Voices of the Bay

Shipping Off to Bristol

Boat restorer Dan Shea mentors future boat builders


“I want to work” was an overwhelming response from Mt. Hope High School and Met School students who completed The Skiff School held in recent summers at Dan Shea’s Bristol Boat Company. The five-week boat-building Governor’s workforce program, which was administered by the RI Marine Trades Association and sponsored by Herreshoff Marine Museum, featured a curriculum created and taught by Dan. His answer to these young people: Apprentice Saturdays.

A Bristol resident since 2003, the renowned boat builder and restorer felt an obligation to provide real work and mentorship that he felt he benefited from when he started as a joiner in the early 1970s with the famed Wisconsin’s Palmer Johnson Yachts. During his 30-year career, he rose to General Manager, overseeing 200 tradespeople and a monthly payroll of a million, and managing as many as three custom yachts being built at any one time. Bristol Boat Company, 24 Burnside Street, Bristol

"The high school students came to me separately asking for more work and time in the boat shop. I could hardly say no. So, over the winter, every Saturday was our Apprentice Shop day. They do the painting and varnishing that I taught them is the finish work, which has to be very nice for our customers.

The students even come in on their own after school and get to work. It was such an organic growth from the educational experiential learning transitioning to the real world: real learning, real working, and real earning. At Palmer Johnson, it was about providing opportunities for people to do their best work, and I felt that responsibility to provide that for these young people.

The boat owners really respond to these young apprentices that are working on their boats. We meet the family, transport their boat, students do the estimates, get materials, work on it… It’s a big responsibility and a special experience. [At press time] we are in the midst of doing all the spring work to maintain our growing fleet of restored Herreshoff built boats. We are also finishing the reconstruction of one of the ‘original’ 12’s from 1914.

The challenges in this world for young citizens in high school, wow ­– there are a lot of things they have to deal with. One thing I have appreciated is discovering what are the generation cues and general anxieties and what do they need. I’ve never mentioned phones. They never bring them out except to cue up the music, which we have on all the time.

Being on this street there is a responsibility to be an accomplished boat builder. You have to know what you’re doing. This is like doing it in front of God, so you don’t want to screw it up."


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