Orleans: Boatbuilding Capital of Cape Cod
Orleans, located just beyond the elbow of the Cape on the way to Provincetown’s curled fist, has several personalities: it is a vibrant year-round community, the Lower Cape’s commercial hub, and a sensational place to spend the summer. What many fail to notice, however, is an industry that has existed quietly here for years, anchoring the community’s character to its maritime history—in short, Orleans is an important boat-building center.
With three major boat builders in town—Arey’s Pond Boat Yard, Compass Classic Yachts, and Nauset Marine—Orleans is responsible for keeping a traditional Cape industry alive, as well as putting generations of people on the water in safe, sturdy, beautifully crafted boats. “There really aren’t that many local boat builders left around here,” says Merv Hammatt, who has owned Compass Classic Yachts for the past 10 years. “If you do a search online for traditional sailboats, not that much comes up. Orleans does, though.”
Hammatt’s shop is located in Orleans’ industrial zone. A sailboat on a trailer awaiting delivery almost always decorates the front yard. “I’ve done more and more each year, with most of my business coming from the Internet,” he says. “We’re shipping boats all over the country.”
Hammatt, who grew up near Pleasant Bay in South Orleans, where his family owned the Quanset Sailing Camp, says he’s been building boats all his life: half hulls, pond sailers, skiffs. He built his first “real” boat when he was 15 or 16. “I started sailing when I was six. I’ve always been in them, or wanted to be in them; was working on them, or wanted to be working on them.”
After serving in the Coast Guard for four years, Hammatt went to work managing Arey’s Pond Boat Yard; from Arey’s Pond, he moved on to Nauset Marine, building the company’s sailboat line. “It’s funny—it seems all of us have worked for one or the other over the years,” he says with a grin. Hammatt’s boats are traditional designs that were developed during the 1920s. His smallest, a 12-foot replica of the classic wooden boats sailed on the Cape’s waters for decades, is called the Rainbow. The name comes from the “rainbow” of colors similar boats were painted years ago on Nantucket. He explains that the Rainbow’s broad beam, low single-sail rig and shallow draft make it stable and simple, and a particularly good choice for beginners, though plenty of experienced sailors love the boat for the same reasons.
The Classic Cat is Hammatt’s own contribution. Building on a catboat’s already versatile design, he added to the cockpit wraparound seats with storage beneath, and a non-skid surface he molded into the decking makes walking safer.
Hammatt’s two largest boats are the Baybird and the Hurricane. The Hurricane is a sloop, a redesign of the Alberg Typhoon. One of the Hurricane’s advantages is its 11-foot cockpit, making it large enough for entire families. The Baybird was designed in 1918 by Starling Burgess in Marblehead. The easy-to-sail boat has been used for decades on the Cape by summer camps and yacht clubs. Hammatt himself learned to sail in the Baybird. While the originals were built of wood, Hammatt’s replica is fiberglass (as are all of his boats). The brass hardware used on his craft is made at Compass; the spars are made at a boat shop in Falmouth; covers are made in-house; and sails are made by North Sails Cape Cod of West Yarmouth. Hammatt says, “I use a number of local people to make what I need for my boats.”
Across town, in a large complex located on Town Cove that includes a boat shop, boat storage facility and retail store, is Nauset Marine. According to Dawson Farber, vice president and sales manager, the company started building boats 24 years ago to keep employees busy during the winter months. “We had good employees; we still do,” Farber says. “We were trying to think of a way to keep people employed year round.”
What started as a fairly small operation is today a major part of Nauset Marine’s business. Farber travels the boat-show circuit annually—Boston, Newport, Norwalk and Annapolis—and most cases months of work are generated by new orders at each stop. Currently, Nauset Marine has boats in the pipeline that won’t be completed until July of next year. “We’ve had a backlog since we started in the 1970s,” Farber says.
Initially, Nauset Marine built a type of commercial boat, purchasing the hulls from a company in Rhode Island and finishing each craft to the buyer’s specifications. The boat ultimately evolved into the Nauset 27, which became increasingly popular as a recreational craft. Its design has always been “basically a down-east-style lobster boat”—a craft with a full keel and soft chine. Nauset Marine has gradually acquired hulls from other yards, including Cape Dory, Royal Lowell, Bruno Stillman Boat Company and Dyer Boats, which have become the production molds of the Nauset fleet. “That’s typically what happens,” Farber says, explaining that when a mold moves from one yard to another, the new boat builder owns the mold, not the name. The hulls are fabricated off-site.
Today, the boats being built at Nauset range in size from 25 to 42 feet. “We introduced the 42-footer this year,” Farber says. “Anything from 33 feet up is very labor intensive.” However, each boat, no matter what size, is “100 percent” custom. The buyer works with designers at Nauset Marine to tailor the boat to his or her own needs. Everything beyond the fiberglass fabrication of the hull happens in Orleans: the wiring, plumbing, carpentry, canvas work and upholstery. Today, the company has approximately 50 year-round employees.
Echoing Hammatt, Farber notes that online exposure, which is becoming more and more important to his business, has resulted in Nauset boats now plying the waters off Maryland, Maine, Nova Scotia, New York, the Bahamas and Bermuda. Working closely with customers throughout the entire process—from developing an idea to finishing their dream boat—Farber says he and others at Nauset Marine have forged lifelong friendships with many boat owners.
A short distance down Route 28, heading into South Orleans, Arey’s Pond Boat Yard overlooks its namesake, a small tidal pond connected to Little Pleasant Bay by the Namequoit River. In 1971 the late Brad Fisk, who owned the boatyard, and Hammatt developed a mold similar to the classic wooden catboat. However, with the goal of making the boat a bit more manageable, they made some modifications to the sheer, bow, stern, deck and cockpit, and converted the Marconi rig to a gaff rig. The boatyard launched its first boat in 1972, and since then has built more than 223 craft.
In 1990, Tony Davis purchased the boatyard from the Fisk family. “That’s where I was fortunate,” Davis says. “Brad and Libby [Fisk] wanted to sell the boatyard to a boat builder.”
Davis grew up on sailboats. His father, a landscaper, loved to sail, and from the time Davis was a toddler, his parents loaded the family aboard a 20-foot wooden day sailer for regular journeys from Plymouth to Maine. Eventually, Davis found a job as a rigger in a boatyard in Florida. “I was really inspired by what I saw. It was a big yard; they hauled large wooden boats. I’d watch them repairing and replacing planks and was really interested in the structure. It piqued my curiosity.”
Next, Davis began an apprenticeship with Arno Day in Maine, building lobster boats and learning the trade. “My college education became building a 30-foot cutter from the ground up. That experience took me from the very beginning stages of boat-building—drawing the lines, laying them out—to building and launching a boat.” From Maine, Davis worked for a while on the maintenance and interior of the schooner Spirit of Massachusetts. “Robin [Davis] and I knew we wanted to find our own business, and we found the boatyard.”
Today, Davis says the boatyard is able to produce approximately 12 boats per year. The 12, 14 and 16 footers all have fiberglass hulls and are finished with teak and fitted with bronze hardware. Both the 20-foot Cruising Cat and 20-foot Pleasant Bay Launch are built of wood, strip planked with southern cedar, and finished with an epoxy seal. “There’s a temptation to go bigger. I sort of went in the reverse direction—started bigger and moved backwards,” Davis says, laughing. “I really enjoy the small boats. It’s simple: smaller boats mean smaller problems.”
Maintaining a small boatyard on the water “these days,” notes Davis, “is challenging, with the insurance and taxes.” However, he believes there is and always will be a great future in building custom boats for those who love the water. “People like having something custom made to their specifications.”
Freelance writer Susanna Graham-Pye lives in South Orleans.
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