Master and Commander: Cape Artisan Walter Baron
Boat builder Walter Baron stays grounded in his craft
The unadorned sign reads, “Boats Built And Repaired” and a seven-digit phone number, no zip code. The sign is the only indication that the weathered shed, set back in the pitch pines and oak on Old Chequessett Neck Road, is the workshop of Walter Baron and Old Wharf Dory Company. For 40 years, Baron has been building boats in Wellfleet “using wood as the main structural material,” as he says in his measured, precise way. That’s exactly how you’d expect a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to talk about boats. You’d expect him to use words like “composite construction” and reference “strength of materials.” But then you learn that he earned his degree not in engineering but in language and literature. Talk about a composite: Engineering and literature?
Upon meeting Baron, his handshake is as unadorned and as serviceable as his sign. His greeting has no final macho clench to it, no manly pumping of the arm. When the weather is cold he piles on the layers—red on black plaid over blue on black plaid, oblivious to, or more likely in spite of, fashion. A battered cap, a souvenir from the Panama Canal, sits on his head as comfortably as a dog resting its head on its front paws. A bit of a ponytail hangs from it underneath aft, and forward a ragged goatee festoons his chin, giving him a bit of a rakish, counter-culture look. He looks positively owlish gazing through heavy metal-framed eyeglasses. His torn, paint-spattered canvas carpenter pants match the rough, paint-spattered floor of his workshop, signifying a man in his element, a boat on the water.
The shop has the orderly clutter you often find in places where hands do the work, like in certain automotive garages specializing in high-performance cars or in the studio of an artist whose work is meticulous and precise and orderly. All sizes and shapes of clamps hang at the ready, all pointing in the same direction like gulls to the wind. Tubes of calk and glue stand at attention. Every hand tool imaginable roosts over the workbench that runs the length of the longest wall. And then there is the usual flotsam scattered about that accumulates when you live in a marine environment: navigational charts, flotation rings and buoys. There are maybe 10 pairs of oars, tall and straight as herons, leaning in a corner by the door. Baron moved Old Wharf Dory Company here in 1982 after five years on Bank Street. He and his wife, Jane, moved the business first, and only then moved into the house. “You have to pay the bills, so the business came first,” he explains.
Walter and Jane met at RPI. He was from Chicopee; she was from Wellfleet. It was the late ’60s and there was a war in Vietnam. And the draft. Baron didn’t particularly take to engineering, but then staying in school meant staying out of the war. That’s when he changed his major; this composite of engineering and the arts perhaps being an indication of a budding boat builder. He graduated in 1970, married Jane, and they moved to Wellfleet.
For seven years he worked as a carpenter building post-and-beam houses and sometimes as a shell fisherman out of Wellfleet out on the bay. When he was laid off from carpentry due to a recession, he decided to give boat building a go. Unemployed with absolutely no experience building boats, Baron got his hull ID number from the Coast Guard. “I thought I’d try something that was recession-proof,” he says. “Little did I know that boats were even more prone to recessions than houses.” For the record, Jane didn’t think this was such a good idea.
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