The freedom to be Warren River Boatworks

By Capt. Michael L. Martel
For Points East

Paul Dennis loves boats. He especially loves sailboats, and one type in particular, with which he’s had a long-standing affair. The humble and soft-spoken man has no qualms admitting it – he loves the often-unconvential-looking sailboats built by Freedom Yachts, and has worked on them for years. It doesn’t matter that they’re no longer built. The ones produced during the company’s heyday (in the 1970s and 1980s) were constructed so well that they’re still sought after, still sailed, and still upgraded and repaired. They boast a legion of devoted owners both around the country and abroad.

Paul Dennis, who once worked for Freedom Yachts and now maintains their sailboats. Photo by Capt. Michael L. Martel

As such, Dennis has gained a word-of-mouth reputation as the “go-to guy” for advice on all things Freedom. His boatyard – Warren River Boatworks, on the waterfront in Warren, Rhode Island – has been a temporary home to various Freedom-built yachts since 1992. Dennis services sailboats and powerboats of all sizes and models, but specializes in the ones built by Freedom Yachts. He became a Freedom expert when he worked for the now-defunct manufacturer in the ’70s and ’80s.

Several years back my friend, Tom, and I delivered a Freedom 32 sailboat, Mariposa, from Hingham Shipyard, on Boston’s South Shore, to Warren River Boatworks. The trip was about 100 sea miles, and the next season, when Dennis had finished his work, we sailed her back to Hingham. It was a coastal trip down, through mostly familiar waters, along the beautiful autumn coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The boat, for her small size, was surprisingly roomy and well laid out below decks. She was also beamy and stable and – as we soon discovered on the trip – a dry boat in a stiff chop. We had but two full days of a late-October weather window to make the trip to Warren by way of Massachusetts Bay, Cape Cod Bay and the canal, Buzzards Bay and then up into Narragansett Bay before a gale was predicted to strike. Overall, the little sailboat was stout and easy to sail, performing well in the late-season choppy waters of coastal Massachusetts and Buzzards Bay.

Dennis’s boat shed at Warren River Boatworks can only accommodate one Freedom at a time, and a 45-footer is a tight fit. Still, it’s big enough for a workshop and various Freedom parts. Dennis also keeps boats out on the hard by his docks, or in the water during the friendly months. He performs everything from electrical and electronics upgrades to plumbing and engine work. Dennis can’t tell you why he’s so terribly enamored of Freedoms – he just is. He once built them, has sailed them, and, as a result, “swallowed the hook,” as they say.

Freedom Yachts pioneered the design and unique building techniques for the Freedom (sail) and Legacy (power) yacht brands. Freedom sailboats are remarkable for their unstayed rigs. That is, the mast is freestanding – it’s not supported by stays or shrouds.

Garry Hoyt, a champion sailor and noted maverick, founded Freedom Yachts in 1976 with the Freedom 40. Hoyt created the unstayed rigs to provide “freedom” from the inefficient sail shapes of traditional sloop rigs as well as the compression and maintenance issues associated with standing rigging. They’re tough boats, and issues with their unique masts, despite being unstayed, are rare. “I only know of one poorly maintained boat that had an issue with their mast base loosening up at sea,” Dennis commented. “But they still made it from Puerto Rico to Rhode Island. Many boats have traveled between New England and the Caribbean and even gone transatlantic. I’ve been in rough conditions in Freedoms offshore and was never concerned.”

The masts are set well forward on the boat. Thus, most of the sail area is contained in the mainsail. Jibs or foresails can either be overlapping or self-tending. “As a point of note, the standard Freedoms of Mull and Pedrick designs had a Camberspar jib boom that was self-tacking and also helped tension the headstay, allowing better sail shape,” Dennis said. “A few of the larger boats have running backstays to help control mast bend, to increase performance. The factory did offer, as an option, roller furlers, allowing overlapping genoas in place of the standard working jib, but it complicates what’s supposed to be an easy-to-singlehand boat.”

The masts are a composite construction reinforced by carbon fiber, as opposed to solid carbon fiber, like the space-age autoclaved masts made by companies like Hall Spars.

Hoyt, Freedom Yachts’ founder, tapped naval architects from the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. for his early designs, and in the early ’80s commissioned a 39’ pilothouse design from Ron Holland. In 1985 Hoyt sold Freedom Yachts to Tillotson-Pearson after some slow years. Tillotson-Pearson brought Gary Mull on board as the designer for a new series of great sailing (but awfully conventional looking) boats. David Pedrick designed for the (again) new owners starting in the mid-’90s, after Tillotson-Pearson Composites sold the yacht division off. Dennis said his favorite Freedom sailboats are the Mull and Pedrick designs from the ’80s and ’90s.

Freedom yachts are characterized by excellent control and steering capabilities, and their hulls, despite being light weight, are sturdy, thanks to fiberglass sandwich construction with balsa at the core.

Dennis works with a variety of independent contractors who specialize in carpentry, electrical work, sail making, rigging and plumbing. Warren River Boatworks also maintains a close relationship with Cove Haven Marina in West Barrington, R.I. In addition to custom fiberglass and woodwork, Warren River Boatworks provides services for winter storage, hauling and launching, bottom painting and general maintenance.

Dennis is always tinkering with design ideas, gadgets, improvements, and such. It’s what the restless mind of an engineer does during the winter, when certain days make crawling through a bilge unappealing. He designed the BETTER BRACKET Outboard Motor Storage Bracket, which attaches to the stern rail or pulpit of a sailboat, and is available for purchase from a number of online sources. “I began designing and building custom outboard brackets for my customers and then decided to try marketing them to a larger clientele,” Dennis said. He showed me one. It seemed simple, strong, and easy to set up and use. “Why didn’t someone think of this before?” I asked him, half seriously.

“Don’t know,” he replied, matter-of-factly, “they just didn’t!”

In many ways, really, it’s a match made in heaven: the unconventional boat and the man with the restless mind and a can-do attitude. It guarantees that – at least in this part of the world – we’ll see Freedom sailboats out on the water for years to come.

Capt. Mike Martel, sailing out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton Master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine-industry enthusiast.