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.
To this day, Baron keeps the same schedule he’s always kept, even now that Jane has retired from her career at Benson, Young & Downs Insurance. He gets up at about 6:30 a.m., and he and Jane eat breakfast. He then goes for a walk, followed by about two-and-a-half hours doing office work. “It’s a business,” Baron says, his constant refrain. “There’s a lot of paperwork.” At about ten o’clock he goes into the shop where he works until five o’clock, when Jane would have come home from her job. He does this Monday through Friday, taking the weekends off.
With names like Swampscott Dory, Cotuit Skiff, and Nauset Marsh Skiff, the boats Baron builds are designed for the shallow, semi-protected waters of Cape Cod. He says that a good boat is one that does one job well. A good boat might be one built specifically for rowing or fishing or with a cockpit big enough to hold a family comfortably on a day sail. He’s entirely self-taught, and his practicality—his “it’s a business” approach to boat building—has served him well. But to deny his artistry is to do an enormous injustice to his talents.
Take the Nauset Marsh Skiff. The design plan consists of three pages. Each one gets the same three pages. The rest, Baron says, “is up here,” tapping his head. Not everyone can take the same marine plywood and cut it, shape it and stitch it together so the topsides roll like a wave that’s frozen in time, the curl just about to break, so that the boat sitting motionless looks as fluid as the sea it will move through. Not everyone can take the same strips of Eastern White Cedar, rip them, bend them, consider their color and grain, and fit them together, turning the side decks into a polished geometric pattern, pleasing to the eye. Not everyone has the same eye for color, choosing a blue for the topsides that mirrors the sky over Cape Cod on a summer’s day, but when asked can’t give you the name of the color, just “Epifanes mono-urethane #3107.” He doesn’t spray paint; instead he brushes the paint on, and no matter how hard you try you can’t find a single brush stroke anywhere on the entire boat.
If a fine arts painter did that on canvas, praise would be given for brush control. If a sculptor created a form in space the same way, the work would be deemed art and put in a museum. If we do this for painters and sculptors, shouldn’t we do the same for boat builders too—at least acknowledge that this so-called utilitarian object transcends the everyday?
By his reckoning, Baron has built about 170 boats in his lifetime. He only has to build two or three boats a year and business is good. His plans for a Lumberyard Skiff, a boat he designed that can be built solely with materials found in a lumberyard, sell briskly on his website. There still are a number of boats he’d like to build but hasn’t because no one has commissioned them. There’s the Jon Persson Atlantic 17 rowing dory and the Graham Byrnes Outer Banks 20. Always the businessperson, though, he cautions, “It’s very dangerous business building boats on speculation.”
Though Jane has retired and Baron is coming up on 70 years old, there is no end date for boat building; it’s something you keep doing as long as the spirit moves you. When he says he can’t imagine doing anything else, you can imagine him building for a while longer. You can’t imagine someone ever stopping when they have the talent that Baron has to make something so serviceable and beautiful. As long as the commissions keep coming. Because, after all, it’s still a business.