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Master and Commander: Cape Artisan Walter Baron

Wooden dory

Boat builder Walter Baron, of Wellfleet’s Old Wharf Dory Company, crafted this beautiful skiff pictured in Wellfleet Harbor with Billingsgate and Great Island off in the distance. Photo by Walter Baron

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.



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