There have been many boatyards throughout the estuary that provided commercial fishermen with draggers or trawlers, garveys, skiffs, dories, and other watercraft used in both the bay and the ocean. In addition there have been boatyards, mostly in the 20th century, who specialize in recreational boats ranging from luxurious yachts to simple skiffs able to navigate the shallow bay waters in the estuary.
While there are some historic boatyards remaining in the region, most no longer manufacture traditional or modern boats. However, there are some significant reminders of what was once considered “the boat building capital of the world.”
One of the most prolific boat builders in the estuary was Gil Smith of Patchogue, who had his shop in the late 1800s until the mid-1930s on the east side of Patchogue River near West Avenue and Amity Street. Smith built recreational cat boats used for sailing races.
Another important Patchogue-based boatyard is the Weeks Boat Yard, one of the first settlers in Patchogue. Frank M. Weeks was born into a family which made River Avenue in Patchogue, NY its home since the early 1700s. Weeks purchased land in small increments for the boat yard that currently stands on Riverview Court off River Road. By 1928, he had purchased all of the present property, approximately five acres. Many of Weeks’ original tools and machinery are still used in the yard today. The Weeks property also includes a c.1926 wood shingle house where Frank Weeks lived. The Weeks Boat Yard is one of the oldest family-run boatyards in the country.
Up the river from the Weeks Boatyard is the South Bay Boat Repair run by Charles Balsamo. The yard was originally founded as the Bishop Boat Yard in c.1892 by George Bishop, a ship’s carpenter whose parents were born in England. The yard consists of several buildings that range in age from c.1892 to the 1960s. The oldest is the boat shop, also known as the barn, built in c.1892. There was a historic railway connection, built in c.1911 by Fred Lane that was removed in 2007. The rails were the longest ones on Long Island. In the early to mid-1900s oyster steamers and clam boats generally relied on Bishop for maintenance and repairs. These included the boats operated by the Bluepoints Company in West Sayville. During Prohibition the yard was a commonly used site for shipping illegal liquor, as were other yards on Long Island.
Another major community for boat builders was Sayville, which was home to several boatyards in the 1800s, including a boatyard on Brown River Road that built sailboats and catboats. The L’hommedieu family also operated a boat shop during the early 1900s in the same area. Finally the Westin Boat Shop, once owned by Doug West, at 69 River Road in Sayville, has been in operation since the early 1900s, with two historic buildings constructed c.1910 and 1925 on the site. Surprisingly, there were few boat builders in West Sayville where many baymen lived. They included Sam Torgenson. In Brookhaven Hamlet, the original Tooker Boat Yard is now part of the Post Morrow Foundation site.
Ted DeGarmo is the owner and manager of DeGarmo’s Boatyard in Babylon, established in 1910 by Ted’s great-grandfather. The earliest boats constructed at the yard were “mostly small boats with trunk cabins. We made parts for various Grumman aircraft” during World War II but did not work on “Navy boats because the bay was too shallow.” Before the war the yard built mostly carvel planked boats; after the war lapstrake skiffs became more common.
Ted estimates that four to five boats would have been built in the winter season during the boatyard’s heyday as “it was extremely labor intensive work.” During the spring and summer seasons the yard was busy with maintenance demands. Material for the boats “always came from Brooklyn; Black and Yates was the big distributor of mahogany.” The DeGarmo family was also a dealer for Owens, Chris Craft, and several smaller boat companies, selling “close to 300 new boats a year.” At its height, the yard consisted of a marine supply store, a boat show room, a machine shop, a building shop, the boatyard, and a restoration shop.
Although the yard has “downsized considerably because of the economy” Ted estimates that they still work on “200 to 250 boats a year.” Superstorm Sandy caused significant damage to the yard. The office building built in 1973 was destroyed. “There was a lot that we lost in that building, including the history of the boatyard. We lost all of our photographs, our old canvas shop, sewing machines, inventory, parts, and our entire stock of oil filters.” Ted is concerned for the future of the industry as “the basis of our entire business here is family boating, and families are being hit hard by property taxes and expenses.”
Amityville has several historic boatyards including Yacht Service, the Ketcham Boatyard, and the Toomey Boatyard.
Yacht Service: In 1973, Steve Brice purchased Yacht Service, a boatyard that was situated on two Ocean Avenue properties, from Bob Schwarzler. The northern property at 144 Ocean Avenue was formerly known as Jim’s Boatyard. The southern property on 152 Ocean Avenue dates to the early 20th century as the Wicks Boatyard, later known as the Ocean Avenue Boatyard. The Wicks yard was well known for their power boats and the ‘Commodore,’ a 70-foot schooner built in 1912 for John Vanderveer of West Islip. In 1990, Steve bought a third property, doubling the size of Yacht Service which continues to focus on the repair and storage of fiberglass boats.
Steve estimates that the last boat built in the yard was built in the 1960s. When Steve first acquired Yacht Service they sold O’Day, S2 and Hunter sailboats. “In the late 1980s when we stopped selling sailboats, when the store business started to falter and when the wholesale business started to die off, we went more into the service end.” Steve first got his start in the business while working for Jim’s Boatyard during the summer of 1962 and 1963. In 1986, he removed the small railway on the property and bought a 10-ton travel lift. Steve recalls the changing demands of a service yard: “I kept the big railway for the big wooden powerboats to haul them out. It was good money. But slowly they disappeared and they weren’t being replaced. In 2003, I only had four big powerboats left, so I closed the big railway and bought a 30-ton travel lift.”
In 2008, Steve sold the business to his son Todd who continues to operate the yard. “We were 85 percent sailboats. My son has gone a little more into the powerboats and now we are working on around 60 percent powerboats. When I sold the business to my son I said I wanted to work for three years; this is now the fifth year. As long as my body holds out fine I’ll still do it.”
Ketcham Boatyard Paul Ketcham, Jr., was born in Amityville in 1935 to a local boat builder family. During the depression, Paul’s family settled in Florida, where his father worked in the Daytona Boat Works. In 1944, following the death of his grandfather, Paul’s family returned to Amityville, and the boatyard began its active operation.
Growing up in Amityville, Paul helped his father with the maintenance and construction of various wooden boats; primarily skiffs, garveys, and power boats. Paul began working for his father in 1958 and purchased the business in 1991. “About 20 years ago I bought it from my father: he didn’t give it to me, I had to buy it. I got a lot of his old tools, all his old frames, and I was pretty well set.”
Early work in boat building for Paul shifted towards boat maintenance “when all the old wooden boats came in here to be repaired, around 30 years ago.” This shift met the increasing popularity of fiberglass boats and changes in the price, quality, and availability of long leaf yellow pine, plywood, cypress, teak, and mahogany. In 2001, Paul began using Spanish cedar for “patching up boats…they have a hell of a smell and an awful taste. But it bends good, it works good, and is nice looking wood; it almost looks like mahogany.”
After Hurricane Sandy and sustaining a knee injury, Paul is contemplating retirement and selling the Ketcham boatyard. “There are not enough wooden boats to hire somebody to do work, and there is too much involved to hire somebody. So if I can’t do it, that’s it.”
Toomey Boatyard In 1954, the Toomey’s purchased a run-down fishing station which they transformed into a rowboat rental and fishing shop for recreational fishermen. In the 1960s they began building their own boats. “They were built out of plywood, 16 feet long and about 5 feet wide. They had high sides on them and were pretty nice boats” recalls Bud. “Most of my customers all came from the city—NY and Brooklyn. The Italians used to come out to go crabbing and clamming and they were characters—they made you laugh. This was when we used to tow boats out—because back then they didn’t have much money—couldn’t afford to buy a motor. So we used to tow them out to the bay.”
Today, the yard focuses on boat and mechanical repairs. “People came out, built homes, had dock space right in their backyards or went to the boatyards near their homes and asked if they can dock their boats there.” Repair skills are sorely needed after Superstorm Sandy. “Out of the 50 boats — we had a couple of boats sitting on top of poles, and five got totaled. Now it’s April — it will take us until August to sort through everything. A lot of the boats are a mess” recall John and Mike. “We can deal with another ten Irene’s but not another Sandy.”
Woodcleft Canal In Freeport, the Maresca boatyard stands on the site of what is now the home of SPLASH owned by the Village of Freeport. Founded in the 1920s by Phillip Maresca, they built both recreational and commercial boats. Their customers included Guy Lombardo and party boat captains. The business was taken over by Everett Maresca, who died in 1995. The original building remains relatively intact, consisting of a large concrete block structure. Further down on Woodcleft Canal stands the former Scopinich Boatyard, now part of Shelter Point Marine Services. The structure is obscured by corrugated metal siding but elements of its original frame structure remain. The yard was founded by Fred Scopinich, a Trieste immigrant in the early 1900s. His grandson Fred moved the yard to East Quogue. The Freeport yard specialized in building commercial fishing boats including trawlers, government boats for the Coast Guard, rum running boats, as well as sailboats and garveys for local baymen. Finally the original Grover boatyard, founded by Al Grover, stands on Woodcleft Avenue a short distance from the Maresca yard. A modest frame building, approximately 20 people worked there. Today, the yard is located north of the Nautical Mile on South Main street, run by Grover’s sons. Their yard consists of modern corrugated structures used primarily for maintenance and storage.
In 1932, Russell Davison founded Davison’s Boatyard that specialized in boat building, restoration, and service along the shores of East Rockaway. The yard was well known for building and servicing commercial fishing boats and luxury yachts, Coast Guard skiffs and police boats. It was among the oldest working boatyards on Nassau County’s south shore until it closed in 2015.
“Years ago, there were painters, welders, different levels of carpenters. We had fine carpenters who did varnish work. Then there were ‘nuts and bolts’ carpenters— they had to put seams together, caulk a boat, and put lap strakes and rivets back in. The wood workers came from Scandinavian countries” recalls Dan Schmidt.
Over time the yard expanded its services to include dealer training on Mercruser motors, and maintaining “party” fishing boats such as the Commodore, the Genie May and the Captain Tom. While motorboats were more common during the yard’s beginnings, sailboats were also part of the yard. “Oliver and Russ were sailors — they would buy sailboat hulls — bring them here and would put them together. They would sail the boat, use it, sail it and build another one.”
Superstorm Sandy flooded all of Davison’s buildings, swept boats off their stanchions, and damaged small and large vessels alike. “In the winter we were trying to figure out how to fix everyone and get them out boating again. One thing we didn’t do was to set the anchor off in the canal and tighten it up, so as the tide came up it would pull the boat away from the dock. That would have proved to help us out—but we missed that on this storm. But having the buildings saved us.”