CHATHAM – For nearly 90 years, a small enclave on the shores of Mill Pond has seen the genesis of some of the most beautiful wooden boats built on Cape Cod. The tradition began with legendary naval architect F. Spaulding Dunbar and was carried on for the past 20 years by the Pease Brothers Boat Works and Marine Railway.
As of Dec. 30, the tiller was passed to Woody Metzger and Jim Donovan, who have rechristened the facility First Light Boat Works and Marine Railway, named for the iconic center console wooden powerboat that they will continue to build in the workshop that was once home to U.S. Navy dirigibles.
Brad and Mike Pease were known for their “good humor, skill and just beautiful boats,” hand-crafted vessels which ranged from skiffs to 36-foot ketches, said Metzger. “We aim to keep that magic alive.”
Using traditional wooden boat building techniques as well as more modern composite methods, the boatyard concentrates on restoration, commissions and limited production of new vessels. Late last year a 36-foot plank-on-frame ketch was completed, and another is currently under construction, designed by naval architect Matt Smith and expected to take a year and a half to complete. Last year the boatyard assisted with some restoration work on the CG36500 motor lifeboat used in “The Finest Hours” rescue in 1952. They're also restoring a Dunbar catabout for display at Mystic Seaport.
“It's amazing to have these Dunbar boats,” Metzger said. “They're a piece of this place.”
The new owners said the business fits with their skill sets. Metzger previously worked for Wilkinson Ecological Design and became the boatyard's general manager about a year and a half ago. He and Donovan worked together at Arey's Pond Boatyard 15 years ago ago. Donovan began building boats at an early age; when he was 12, he built a wooden skiff with his grandfather, retired fisherman Fred Bennett.
“That's what started the whole thing,” Donovan said. “He's here helping us out now,” he added of his grandfather.
After building his own 30-foot cutter at age 23, Donovan sailed the Atlantic and Pacific before settling in St. John, where he worked in construction and did a “lot of sailing and surfing and enjoying the water.” Then he received a call from Metzger asking if he'd consider moving back to the Cape to work at the boatyard.
“Everything fell right into place,” he said.
“Mike and I had been thinking about this for a while,” Brad Pease said of the transition to new ownership. “But we needed it to come around in an organic way. Jim and Woody seemed to be it.”
Metzger said he wasn't looking to buy the business, but the more he talked with the Pease brothers about it, the more it seemed possible. He and Donovan began to set goals and develop a business plan. Negotiations with the Pease brothers and the Dunbar family – which still owns the property – they completed the “hard work” of the transfer last month.
Their main goal, Metzger said, was for the facility to continue in “very much the same vein” as before.
“We wanted to make sure to retain as much of that magic as possible, while giving it a shot of new energy and current updates,” he said.
The new owners will “carry on the best of what Mike and I put together,” Brad Pease said. “We really didn't want to just sell to a wealthy person who could afford to have a private boatyard. We really wanted it to be a working boatyard.”
One of the areas in which the new owners hope to make improvements is the waterfront. The boatyard owns about a dozen moorings in Mill Pond, and they're working to add slips to their year-round pier to help make the business more sustainable. Metzger said he sees it as an enclave for wooden sailboats and other vessels.
“There's really nothing on the planet quite like sailing or going out fishing or rowing in a wooden boat,” Metzger said. “It's a whole different thing.”
While the hand-crafted vessels are expensive – a First Light powerboat can cost $200,000, a ketch $750,000 to $1.5 million, depending on the trim – Metzger likens them to a fast-food burger vs. one made with grass-fed beef.
“There's a large movement of folks who want to live their lives that way,” he said. “If you make a commitment to that, they're going to be there.”
Chatham embraced the Pease brothers when they decided to move their boat-building operation from North Harwich to the then-dormant facility on Mill Pond about 20 years ago.
“As I look back, I have to say that we received the very best welcome from both our Mill Pond/Old Village neighbors as well as from various town officials and governing bodies,” Mike Pease said in an email. The Friends of Chatham Waterways helped recruit the boat builders in order to help preserve the property's traditional use at a time when the family was trying to decide what to do with the facility.
Ironically, they didn't know much about the man who built the boatyard. Spaulding Dunbar, best known for his small sailboat designs, started the boatyard in the 1930s, moving a former hangar building from the U.S. Naval Air Station in Chatham Port to waterfront land off Eliphamet's Lane. Over time the new operators of the boatyard learned about Dunbar's legacy and even restored a number of his boats. Dunbar was an inventive designer who was “very cutting edge for his day,” said Brad.
“What was cool was that he created something that was a near-perfect fit for what we did,” he said. “He designed and put together this beautiful little traditional boatyard, and that was such a wonderful fit for what we did and what we needed.”
The brothers credit the town with helping them make a 19th century business work in the 21st century.
“The support we had in Chatham made that possible,” said Brad. Added Mike, “Much credit goes back to our surrounding community who liked the idea of a true 'working' traditional boatyard in their back yard, down the street and out their window.” The new owners will carry on that spirit and “serve Chatham well.”
Perhaps the biggest change during the Pease brothers time at the boatyard was the reconstruction of the Mitchell River Bridge, which restored a fully-functioning draw span. For years the brothers fought over the span, which did not open fully for more than a decade and thus limited the size and scope of vessels that could pass through the river and into the Mill Pond.
Metzger agreed the new bridge will be an asset to the boatyard, which employs from eight to 15 people. The crew is lean right now, though many long-time employees, such as Dave Kells and Drew Dunne, continue, along with valuable office manager Jessica Julin. They're also going to be doing some restoration work on the marine railway – the only one in the area – and sprucing up the yard a bit to add more boat storage. The main facility – the south bay, where the railway leads, the main shop with its plethora of natural light, and the finish shop on the north side – will remain unchanged.
“There's worn paths, most of which we're happy to walk in,” said Metzger.
The Pease brothers, meanwhile, will retain ties to Chatham – both have boats here – but are spending much of their time in Maine, where Mike is teaching skiing at Sunday River and Brad is building boats, furniture and sculpting in Rockland. They plan to continue to consult with the new owners, and “hopefully I'll even build a couple of small boats for clients in and around Chatham,” Brad added.