Photo Above: Spencer’s Boatyard, 1979

Grinding it Out

College or trade school—which is the best use of time and money? It’s a common question, and (of course) the answer is: It depends. It depends on the student and what their motivations and interests are. In my case, I never visited a college during my senior year of high school. I ground out an education the old-fashioned way. Opting not to go to college, I applied for a job at a boatyard.

My parents had been advised to send me to a boarding school starting in sixth grade (1968) by some of the best dyslexia experts of the time—in particular, Charles Drake, founder of the Landmark School. He and I became good friends as he drove me all over New England to his teacher conferences. I was with him to demonstrate my dyslexia to the teachers. He explained smaller classrooms would allow me to receive more one-on-one attention for my learning disorder, which would provide me with the best education for my future. So, with the encouragement of Charles, I agreed to a boarding school education (and summer school), hours away from home and my friends.

I remember it like it was yesterday. I graduated high school in the spring of 1976. It felt like I had been set free. Years and years of frustration and teasing were behind me. My learning disability, dyslexia, was such a handicap for me. I was told, in so many words, by my high school college advisor “You do not have the grades that would interest a college.”

In November of 1977, I turned 18 years old. I had by then years of sailing experience; I could tie many knots and splice rope. I loved to climb and spent time aloft in bosuns chairs fixing broken parts on masts. During my years sailing, I was in and out of boatyards all along the east coast and in Europe. I became familiar with how they operated—from hauling procedures, stepping spars, bottom work, engine repairs to working around cranes and yard equipment. Many of the riggers I met at these yards inspired me, and I wanted to be like them.

So, nine months after graduating from high school, about the same time that my friends were heading to college, I had to make a decision: Do I keep sailing as crew, traveling the world and work my way up to be a captain on a boat, or should I move ashore and learn a trade? 

After a lot of thought, I decided to move ashore and get a job at a boatyard. I sent out a resume to many boatyards along the southeast coast that specialized in sailboats, asking for a job as a rigger. 

A couple weeks went by and only one boatyard responded to me. It was Spencer’s Boatyard in West Palm Beach, Florida. They sent me back a letter saying I could start any time. I was in Antiqua when the news came. I stuffed a duffel bag full, grabbed my passport, driver’s license, and $100 in cash, and I moved to West Palm Beach.

I arrived in West Palm, early on a Friday morning. It was a beautiful September day. I had 48 hours to find a place to live and only $100 in my pocket. I walked around, stopping at every real estate office I could find. Each charged me to look at a book of available apartments and rooms that were within walking distance to the boatyard. No luck—everything offered was taken, too expensive, or demanded first and last month’s rent. After a frustrating day searching for an apartment and making calls from phone booths, I sat on my duffel bag at the corner of Flagler Memorial Bridge and 5th Street to watch the sunset. 

I was now down to about $10. Feeling defeated, I noticed a young woman wearing a waitress uniform walking toward me. She walked by and into the building behind me. A few minutes passed. I thought about finding something to eat and a park bench to sleep on. Then, a voice came from a window above and behind me. “Do you need help?” 

I looked up; the waitress was leaning out of the window. I explained my situation, and she said she would be right back. She returned to tell me the landlord would be over shortly and that there was a vacancy for $155 a month. I met the landlord and we worked out a deal. She insisted on driving me to work on Monday to meet my boss and confirm I had a job. Then, she handed me a key to the apartment on the second floor. Her name was Rose, and the waitress was Karen. I will forever be grateful for their kindness.

Despite the cockroach-infested, mostly unfurnished apartment with bed springs popping through the mattress, a couch you had to climb out of, and a view of a vacant lot full of garbage and debris—I was in heaven. It was my first experience in my own pad. Not a boat bunk or a dorm room. This was living.

My first day of work was not what I hoped it would be. After the awkward introduction of Rose meeting my boss Hal, who thankfully did confirm I had a job, I learned my dream of being the boatyard’s rigger was not what my boss had in mind. The yard was slow. They were awaiting boats from up north to arrive for service. 

Hal did say I would eventually be doing some rigging work, but what they needed at the moment was a bottom painter. I had experience painting bottoms but not yachts with a 120’ waterline. But my first task was not a bottom job. It was three long eight-hour days foraging through the yard—in particular, the haul-out railway system—picking up nails, loose debris and stacking misplaced blocking. 

In those days, you would nail together a crib of blocking that would support the hull as it was lifted out of the water. Imagine a submerged barge lifting a boat up and out of the water on a neatly stacked pile of 12”x 12” blocking. A diver would go down to confirm the shape of the hull so the yard could build the cribbing to support it when out of the water. It took a lot of nails and blocking for a 90’ yacht, which was the average size of the boats hauled at Spencer’s.

My boss Hal had been in the military and was from Marblehead, Massachusetts. I had spent some time in Marblehead in my youth, but that was all we had in common. He told me he worked for L. Francis Herreshoff as a kid, sweeping his shop floor after school, which I did not learn to appreciate until a year later. 

After a couple of days picking up nails and stacking blocks, I reported to Hal I could not find any more nails. I asked Hal what I should do next with my remaining time, He told me to straighten all the bent nails so they could be used again. To this day, I wonder if this had been a test that Hal used to size up young, inexperienced employees. All my previous jobs were working for my dad’s landscaping business. In the ‘70s, his company had a lot of Hal types, so being talked down to and pushed hard was something I was used to.

Spencer’s administrative office was centered in the middle of the boatyard, and they had one-way glass in all the windows. In addition to my tough boss Hal, I felt eyes on me all the time.

Once the nail exercise was over, I was painting up to 120 yacht bottoms. I was pushed hard to get my side of the boat done including all gear picked up and put away in 8 hours or less. I was making around $5 an hour. Weeks went by like this. I’d spend one day sanding and prepping a bottom—by the day’s end, I’d be covered in dust (no vacuum sanders in those days). The next, I’d spend painting—by the day’s end, I’d be covered in paint. 

Many times, it was close to dark before I was allowed to punch out. The hard work did not bother me at all, but I was not doing rigging work. Again, I began to second-guess my career choice. I missed offshore sailing. I wondered, where is this job going to take me?

Still, as time went by, I settled into a routine. The four-mile walk or bus ride to and from work was getting old fast, so I got a bike. I also bought a used surfboard from a friend and hid it in the palm groves at the end of Sunset Ave on Palm Beach Island. Every day I would ride from work covered in bottom paint and dust and jump into the ocean. I would surf or swim before heading back to my apartment for a shower and the usual mac and cheese dinner.

It was getting to be late November, and the yard was filling up with sailboats from up north. Then, the day I was waiting for finally arrived. Hal gave me a rigging job. It was a chance to prove myself and show off my skills. Soon, I was working daily from a bosun’s chair at the top of spars 80’ high or more, changing out light bulbs, adjusting wind indicators, running wires or whatever was needed. 

I was working with Hal, who ran the crane, and John, the foreman, stepping and un-stepping up to 100’ spars on some of the most beautiful yachts I had ever seen. We also worked on race boats preparing for the Southern Ocean Racing Conference and other ocean racers—like the Swan 57, which became my favorite boat to work on. Sometimes, we would work through the night to get a race boat with a broken spar re-rigged in time for the next race. Generally, I was testing and tuning rigs for the type of sailing the yachts would be doing. Gradually, as weeks passed into the new year, I worked my way to the position of head rigger (and only rigger) at Spencer’s Boatyard. 

It felt great. They issued me a shirt that had my name on it. I was 19 and feeling pretty good about myself.

Then, disaster struck. I made a big mistake on a job. I was fired as rigger and sent back to bottom painting. The only reason they didn’t throw me out of the yard was because bottoms and bilges needed cleaning. I was shaken by my error, but the years in boarding school had hardened me when it came to making mistakes. The feeling of disappointment was not new to me. 

My mistake caused by inexperience cost the yard a lot of money to fix and all the employees were aware of my mistake. I felt terrible and embarrassed. I took the demotion and went back to being covered in bottom dust and paint.

I stuck with it for the rest of that season as a bottom painter and bilge cleaner. Soon, the ‘77/78 season was coming to an end. The hot Florida summer was approaching. I had made a lot of friends, and I was completely self-sufficient. I had money to pay my summer rent to keep my apartment, and Hal let me fly to Boston for a two-month break as long as I was back in early September.  

While home, I went to visit my family in Maine. During my time in Maine, my dad introduced me to a forth-generation wooden boatbuilder named Arno Day who had a boatbuilding shop on Deer Island. At this stage of Arno’s career, he worked alone building lobster boats of his design, and he was known to take on apprentices and pass along his skills and wisdom. He also had a reputation of being tough, a man of few words, and impatient with mistakes and tardiness.

My dad had an idea. If Arno and Spencer’s Boatyard would agree, I would work for Arno during the summer and Florida during the winter. My dad’s message to me was: If you want to learn the marine business, you need to learn to build a wooden boat. My dad could sense my passion for boats from years of family sailing adventures aboard his boats and others. I believe he originally thought I was going to choose to be a crew member working on yachts, with the goal of eventually becoming a captain of a cruising yacht. But he realized, despite the tough experience at Spencer’s, that I liked the boatyard work and wanted more. 

He needed a plan to help me find a path. So, he kept telling me if I could build a wooden boat, it would educate me on the groundwork for many of the different methods of boatbuilding and design. But I had no woodworking skills. I had never handled a chisel or a hand plane. I also had no math skills. How would I learn how to work with wood, let alone design a boat? The only other trade I had some skill in was landscaping and tree work from working for my father. 

When it came to boats, my dad had self-taught mechanical skills rebuilding motors and wiring up components. He built an electric inboard motor for his 10’ wooden tender. My brother and I helped him completely gut and redo all the plumbing and wiring in a 32’ fiberglass sailboat in our backyard. He worked nights and weekends in a temporary shed. I watched him (and helped where I could) build a crane truck from the frame up for his business. In the mid ‘70s, he engineered a car phone by taking a phone from a phone booth and building it into his work vehicle so he could call his customers and office from the car. This increased his work orders, allowing his landscape crews to move more efficiently from job to job. He was one step ahead of what was soon to come in the modern world. His forward-thinking ability was inspiring—and the key to me finding and developing a skill.

Arno agreed to take me on. He liked having an apprentice for a number of reasons. He could teach his way without any backlash from experienced builders saying or implying there is a better way. For Arno, it was his way or the door. But—this stood out to me the most—he really enjoyed teaching the craft of building a wooden boat. From my perspective, Arno was not motivated by money. It was his love for the craft, his love for his customers and his love for teaching the craft. He designed his lobster boats to be fuel-efficient, fast and seaworthy. These were the things that got him up in the morning. He also took pride in the satisfaction of showing the boatbuilding community he could build a first-class 26’ plank-on-frame lobster boat on his own in 10 months or less depending on weather. 

He would work in a shop with no insulation in the walls, no ceiling, no help (except maybe the owner or an apprentice from time to time), and a wood stove as the only source of heat.

I learned all this about Arno because, after my dad introduced me to him, my life took a whole new course. Spencer’s agreed to my request to work the fall, winter and spring months and the summer season for Arno. Had I gone to college, I would have just finished up my freshman year. Soon, I was headed to Florida for my sophomore year.

On my return to Spencer’s for my second winter, I had a new goal in mind: to learn as much as I could about wooden boats—and win my rigger position back. It was only after a few bottoms that I was back to my rigging job. I guess Hal figured I had learned my lesson, or maybe he was grateful I returned since they had yet to find another rigger. 

During my first week back, I was up on the crane cable in my chair, leathering spreader boots. I heard the 4 PM horn go off. The guys were heading for the clock to punch out. While waiting for a crane operator to show up and lower me, I was soaking up the Florida sun and a view of the soft Caribbean-blue ocean from my perch. I was putting my tools away in my attached tool bag, feeling excited to be back to my routine and the friends I had made. As more time passed, I realized Hal had forgotten I was aloft. In those days, there were no rules that said someone had to stay in the crane. 

It got awfully quiet at ground level. I hollered to a boat owner to let the office know I was still up there. They did, and a few minutes went by before Hal and John came out. They looked up and said, “Hey Davis, no screw-ups this winter, got it?” I nodded and gave a thumbs up, smiling. 

Hal hopped into the crane. I waited to descend and finally felt the head of the crane shift—in the wrong direction. I was heading out over open water. I thought to myself, “Oh sh**, he is going to drop me.” And he did, a free fall. Just before I hit the water, he pulled back on the brake. My topsiders were in the water when I came to a sudden stop. 

He lifted me and swung me to the bulkhead. He greeted me with a smug laugh, along with a crowd of remaining employees, administrators and boat owners who clearly enjoyed watching my ride. 

Secretly, I enjoyed it as well. I understood why he did it. Many in the group of employees, captains and crew watching were friends. They collectively handed me a beer and welcomed me back. After that initial drop, they would drop me from time to time in the basin. But for a different reason—to cool me off from a long, hot day aloft.

My objective that winter, along with being a good rigger, was to learn all I could about how boats are designed. And from there, how they were lofted and built. Spencer’s had a lot of wooden boats in their yard, so I began to hang out with the carpenters and ask questions about everything they were doing. Hal would tell me stories of his years working with L. Francis Herreshoff. He let me work with the carpenters when they needed a hand. He also let me work in the machine shop. 

They gave me tasks from time to time on the drill press and metal lathe. I was starting to use some hand tools and learning to appreciate the skills involved. I watched the carpenters replace a mahogany cabin side on a large power yacht and lay a new solid teak deck down on a beautiful Sparkman & Stephens sailboat.

At night in my apartment, I had all the boatbuilding and design books available out and earmarked. I was figuring out Simpson’s rule (a mathematical formula for figuring out the area and displacement of a hull section). I was learning and quizzing myself on the boatbuilding and design terms. This was important to be ready for Arno. He had sent me a letter letting me know this summer we would be lofting the boat I wanted to build and planking one of his lobster boats. 

My friends at Spencer’s were very helpful. They would quiz me on terms and definitions of boat parts. Hal let me help replace a transom on a beautiful wooden Trumpy. He also let me help the carpenters where I could (mostly just cleaning up there work and ask questions) replace the damaged topside planking from a collision in a race on the famous double-planked 12 meter “Heritage.” With her varnished topsides, the fits had to be perfect.

I remained head rigger for two more winters—equivalent to a junior and senior year in college. While in Florida I bought my first car, a Toyota Tacoma, with money I had saved. Believe it or not, my landlord Rose co-signed for me. I loaded all my belongings accumulated from my four years in Florida and said goodbye to all my friends and co-workers. I drove to Maine to work with Arno year-round. I was off to grad school in Arno’s shop to finish a 29’ Lyle Hess cutter we had started during my summer internships.

I look forward to sharing my two years with Arno in a future story. Despite him firing me—not once but twice—we became very close. He became another father figure to me, and he and his wife Dorothy attended my wedding on Virginia Beach in 1986.

Sail on-

Tony Davis