A warm late-September sun is shining and a few dead leaves drift across Ned’s Point Road as I pull into the Mattapoisett Boatyard, where the first shrink-wrapped boats of fall have sprouted in the lot. Down by the harbor I can hear the Travelift at work, plucking a boat from the water. A diesel truck rumbles out from behind a work shed, towing a center console to its winter resting spot. Another Buzzards Bay boating season is fast drawing to a close.
It’s a ritual Art McLean has participated in for over 50 years, even before he established the Mattapoisett Boatyard in 1962. At 73, the white-haired, energetic McLean still patrols the yard, although he now leaves most of the day-to-day responsibilities to general manager and son-in-law Dave Kaiser.
I caught up with McLean a few weeks before his annual retreat to Stuart, Florida, where he spends the winter with his wife, Alberta. As it so happens, the couple will celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2013.
“This is the only place I’ve ever worked in my life,” McLean reveals as we chat in the boatyard’s 2nd floor offices, which he helped build, along with most of the yard’s other buildings. “I started working here when I was 15 years old, helping out here and there.”
McLean grew up in Walpole, Massachusetts, just west of Boston, but spent every summer in Mattapoisett at his family’s seasonal cottage on Point Connett.
“I always loved boats,” he says. “My parents knew nothing about them. My father never even learned to swim. I just got into it by hanging around other boaters during the summer. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I told my parents I wanted to own a boatyard.”
McLean received much of his early nautical education through the Point Connett Yacht Club, where he sailed Beetle Cats with the other kids in the summer community. “I never had any trouble around boats,” he states flatly.
In late August of 1954, he and some teenaged friends set out in a catboat, which they planned to sail from Point Connett to the protection of Mattapoisett Harbor prior to a gale that appeared to be brewing. However, the unsuspecting youths soon found themselves in the teeth of one of the biggest storms of the century—Hurricane Carol.
“The cotton sails eventually tore away and we rode the surf right onto Angelica Point,” McLean recalls. “We ended up on someone’s roof. The house had been flattened. We didn’t know it was a hurricane at the time.” When asked if he was scared, McLean smiles. “I thought it was fun!”
Around this same time, McLean began working at the Burr Brothers boatyard, originally located on the current site of the Mattapoisett Boatyard. Burr Brothers was founded in 1947 by brothers John and Carlton Burr, who eventually bought the Watts Yard in Marion, where Burr Brothers Boats is now located. Carlton took over operation of the Watch Yard, while John ran the Mattapoisett facility.
During his apprenticeship, McLean met the legendary Fred Brownell, who worked at Burr Brothers before starting his own company. In those days, every boat had to be launched and hauled by the yard’s marine railway, and Brownell, a mechanical genius and irrepressible tinkerer, was both frustrated and challenged by the difficult and time-consuming process. “I remember Fred telling me, ‘There’s got to be an easier way,’” recalls McLean.
Brownell bent his mind to the task and came up with the idea of the hydraulic boat trailer, which he soon began to build and sell. This in turn led to Brownell’s invention of the equally brilliant adjustable boat stand. The rest is boating history.
Eventually John Burr left the marine business, leaving Carlton to run both the Watch Yard and the Mattapoisett facility. “After I got through with school, I talked Carlton into selling the place,” McLean recalls. “He wanted me to be the manager, but I said no. So I talked him into it. This was back in ‘62.”
McLean partnered with Jerry Stratton to buy the yard, but took over full ownership a few years later. After many years in the bank business, Stratton established the remote yacht lot on Rte. 6, which his wife Gladys sold to McLean after Stratton’s death. This inland yard now allows MBY to store a total of 280 boats.
In MBY’s early days, McLean had his work cut out for him—perhaps more than he bargained for. He got an SBA loan, but it was tough going for the first years. He worked long hours, doing much of the hauling, launching, repairing and general maintenance work himself.
“In terms of work ethic, Art is over the top,” says general manager Dave Kaiser, who has worked at the yard since he was in college (his son Ned has worked at MBY since he was 15). “He would run laps around the other workers when it came to hauling boats on the marine railway. No one could keep up with him. Even today he still helps out all the time.”
McLean chuckles at the memory of the railway, which remained in service until 1975, when MBY installed its first Travelift. “I love to tell the people who work for me now how we had to build a cradle for the boat, haul the boat, build poppets to hold it up, put rollers under it and roll it off to wherever it went. They just can’t believe we had to do all that work to haul and launch a boat.”
When McLean purchased the boatyard, wooden-boat maintenance was his bread-and-butter, but he soon branched out in to boat sales and even boatbuilding. “We sold over 70 Bristol Corinthians. We were one of their first dealers. It was great, because practically every boat we sold turned into a new customer,” says McLean. “We even built 3 plugs for Bristol’s larger boats, and we also built the first couple of deep-vee Surfhunters for Hunt. Built ‘em out of wood, triple-planked and cold-molded.”
Eventually, the advent of fiberglass production boats put McLean and MBY in the black for good. By the mid-‘70s, almost anyone could own a boat, and they needed a yard to haul, launch, service and store these vessels, not to mention service their moorings.
Today, mooring service makes up a large chunk of the yard’s business. It currently owns 212 moorings, and services some 300 others each year. To handle all the work, MBY maintains a steel-hulled workboat with a hydraulic crane.
“That was my goal: to build up a service business. And I’m glad today it is a service business and not one based on boat sales,” McLean says.
Looking back, McLean has no regrets about his decision to set his own mooring in the marine industry. “If I had to live my life over again, I wouldn’t do anything different. I’ve loved every minute of it. The biggest challenge is finding good help. But the thing about getting good help is that they tend to stick around. Once they get in the door, they don’t want to leave. It’s a great job.”
To watch a video on boating in Mattapoisett, featuring the Mattapoisett Boatyard, CLICK HERE.
- Mattapoisett Boatyard
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