A shipyard burned, a treasure lost

Workers labor to clear post-fire wreckage. Photo by Mikaela Esau

By Greg Coppa
For Points East

On the morning of Sept. 10, 2019, while in Florida with my granddaughters, I received an early morning text from son, Ted, back in Rhode Island. It began with, “At least nobody seems to be hurt.”

In the message was a link to a WPRI breaking-news story about a “massive” fire in North Kingstown. Following the link, I immediately recognized the place enveloped in smoke and flames, and knew, at a disconcerting glance, that the Wickford Harbor building that had housed George W. Zachorne Jr. & Sons Boatbuilders since 1989 soon would be history.

That structure was a quarter-mile down Steamboat Avenue, the street on which I live. And, as one who writes about boats and related topics, I knew the business well, and considered George and Dominic Zachorne good friends. Dave Esau, who worked along with them, was an even older friend who, in the last few months, had become a relative.

***

The fire at Wickford Shipyard was skillfully contained before it could ignite any of the well over 100 boats there, some less than 100 feet away. Responders included local firemen and fireboats from Newport, Warwick and Cranston. The potential for a full-fledged holocaust was high due to the proximity of flammable fiberglass vessels with caches of fuel, and because thousands of gallons of diesel and gasoline for the nearby fuel dock were in an above-ground storage tank not far from the blazing building.

The TV, radio and social-media news only told of a large fire, but there was a much greater loss – in knowledge, skill and history. George Zachorne is one of the foremost living boatwrights in the country. His knowledge, on so many levels, of wooden boats and ships, both past and present, is encyclopedic. Further, Dominic Zachorne has an equivalent reputation in boat and ship model-making and restoration. Using highly specialized tools he has the ability to machine Lilliputian fittings to exacting specifications, perfectly to scale, resulting in the types of authentic-looking models that find their way into places like the New York Yacht Club.

I believe that if George and Dom were asked to build a full-scale replica of the America, or Cook’s Endeavour, after a short pause they would say, in a distinctive Yankee drawl, “If you’ve got the money, we can do it, but it might take a bit more time than you think.” More time would be required because the workmanship would be impeccable, the final creations ones to be marveled at.

All who knew the Zachornes, their shop, the work they accomplished, and the type of repository it represented felt the pain and heartache of knowing that a national treasure was consumed by fire. The precious contents included historically significant wooden vessels, nautical books, antique tools, plans, instruments, hardware, boat templates, half-hull models, fully finished museum-quality models, rare photographs of wooden vessels from another era, and innumerable artifacts like those collected by the Smithsonian or the Mystic Seaport Museum.

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The Zachornes’ decision to locate their business at Wickford Shipyard, on Poplar Point, was a perfect one since the space they would occupy was already reminiscent of another time and place. I knew their shed well because, in 1968, I was one of the dock boys at the shipyard. The woodshop was busy back then, when fiberglass boats had yet to prove themselves. People who worked there had devoted lifetimes building or repairing all manner of plank-on-frame pleasure craft, and even smaller wooden warships like PT boats and minesweepers. I shared morning coffee with those who built C. Lincoln Vaughn’s private brigantine, the Black Pearl, right there at what was during World War II, Vaughn’s Shipyard.

When the Zachornes took over those Wickford Shipyard marine-carpentry bays, I felt that a guiding hand directed them to do so. Over the years, many locals and and quite a few of those who had traveled great distances to get there were fortunate to watch George and Dom build, repair and restore a wide assortment of vessels. In the process of viewing what was going on, an education was received, since neither father nor son ever gave a short or partial answer to any question.

And the facility, adorned as it was with myriad wooden-boat tools and artifacts, was an extraordinary show-and-tell setting guaranteed to evoke a lot of questions. Sometimes when working on a boat-related writing project, I needed clarification of a fact or information about some technique that I could not find among my usual resources. Because I didn’t want to interrupt their work, I was reluctant to ride my bike over to the Oracles of Wickford. I knew they had the explanation I required, and that they would too-generously share their valuable time and knowledge with me.

A Zachorne boatbuilding project that stands out is the 2001-’03 construction of a 40-foot Lyle Hess cutter named Ryugin for New York Metropolitan Opera percussionist Rick Barbour and his wife, Janet. Some of the wood for the hull arrived in Wickford as a tree trunk that was cut up into planks on the premises by a portable sawmill, and solar-seasoned for a year under poly.

As the undertaking came together, I remember walking with my wife Abby past the brightly illuminated shed on cold winter nights. We would marvel as the ribs were set in place by the Zachornes, creating what looked like the majestic rib cage of a monstrous whale.

All four of my kids had the good fortune to work on that project in some capacity or other, such as riveting. One of them would insert the copper shaft or nail through a pre-drilled hole while the other would affix the rove to it on the other side. Then, as one held the bucking iron against the head of the nail, the other would smack the rove set into place with a ball-peen hammer. They would finish up by covering the recessed rivet head and rove with a bung, which they then made fair with the plank or rib using a chisel and sanding block.

While carrying out tasks that few of their contemporaries would ever experience, they learned about using different woods – such as yellowheart, wana, angelique or hackmatack – for different marine purposes. They watched George sort through a pile of natural crooks, selecting those that would make strong knees for stiffening the hull of what would eventually become Ryugin. What great memories those kids have of an experience that is becoming rarer with each passing year.

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My cousin, Mike Pellegrino, and his wife Lynn have a home that abuts Wickford Shipyard, where they keep their boat. About 3:30 on the morning of the conflagration, Mike awoke to a mild smell of smoke. He nudged his wife awake, but she first attributed the odor to low tide, then to the gas grill, oil burner or toaster oven. All were dutifully checked out by Mike, who found nothing amiss.

Mike, an insurance adjuster, was certain that something was seriously wrong, but he just didn’t know exactly where. He hurriedly threw on some clothes and went outside to sniff the air like a hound.

Walking a couple of hundred feet, he approached the shipyard’s carpentry shop, attached to a newer metal building that housed Rob Winter’s Coastal Iron Works. Sure enough, he heard the unmistakable crackling of a fire somewhere in the upper reaches of the shop, though he could see no flames. At 4:07, Mike dialed 911, and then made a quick call to the shipyard’s manager, Wes Mckeen.

Around 6 a.m., a sleeping Dominic Zachorne was nearly tossed out of his bunk aboard Atea, his 35-foot, 1937 Alden cutter moored not far from the channel by the northern section of Wickford’s breakwater. As the story is told, Dom was madder than a wet hen and could not understand why an obviously big vessel would be steaming so fast into the harbor so early in the morning, throwing such a monstrous wake. Only later did he realize that it was a fireboat whose crew was trying to save the Zachorne location from destruction. But it could not be saved. The Zachornes’ building was a total loss. Virtually nothing was undamaged, and a great deal simply no longer existed.

Extremely sad was the incineration of Dave Esau’s signature restoration of Steve Antaya’s 30-foot MacKenzie bass boat, named Vivian Rose after his granddaughter. The Vivian Rose was three weeks away from launch after two-and-a-half years of meticulous reconstruction. Days before leaving for Florida, I had seen the boat with its newly painted white topsides, and she was ready to win a show.

She would have been the perfect floating resume for Dave had she survived, but only her twin Palmer International engine blocks showed where she had been blocked up. In addition to Dave being deprived of the pleasure of delivering the like-new MacKenzie to its owner, he lost most of the tools of his trade. The loss of tools also hit the Zachornes and Coastal Ironworks’ Rob Winter hard.

Another casualty was an 18-foot Whitehall awaiting a refit. It was used by the crew and passengers of the topsail schooner Shenandoah. Gone also, was a Herreshoff Fishers Island 31 built in the 1930s. Sadly, the only surviving remnant was its lead keel. Dominic’s prized little peapod was pretty much destroyed, along with a venerable yard workboat I had been aboard in the ’60s that bore a passing resemblance to Bogart’s African Queen. A white-oak keelson for a new build, a Laurent Giles-designed Vertue Class sloop, was badly scorched and ended up in a dumpster. Another loss was Dom’s cherished 1940 Chevy dump truck, stored in a shed.

There could have been even more damage. Thirty-eight-year Wickford Shipyard veteran Mark Casey received a text from Wes McKeen about the fire and rushed up to the yard from Narragansett. By the time he got to the scene, a police blockade had been set up to control access to the active site. Mark could not convince the officer that he had knowledge and skills useful to the firefighters. Going to the other side of the harbor, opposite the fire, he asked a fisherman to take him the 50 yards across the channel to the shipyard so he could render assistance.

Tony Award-winning Broadway set designer Eugene Lee had one of his wooden Vertue Class sloops being worked on just outside the Zachorne sheds. Despite the water being poured on the fire by fire trucks and fireboats, the heat began to blister the starboard side of the 25-foot vessel, a design legendary for its many ocean voyages despite its small size. Mark Casey was able to maneuver his lift to extract the threatened Vertue before it burst into flames.

By 10:30 the fire was under control. The Zachorne shop would be a total loss. At week’s end there was no hint that it had ever existed. Friend and adjacent craftsman Rob Winter at Coastal Ironworks hardly fared better, though his shop never collapsed. His building was a newer addition made of steel, but the heat and corrosive salt water caused extensive damage to his collection of all sorts of specialized equipment, including expensive hydraulics and his metal stock. The wall that had joined him to the wood shop was completely open to the elements. Rob was able to persuade police at the blockade to let him by, citing the critical importance of removing his welding gases – such as acetylene and oxygen – from the scene to ensure the safety of the firefighters. Later on, he was able to survey his losses and secure what was left.

To say that the Zachornes, Dave Esau, Rob Winter and others at Wickford Shipyard were in a state of deep shock as Monday, Sept. 10 came to a close is an immense understatement. That shop will always have a special place in my heart. To me, it was always magical how, in that space, wood from tropical and temperate forests could be transformed into objects of beauty that could and would sail the seas.

Anytime I entered the shop, I was greeted by the pleasing scent of freshly planed, sawn or sanded white oak, mahogany or teak. The floor had a plush-rug feel to it because of the thick layer of sawdust intermingled with curls from recently planed planks. Each step took one past an eclectic collection of artifacts, as though one were in a working museum of wooden-boat craftsmanship.

Believe me, it was not a good feeling to be standing by, a thousand miles south, unable to help in anyway, as this much-cherished shop burned to the ground.

Greg Coppa, a resident of Wickford, R.I., is author of the books “November Christmas and Other Short Stories” and “Second Chances.”

Was there a silver lining? Perhaps

I can’t say that there was any direct “silver lining” to the Wickford Shipyard fire, but there were some restorative moments of the humanitarian kind. Even before I returned home, there was an affirmation that people rise to the challenge of helping other people in deep need. Boaters, the people of Wickford and the surrounding areas, and, in particular, the shipyard neighbors on Poplar Point heard the call for assistance and responded with their time and skills.

Once the pile of rubble was deemed safe to search, scores of rotating volunteers donned masks, gloves and their old work clothes that soon became smudged with black, sticky ash. There is a smell associated with such disasters that is difficult for me to describe but impossible for the helpers to forget. Many hand tools were extracted, rinsed, and wiped cleaned with rags, or scoured with steel wool, before being given a protective coating of oil. Some, though, may have lost their temper because of the heat. A few photos, publications and documents were somewhat salvageable, and, after triage and treatment, were set out to dry.

People offered donations of their own tools and other resources to help get the craftsmen of Wickford up and running again. As I write this, various fundraising efforts were afoot to assist, as well. I’ll keep Points East readers abreast of these efforts.

It has been determined that the fire was “accidental of unknown cause(s).” Wes Mckeen and longtime Wickford Shipyard owner Don Fraser report that they intend to rebuild damaged and destroyed work spaces pending surveys, insurance-claims processing, and evaluation of the cost of compliance to the usual building and coastal codes.

 

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