On the Bay

Built on Tradition

Inside the thriving local marine industry


It’s no secret that Narragansett Bay is one of this area’s greatest natural resources. Whether you’re a boater, a fisherman, a sunbather or a Sunday driver – most of us have some connection to the water that makes us proud and appreciative to call this area home. What may come as a surprise is that the rest of the world knows about it, too. Boat building and other marine trades indigenous to this area have a reputation for being some of the best in the industry. From the restoration of almost century-old wooden pleasure boats to the construction of racing boats with cutting-edge composite materials, Narragansett Bay is a hub of world-class talent.

The latest example of “world-class” is the Mar Mostro, a 70-foot carbon fiber sailing vessel built by New England Boatworks of Portsmouth for the Puma Ocean Racing Team. Skippered by Barrington’s Ken Read, Mar Mostro captured the April leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, a 37,000+ mile race around the world dubbed “the Everest of sailing.” While certainly a significant achievement, it is only one example of the depth of the local industry.

In a 2008 study, the Governor’s Workforce Board of Rhode Island determined that the Rhode Island marine industry consisted of 2,300 businesses producing $1.6 billion of annual sales, and $260 million of wages paid to 6,600 employees. These figures do not include Massachusetts, though many industry insiders readily acknowledge that collaborative circles extend through Fall River and New Bedford all the way to Cape Cod. Boat builders and their suppliers are at the core of this economic engine.

Perhaps the area’s most well-known boat builder was Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, a naval architect and mechanical engineer considered to be one of the most innovative sailboat designers in history. Born in Bristol in 1848, Herreshoff designed everything from 12.5-foot sailboats (still found in local waters) to an 144-foot America’s Cup boat, Reliance, that had a sail area of 16,000 square feet. Today, the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol – located on the site where Herreshoff’s manufacturing company operated – is a treasure trove of yachting information and artifacts.

Next door to the Herreshoff Museum, in one of the original Herreshoff buildings, is Bristol Boat Company. Founder and proprietor Dan Shea Jr. has over 30 years of experience and describes his specialty as “building and restoring small [16’–40’] power- and sailboats, historically significant in their design.” All work is done on-site in Bristol, and while Shea has garnered some international attention, including a recent profile in a German magazine, he emphasizes that his focus is on servicing Narragansett Bay so that he can “be close to customers and give them a personal touch.”

Shea can’t get much closer to one of his biggest current projects. He is collaborating with Halsey Herreshoff, grandson of Nathanael and partner in Herreshoff Designs Inc., to completely restore a Herreshoff S-class boat to its original production lines from 1919. Shea explains the significance: “There are repairs, restorations, re-constitutions, and then there’s reconstruction to the exact shape of the model. This will be the first ever brought back to the exact, original model shape rather than an approximation. After two or three repairs, boats can lose their definition... we’re talking about very perfected aerodynamic shapes and dealing with a world of small dimensions that needs to be cumulatively in harmony. The model Herreshoff carved was perfect.” Shea notes that the process is “much like 1919;” while supplies like adhesives and coatings have evolved over the decades, the skills and techniques have stood the test of time .

McMillen Yachts in Portsmouth (pictured above) is another well-known wooden boat specialist – with one distinction. Project Manager Todd Jarem describes: “We work on large wooden boats with massive problems. That’s not to say that smaller boats are less historic or important, it’s just that not a lot of people in the country can deal with the size and provide the care like we do.”

Earl McMillen founded the company in 1992 with the mission of restoring and maintaining classic wooden yachts. However, the business soon evolved. Per Jarem, “Classic wooden boats are tough... they always need a lot of work and tending to, and all the expense can be hard for one owner.” In 1995, McMillen attempted to address this issue by pioneering the concept of fractional yacht ownership. Investors would pool their money to purchase classic but dilapidated yachts and then fund restoration – thus spreading the risk of the multi-million dollar requirements and years of waiting for the work to be completed. When finished, the investors share use of the boat while McMillen runs the crew and maintenance. McMillen currently has one sailboat and three motor boats in its fractional fleet.

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