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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Spirit of the Boat Barn

Three Generations of New England Sailing Tradition
By Michael Breton

When I walk out into the morning chill to the boat barn I have built in our backyard, a cup of coffee in my hand, a wave of nostalgic sadness may overtake me, overwhelming other emotions of that moment. Tears may come into my eyes as I realize what I have constructed is, to me at the least, a monument to the spirit of my dad. I did not set out to make it that way.

So many years ago, when I was still a teen, he also constructed a large garage wherein boats were worked upon many hours at a time, a prototypical boat barn, as I now come to see it. Hours, days, weeks, even years were spent constructing and reconstructing boats and all that goes with them.

Michael with his father, Gerard, and his own two sons, Dylan (2)
and Matthew (1) in 1983
Yes, it was supposed to be for his electrical business, we all were told. But it had the space, the tools, the well thought out details to accommodate our boats, those that we had then, and those that were only in the imagination. It was in that place working on boats, their myriad parts, their rigging, their stuff that I grew into a young adult.

How could the remembrances not be strong?

My boat barn, I see, is not so unlike his. There even is a battered old 110, one that my father sailed, sitting on its rusting trailer just outside the doors, waiting (it would seem) to get in, to take its place and be renewed, so as to be set free once again on the welcoming waves of a bay, or perhaps a lake, where it once knew its joy.

When I sail these boats and a rush of breeze hits, I feel them leap forward, as if in joy at the sudden burst of liberating force. The boat takes the bit in its teeth and surges. I feel it. I feel it all. My father’s spirit lives on within the doors of this humble, rough-hewn structure, this barn built for boats.

As I set my coffee cup on the corner of the workbench, I see an image of my dad doing the same thing in the morning, letting his thoughts come together, gathering the strength to face another day, so many days.

These are kinds of things I did not know I was seeing those many years ago. Only now I see them again in my remembrances, and I understand. See them I did. Understand them I must have. Or else how could this boat barn be here now?

On these days of the present, I feel the power of faded memories rising from the shadows of my mind. Things I do are so similar. I guess there are ways we do live on in our sons and daughters. My dad lives on in me when I do these things. I so love doing them, just as he must have. Emotion rules. Logic fades. Life is lived in the moment, no matter what.

And so, on this cool morning, I walk out to the boat barn, past the whirring hummingbirds, through the barn side door and set my cup of coffee on the corner of the bench, crowded with fittings for masts and boats, tools not in their place. I look around. A boat is waiting patiently in its cradle for the attention it knows I can give.

Patiently it waits.

The tools, the masts hanging overhead, the sails on their shelves, the work benches carefully constructed to serve the noble purpose of fitting out boats, of repairing their wounds, so they can take us down to the sea, to allow us to sail joyfully upon the waters; all these things are contained within.

On some days, when I do realize these things, a tear fills my eye. I remember my dad, and those years gone by. On some days, I await my sons who will come the distance to work with me on this boat, on boats that we will sail. I feel the spirit of my father lives in this place. It is fitting that it should be so.


Mike Breton, now living in Charlestown, learned to sail at the age of 12 more than 55 years ago in Wakefield Massachusetts, when his father, an electrician by trade, fulfilled his own lifetime dream of owning a small sailing boat. 

Following World War II and the end of the Great Depression, the rapidly expanding new middle class was experimenting with previously out of reach forms of recreation and personal fulfillment. 

His first boat, designed and built in  the 1940's in Wakefield by local sailors, was made of wood planking that required caulking in the traditional manner, had hemp rope halyards, manganese bronze fittings, a solid spruce mast and boom, and cotton sails. 

The revolution in materials soon changed the sails to Dacron, the fittings to stainless steel, and the lines to Dacron and other man-made fibers. The traditional caulking of the plank seams remained. 

Boats now in the Boat Barn in Charlestown are made of space age composites of epoxy, carbon fiber, Kevlar and other materials undreamed of in the 1950's. They mount molded Mylar-Kevlar sails on extruded aluminum masts and carbon fiber booms and spinnaker poles. 

They abound with many exotic super strong and super light fittings, lines made of super strong and light new fibers, carbon fiber centerboards and rudders, and electronic compasses with liquid crystal displays. 

But a boat is still a boat when it goes down to the sea to sail. The wind and waves are both friend and foe, depending on the conditions. A sea worthy boat is still, as ever, judged by its ability to both perform and survive. That's what the Boat Barn is all about, taking in a sailing craft, no matter what the condition or age, and making it ready once again to confront the wind and the sea.