Christmas at the Boatyard

My Maine

Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams

The holidays shine a light on marine workers’ hidden talents and passions.

By Martha White

After Thanksgiving in Rockport Harbor, Christmas preparations begin in earnest at the boatyard. First, the giant wreaths go up over the spar loft windows, and then one of our longtime employees brings in an enormous balsam fir from his Christmas tree farm in Warren. The yard guys deck the tree in blue lights and, together with one of our crew members, raise it on the hook of the big Travelift crane and perch it on the dock shed roof.

On the first Saturday in December, the red workboat is sent around the cove to Beauchamp Point to meet Santa — with his real white beard, genuine mustache, and naturally bushy eyebrows — and bring him in for hot cocoa and photographs with children. In recent years, an occasional dog will nudge into the pictures, but Santa doesn’t seem to mind. Generally, my husband runs the workboat, but now our oldest son is often at the tiller. He’s beginning to take the helm at the boatyard as well, just as my husband did from his father, 30-some years ago.

This has been the holiday tradition at Rockport Marine for decades. If you have seen any of the local chamber of commerce guides, you’ve probably seen the pictures. Over the years, our children and now grandchildren and their friends and cousins and dogs have often gone along for the ride, peppering the same old Santa with their hard questions, including “Where are your reindeer?” and “Can’t they swim?” Santa never misses a beat, although one year he lost his footing on the slippery rocks and bloodied one white glove. An elf swiftly took care of it at the dock.

The part I have come to love, however, is what happens inside the boatyard, after hours and on weekends, in the last week or two before Christmas. These skilled men and women, who work all year building some of the most gorgeous yachts and powerboats you’ve ever laid eyes on, turn their thoughts to home and family and friends, and the place becomes a veritable Santa’s workshop. I’m not overly fond of Christmas — too much hype, too frenzy, never enough time — but an evening walk through the boatyard on the final days before Christmas restores my faith in the tradition. The handcrafted gifts I have seen come out of that shop would take your breath away. I’ve seen dollhouses, doll furniture, baby cradles (some that look like boats and some that don’t), duck decoys, intricate carvings made from twisted vines, Christmas ornaments of wooden sleds or boats, toy whistles, wooden tops, brass candlesticks, coffee tables, kayaks, Adirondack chairs, forged iron hinges, ornamental hooks, and fireplace utensils, you name it. One year, one of our metalworkers made some cast bronze ornaments that looked like intricate sand dollars, starfish, and sea urchins. Last winter, another man turned some scrap purpleheart (a dense, purplish tropical hardwood) into baseball bats.

It’s not only at Christmas that the other lives of these craftsmen become apparent. One of our employees is also a large-scale farmer, growing acres of garlic and other produce, some of which makes its way into our downtown restaurants. He’s an avid bicycler, as well. Where does he find the time? Another man raises very hot peppers just for the fun of it; he doesn’t particularly like to eat them. (He once gave me some strawberry rhubarb plants after he had just thinned his, telling me he didn’t like the taste of rhubarb, either; he just liked to grow it.) He’s interested in all sorts of heirloom vegetables, and spends his winters poring over the seed catalogs, talking with other gardeners, and planning his next agricultural experiments. He comes in with gifts of hot pickles, the crunchiest cucumbers, black tomatoes, white eggplants, and unusual apple varieties. It used to be that he’d go lobstering, part time, and then he’d come in to the boatyard to share his rendition of the perfect sandwich: Wonder bread, fresh lobster meat, and cucumber slices with a bit of mayonnaise and black pepper (you can’t beat it for a summer sandwich).

What interests me is the depth and variety of skills behind the obvious ones. These are people who, for the most part, are very accomplished in their own fields and, I think, love their jobs and are proud of what they do. Maybe these quieter months help foster our indulgence of our nonprofessional pursuits? After hours this winter, music was heard coming from the Rockport Marine machine shop. It turned out that one of the guys was having a violin lesson in there. Who knew?

Over the years, we’ve had artists, musicians, and choral singers; an abundance of good storytellers and practical jokers; several athletes, including a distance swimmer and a near-Olympic-grade skier; a Maine Game Warden or two; firefighters (including, briefly, a smokejumper), and EMTs; and even a standup comic and a mime. The standup comic worked on the marina docks for a few summers and taught elementary school the other nine months of the year. One of our boys had her for class, and she was a terrific teacher; she also was very good on the docks. When she left the boatyard to pursue comedy, she performed an impromptu set at her going-away party, playing off the quirks and foibles of the other crewmembers. It was hilarious. I used to think maybe I’d come across her on late-night television or on stage somewhere, but more likely she’s onto something else by now. Maybe she builds boats in her spare time.

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Martha White

Martha White is the editor of Letters of E.B. White, a collection of her famous grandfather's correspondence. Her essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and Country Journal.