Most mornings on the Port Jefferson, N.Y. harbor front are quiet ones. But on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon, while locals are jogging or walking their dogs along the water, Bayles Boat Shop is an eruption of construction sounds. Sawing, drilling, hammering, the works.
An aroma of sawdust and epoxy fills the modest, rectangular shed that sits in the shadow of the Port Jefferson Village Center on East Broadway. Inside, Long Island Seaport and Eco Center (LISEC) Board of Directors President Betty Ann Arink is making her way around the room, talking to the other 36 boat shop members.
According to Arink, 95 percent of the members are retired volunteers. They spend their free mornings building wooden boats, which are funded by the boat’s owner, who is also required to take part in its construction.
“The projects are financed by the individual whose boat is being built,” Arink said. “They pay us a small fee to use the shop to get the team of LISEC volunteers to work with them and then they supply all the materials to build the boat.”
LISEC’s mission statement heavily focuses on preserving “Long Island’s maritime heritage” and supporting “activities to raise awareness of the area’s nautical history, while keeping alive the spirit of community involvement.” Bayles Boat Shop is just one of the five other projects LISEC oversees, including the Adopt-a-Beach and Shellfish Restoration programs.
While Arink, a retired Pennsylvania State University professor, rarely gets involved in the physical woodworking, she brings years of experience to the table, including a spot on the board of trustees at the Long Island Maritime Museum.
“I’ve had a boat since I was four so it’s just in my blood,” she said. “I learned through my dad and my grandfather about the various types of woodworking that’s required on a boat and I’ve always liked doing things with my hands so it’s something that came very natural to me. ”
Although Arink plays a hefty role in organizing each project, each team’s chemistry depends on its members.
“Every contracted boat gets a team, I divide up volunteers so there’s a team for each,” Arink said. “Every team is responsible for that boat build and each one develops its own teamwork, its own sense of involvement and what they can contribute to that particular boat.”
Arink said what really drives the volunteers is their interest in woodworking coupled with spending time with people who share their interests.
“I think they get enjoyment and satisfaction out of building something,” she said. “I think they enjoy using their hands and sharing their skills [and] the camaraderie of being with other men.”
But for 83-year-old Fred Smith, boating came first.
“I’ve been a boater for about 60 years,” Smith said. “I’m just a part of the sea. I’m like a fish on land, I love the water.”
After meeting Arink two years ago, Smith paid for his boat shop membership. “I’m sorry I didn’t know about this place before,” he said. “I usually kayak in the Great River and the Sound and I found this by accident.”
Keeping up with the boat building tradition has been one of LISEC’s goals since 1998, just three years after the organization’s inception. When retired contractor Phil Schiavone first started building boats in 1997, he and his friend and current LISEC treasurer Charles Kenny worked in a “condemned-looking” building just on the harbor front.
That building was the original Bayles Boat Shop and boat building there dates back to around the First World War. Years later, LISEC started its own boat building in that structure. Today, locals know it as the Village Center and serves as a reference point in the down port area.
$40,000 in community donations and a $50,000 state grant that New York senator Kenneth P. LaValle secured helped lay down the boat shop’s foundation in 2006. Carved into the current boat shop’s beams are the names of community members who donated to the cause.
One of those names belongs to Schiavone, who currently teaches at the Osher Lifelong Learner Institute at Stony Brook University. In addition to financially contributing to the boat shop, Schiavone was also heavily involved in the physical building of the shop.
Jim Gunn, who has been an amateur boat builder for years, said the skills the volunteers pick up from each other in the shop is part of its appeal.
“I’m learning so much from these guys, everyone here is learning and there’s so much going on,” Gunn said. “I wish I could be at all four stations because there’s things here I’ve never seen before and I want to eyeball that.”
What most fascinates Gunn about Bayles Boat Shop is that there is always room for more.
“One of the main things I noticed is how they adjust the space,” he said. “They all work in very tight corners here and everybody cooperates, it’s just wonderful to watch.”