely built two alike.
"I liked to build a boat that was a good sea boat, that performs well ... planes well at a low speed. When I achieve that, I'm a little tickled," he says. "I like to build a boat that's easy to push. ... Every once in awhile I built a really proper boat, but I didn't know what I did to make it that way.
"I never was as good as I wanted to be. Wish I'd made a little more money, but I didn't think enough about that then. I was loving boats and building them. ... I'm just sorry I got to the point I'm not too good at doing the work anymore. [He now uses a cane.]
"But I built them and I made 19 trips to Florida on boats I built. I'm just glad I had the opportunity to build 'em and glad I had the opportunity to ride them."
That was in November. And then came the fire.
A yard reborn
We came back to the yard the day after the fire, sorrowfully. We knew we had to return again later, after the smoke settled.
I'm glad we did. Things were different in May. The big, long shed where the workers had been building a beautiful 38-foot picnic-style boat was gone, as was the work shed nearby. On our first visit we'd marveled at the boats in progress. Now they were gone, including this one.
But flat earth, cleared of debris, awaited another building. And the yard was bustling. Tiffany had spoken with a local reporter shortly after the fire, and his words were poignant.
"It was hard, man. That was 55 years of work that went up in just a few minutes. It was the worst thing I've seen in a long time. It tore me up, really."
Tiffany sat in his home, beside the yard, looking out at the devastation. Two younger generations also watched. Tiffany's son, Randy Cockrell, says quietly, "This company's been here for 70 some years; my father's been here 88 years - and his father before that."
The boats they've built have included large commercial fishing vessels and the 64-foot, 10-inch cruise ferry that ran from Smith Island to Crisfield, Md., for around 35 years (and is still around). But they established their reputation by building many very fine yachts. And through the years they've done far more than just build boats. They do full-service repair and maintenance work.
These days the 60-ton Travelift is still hauling, undamaged by the fire. They also do interior work and upholstery in a shop, which also survived. And "down the road by the bridge" another section of the property has more docks and buildings. This is where they've moved the tools and equipment they've been able to salvage. This is where they've gone back to work.
The word is surely out that Tiffany Yachts is open for business, because the entire facility seemed busy with fine yachts being serviced. No one had lost a job; all workers were back and they'd just hired a new person. It looks like they'll soon be building new boats again, too.
Randy Cockrell, Tiffany's son and now president of the company, showed me a set of plans. Bids were out and he hoped to have the work started soon. The new "big shed" is going to be so much better than the old one: 80 feet deep (that will accommodate some very long boats) and with huge sliding doors; 95 feet across, to accommodate the Travelift and the yacht it's carrying; and it will hold three large vessels at a time. The door height is a huge 37 feet.
The phrase "phoenix rising from the ashes" of course came to my mind. But that quickly faded as I thought of the words: a tradition that could never be burned.
On the day we returned, Tiffany and his wife were sitting on the porch behind their small home at the edge of the yard. For years, he and his family "took lunch" in this home during the yard's midday break. Tiffany looked a bit tired, but was clearly keeping an eye on things.
And his family was there, too. Randy, head of the third generation of boatbuilders, was with us this day. Tiffany's grandson (Randy's son), Taylor, who built his first boat at age 15, works at the yard, as does Tiffany's daughter, Becky, and her daughter, Laura.
Good family and good boats go together. When we'd talked before, Tiffany told me that after he "retired" he built 18 16-foot skiffs. "They were all 16 feet long 'cause that's the longest piece of lumber I had. Before I built them I had no idea how big my family was. But I learned when I started building those boats because everybody in my family wanted one and there are only two which aren't owned by family members."
He had told me, on our first visit, about what it was like way before. "We used to draw lines on the floor. All the measurements were drawings." Now they have a state-of-the-art CAD machine to lay out the boats just right. Most of the boats they've built in recent times are fiberglass - but they're strong, good sea boats. Not like what Tiffany refers to as "these Clorox bottles that look like they're from outer space.
"I can't stand the smell of fiberglass," Tiffany told me back in November, with a mischievous look in his eye - and a teasing glance at his son, Randy.
In May we visited that other section of the yard "down the road near the bridge," where much of the repair and maintenance work is now being done as the old section of the yard is being rebuilt. There, we noticed an ancient faded-green wooden shed, sitting on skids, a bit incongruously among the other buildings. I walked over and Randy explained.
"That's Daddy's old shed. It was right beside the big one that burned. But it wasn't hurt a bit. That's where he built those 18 skiffs. We moved it here, where we're doing most of the work while the reconstruction is going on. And this old shed is coming in really handy."
For video of the fire and Tiffany and Randy, see:
This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic HomeWaters Section of the Aguust 2010 issue.