Self-taught boatbuilder turns out custom classics

By Craig S. Milner

Y ears ago, I used to like to go around Mount Desert, Maine, and visit the boat shops of old-time builders such as Raymond Bunker and Ralph Ellis, Robert and Ronald Rich, and Ralph Stanley, whose classic designs came out of the long tradition of wooden they had grown up with in the era before fiberglass con.struction took over.  Their boats were built to last and built with a purpose like commercial fishing, lobstering, or sailing. It seemed their shops were always filled with an accumulation of stuff that came with their trade: pattern frames for differ.ent models of boats leaned up against the wall, odd bits of usable lumber stacked in the corners, and a long work.bench strewn with tools and drawings.  That’s the same kind of feeling you get walking into Old Wharf Dory in Wellfleet, Mass., located almost at the very end of Cape Cod, where Walter Baron builds traditional-looking — but thoroughly modern — wood.en boats in a variety of models suited for rowing, recre.ational fishing or commercial marine activities.  A LITTLE HISTORY  Baron, who is 60, is originally from the Chicopee area in western Massachusetts and had a small boat when he was growing up.  “My father had a little piece of land on a man-made lake out in the Berkshires,” he says, “and I taught myself to sail and crewed in the Boy Scouts and stuff like that. We used to go fishing when I was a kid, down the river, and we weren’t supposed to go, but we went anyway. I always liked to be around the water.”  During college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., he met his wife, Jane, who lived in Wellfleet. He moved there in 1970, married Jane in her father’s backyard, and went to work as a carpenter.  “Then there was some kind of a recession or depression, and I got laid off,” he says. “I figured I’d try building boats because I like boats, and I thought it might be more

Washed out at Vendée  10  Gales, cracks, flips … with more than half the field, below, into port, the Vendée Globe isn’t called the Everest of sailing for nothing.

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Winds of change  16  After eight years and countless studies, three new reports seem to clear the path for a wind farm in Nantucket Sound. What’s next?

New gear  22  A solar backpack that charges your BlackBerry; an eco.friendly cleaning solvent; and wire.less control of with your transom-mounted small outboard.


recession-proof, but that is not the case. So I just started doing little re.pairs and building simple boats, and kind of kept going from there. I’m pretty much self-taught.”  He started his company at his house on Old Wharf Road in South Wellfleet (hence the name). Later on, he rented a two-car garage in Wellfleet, got his Manufacturers Identification Code, and started to build and repair boats there. Then, in 1980, he and Jane bought a piece of land on Old Chequessett Neck Road, where he built their house and the shop where he works today.  “The first boat I ever built was a Texas dory,” Baron says, “a Carolina dory skiff with a well in it, 19-foot-long slim kind of skiff. It took about two years, building it outside and just away. I used that for a couple of years and then I sold it to a local guy.  “Then I built a little John Gardner pram out of plans in the National Fisherman. … Actually, my bought it and that helped me out getting going a little bit,” he says.  After 31 years of use in commercial shell fishing, getting out to the, and freshwater fishing, that boat is still going strong.  THE STORY OF THE DORY  One of the five main designs Baron offers today is the Old Wharf Dory. He describes it as a modern version of the Grand Banks fishing dory that is light, strong and easy to maintain.  Generally speaking, he says, a dory is a double-ended flat-bottomed boat with a lot of rocker and a lot of flare. He developed his own take on this classic design by “combining and re.fining the lines from the 16-foot Low.ell Coast Guard dory and Phil Bolger’s Gloucester Gull”.  At 15 feet, 6 inches (LOA) and with a beam of 4 feet, 6 inches, it’s a well-proportioned rowing boat that he con.structs of high-quality marine ply.wood using contemporary wood com.posite methods with bronze fastenings and hardware.  As he writes on his Web site ( “The outside of the boat and the bottom inside are sheathed in fiberglass cloth and epoxy, giving it a tough, durable base for the normal finish of high-quality marine enamel outside and latex nonskid inte.rior bottom. The sides inside, seats and rails are oiled.”  Each boat is built to the owner’s spec.ifications, and its construction can be varied to produce a lighter version for racing, weighing less than 125 pounds, or a sturdier beach cruiser that would normally weigh about 150 pounds.  THE WIDE GUIDE SKIFF  Like a dory, a skiff is also a flat-bot.tomed boat, but more square-ended and much wider in the stern, with usually a lot less rocker, Baron says. “People call skiffs dories, and vice  versa. Either way, it’s usually an open boat with an outboard motor — and generally not too big.”  The basic design for his own 18-foot model was developed for a fishing guide as a “shallow-draft fly-fishing craft capa.ble of navigating the waters of Nauset Marsh and Nauset Inlet on Cape Cod.”  This boat is built with marine ply.wood that is scarfed to length, laid out and cut to shape, and then permanently bonded with high-strength epoxy putty. Joints are rein.forced on each side with 17-ounce nonwoven biaxial fiberglass tape set in epoxy. After these joints are faired, the boat is sheathed with fiberglass cloth set in epoxy on the outside, and coat.ed with epoxy on the inside.  There are built-in flotation chambers and strip-planked side decks that are laminated into place to give the boat structural strength. It can be pur.chased as a bare hull at this point to be finished by the owner, or Baron will design and build a custom interior to the customer’s specifications.  When the vessel is being used as a small fishing skiff, that would include a self-bailing deck and a center console. Options can include side benches, thwarts, casting plat.forms and live wells.  The relatively light weight of the Wide Guide Skiff makes it manageable for launching or hauling from a trailer or a beach, and it is designed to plane with a 25-hp outboard. (A 50-hp engine is the maximum suggested power.)  LUMBER YARD SKIFF  While most of Baron’s models are for recreational purposes, he also builds boats for commercial use. One of these is a no-frills basic boat that he calls the Lumber Yard Skiff “because most of the materials are available from the local lumber yard.”  These flat-bottom boats are intended for activities like aquaculture, shell-fishing and inshore lobstering. They are available in 12-, 16- and 20-foot sizes, and are available as a bare hull,  semifinished, or ready to launch “with any custom features you would like.”  The Lumber Yard Skiffs are tradi.tionally built, without epoxy or com.posite materials (although some cus.tomers do sheath them with epoxy). He designed that boat so he could build it quickly and could sell it for a reasonable price, he recalls. The first one took only about 35 hours to build.  The basic boat is five main pieces: “There’s one beam that goes in the mid.dle of it. So it just kind of makes its own shape from the panel shapes, which is similar to the composite construction, but it’s also similar to old-style skiff construction. Then you put the chines in and the bottom on,” says Baron, who estimates he’s built four or five 20-foot.ers and probably a dozen 16-footers.  “I built a 16-footer a couple of years ago for a guy out of Gloucester, Cape Ann [Mass.], up that way, and he fished 300 lobster pots out of a 16-foot skiff. So that boat’s being used pretty well,” he says. “They’re good workboats. That’s what I designed them for. But they’re also fun boats. … You can pull them up on the beach and have a picnic, and bring a bunch of coolers and all that junk in them and have some fun.”  Baron enjoys building for commercial boaters because they know what they want and come with money in hand. But he’s noticed many are scaling back, like a man from Nantucket who want.ed a 16-foot Lumber Yard Skiff.  “He’s got a big offshore fishing boat that’s got a couple of 200-hp motors on it,” says Baron. “He’s put a 25 on it. He said, ‘I don’t want to have to light up two 200-hp motors to go catch a striped bass in Nantucket Harbor.’”  Baron estimates he’s sold about 150 sets of plans for the Lumber Yard Skiff, available for purchase from his Web site. This is not, by the way, the May.nard Bray design of the same name that was featured in WoodenBoat magazine a while back. But that article and a letter to the editor he wrote in response “ got the plans sales crankin’.” And this summer he will be teaching a course in  how to build a Lumber Yard Skiff at the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine.  SIMMONS SEA SKIFF  Another signature model for Old Wharf Dory is the Simmons Sea Skiff ( It’s an ex.ample of a proven design that is well-suited to coastal waters and inlets — on Cape Cod, elsewhere in New, or the North Carolina coast where it was developed by a named T.N. Simmons.  “There were some guys down in North Carolina that were looking for a beach seining boat, basically. They wanted something like a dory, a sea.worthy dory. But they wanted it a little wider, so he widened it out, kept the rake in the transom and put a little well in it. He tinkered with that design and ended up with the 18-foot Simmons Sea Skiff, which is pretty much a widened up dory with a wide transom.”  Baron has been building and these “very seaworthy boats” since the winter of 1994-95 when he re.paired a 20-foot high-sided model. That boat was owned by a man from the town of Truro, on Cape Cod, who  continued on Page 5



BARON from Page 2  had bought it directly from Simmons himself and used it to fish Cape Cod Bay. He would even use it to go out to Stellwagen Bank in good weather.  “These boats have a traditional sea.worthy look about them, and they are as seaworthy as they look,” writes Baron on his Web site. “They are light.weight and fast, using reasonably sized motors, which also makes them more reasonable to purchase and to run.”  For his versions, Baron asked small-craft designer Tracy O’Brien of Chehalis, Wash., ( to design a composite bottom that “combines ma.rine plywood, epoxy resin, and cloth into one seamless, light.weight, high-strength unit.  The Simmons can be ordered as either a finished hull or a complete “ready to go” package in 18-, 20-, and 22-foot models. Options include side decks in.stead of rails, a center console, rod hold.ers, steering system, and installed out.board. Since all boats are built to order, each is unique to its owner.  ONE CLASSIC AT A TIME  Like many small custom shops, Old Wharf Dory’s production depends on what comes in for orders, and it’s typi.cally a boat or two a year. “They’re all custom built. They’re all one of a kind, pretty much. I think the prices are rea.sonable for what you get, that’s for sure,” Baron says.  “I’ve built about 150 boats or so. … Some boats I’ve built one of so far, and some boats I’ve built 10 of. I built a bunch of prams at one point. I was producing them for a couple of local places. I’ve built about 50 prams. That was the only production run I ever did, and that was over several years.  “A couple of years ago I built three rowing dories, all different, which was interesting. One was a 17-foot Swamp.scott that was [on] the Mystic Seaport lines. That boat was built with a modern style, a composite bottom, and glued lap construction. The guy wanted to be able to remove the middle thwart and walk around in it and fish out of it.”  The second one was a traditionally built dory similar to a Swampscott but called a Nahant dory, from “The Dory Book” by John Gardner. (www.mystic - search “John Gardner publications”)  “That was all oak and pine and very traditional. The only thing that I did on that was that he wanted full-length strakes and no butt blocks, so I scarfed the planks. Otherwise it was all hackmatack knees for frames and stem. Very traditionally built, painted traditional colors.  “The third was a Gloucester Gull, built really lightweight for a beach club in Rhode Island. They have a dory racing series there with all the other beach clubs and they wanted to win, so I built them a Gull, but it had to have sole pins. The next year they won the series in that boat. So in that year I built four or five boats.”  BUILDING ON EXPERIENCE  After 30 years in the business, Baron believes the boats he builds today re.flect a culmination of that experience.  “You’ve got to evolve. That’s the trou.ble with glass boats. You make a mold and that’s it. You can’t change it,” he says. “One of the things that people don’t realize is that when they buy a plastic boat, half or more of that [price] is marketing and overhead. Whereas, when you buy from a boatbuilder, all of that money is going to him. It makes the argument that you should look around and see what you want, and if you can’t find what you want that’s mass pro.duced, you should go look at somebody that’s going to build what you want.” n

Next month: a look at Walter Baron’s evolution as a boatbuilder and the model that he has truly made his own.  Craig S. Milner is the author of “Ralph Stanley: Tales of a Maine Boat-builder” published by Down East Books.