Legends of the Lake: Merrill Fay
December 3, 2019
Winnipesaukee boating icon Merrill Fay of Fay’s Boat Yard reflects on growing up around boats and the changes he has witnessed on New Hampshire’s largest and most populated lake. By Kiley Jacques
Merrill Park Fay has a good memory, very good for a man of 83. And that’s a lucky thing, because he has a lot of fine memories, many of them formed on Lake Winnipesaukee, where he grew up as part of a local legacy.
“My great-great grandfather was an original settler of the lake,” explains Fay, the longtime owner of Fay’s Boat Yard on Smith Cove in Gilford, New Hampshire. “That was Ebenezer Smith, who fought with John Stark in the Revolutionary War. That side of the family goes back to the 1700s.”
BORN TO BOATING
Fay’s grandfather, Park Fay, boated on Winnie and built homes on Pine Island and Bear Island from the 1890s until the 1920s. He married Hattie Merrill and, in 1904, they had a son, Wilbur—Fay’s father—who started working on the islands when he was 15 while living in Lakeport, where he kept his own boats. “My father got all around the lake during the 1930s,” recalls Fay. “When the 1938 hurricane came, he was very involved.”
Fay was born in 1936, two years before that massive storm. His father bought the boatyard in 1942, and Fay started working on the lake when he was 13. At 14, he was delivering groceries and ice to island residents three or four days a week. In 1959, after the death of his father, Fay took over the yard. “And I have been here ever since I came back from college,” he says.
Some of Fay’s keenest memories are of the big storms that wreaked havoc on the lake. “During Hurricane Carol in ’54, I was out in a boat during that. It was horrendous, and I don’t want to see another one like that!” He also recalls Hurricane Bob, in 1991, being responsible for giving the yard a lot of business, as people were caught unawares and hadn’t secured their boats.
Fay remembers a time when wooden boats were abundant on the lake, and the local boating scene was more laidback. Today, he feels that Winnie is overcrowded with powerboats, its banks heavy with sprawling mansions and elaborate docks.
“When I was a young man, I could drive anywhere on the lake without having to worry about traffic, because people didn’t drive the way they do today, and there weren’t very many boats,” he notes. “Back then, the boats were all wooden and people were very courteous. It’s not the same nowadays.”
Nevertheless, the yard has adapted to the changing times by buying equipment to handle larger vessels, renting boats, and offering year- round services. In keeping with the lake’s faster pace, Fay’s caters to an ever-increasing boating population. “We’ll do most anything for anybody,” says Fay. “We have 300 slips, and every one of them is rented. And we have valet service for 100 boats.” Fay also has plans to build a new rack-storage building to accommodate yet another 100 boats.
FATHER TO SON
The boat bug has bitten his son, Jeffery, too. Jeffery runs the yard and has amassed a renowned collection of old boats and motors. Fay compares it to a museum. “Some of the motors date back to 1905,” he says, explaining how his son dives to the bottom of the lake to find the relics then spends his downtime painstakingly restoring them to their original glory. “You’d never believe they were on the bottom of the lake for 75 years, but they were.”
Fay notes one rare motor that was built in Lakeport by McDuff Manufacturing (Jeffery is an expert on McDuff motors). Jeffery also owns a lot of old Johnson motors, which were used to power many of the original wooden lake boats. “Jeffery was working here when he was 12, fiddling with motors,” recalls Fay. In fact, his son’s knowledge is so deep that people contact him from all over the country to ask him questions. Apparently, he also knows where all of the lake’s wrecks lie. Today, Fay owns 2,000 feet of lake frontage and his yard services about 1,000 boats. “We have more sailboats here than any place else on the lake,” he notes. “We specialize in powerboats, but we will take care of anyone’s sailboat—everyone comes to us for that. I have a crew of three guys, and all they do is work on sailboats year-round.”