Boat building joins industry's past and present
By Doreen Leggett
Sean Leach is a second-generation fisherman who hesitates before saying how many boats his family has owned in the last 30 years. At least 8, he surmises.
“We keep saying this will be the last one,” he said.
Leach, 32, was standing in Cape Island Boats in Orleans, the strong, almost sweet, smell of fiberglass filling the air and a gleaming white, wide boat mostly filling the cavernous space. It’s about 60-percent done, and this time, “I’m not going to say it’s the last one,” he said with a grin.
This boat is in fact Sean Leach’s first, and he’s been thinking about it for awhile. The boat, he says, is a very similar to the family’s next youngest boat – the Sea Holly III.
“Kind of like identical twins,” said Andy McGeoch, who has already put in a few hours of work early on Saturday. “But then they grow up and they look different.”
McGeoch would know. He has twin children and he also has built a lot of boats, including the last three for the Leach family.
“I’ve known them forever,” he said.
When McGeoch first arrived in Chatham from New York, fresh out of a maritime college in the 1960s, he went fishing. Mark Leach, Sean’s father, started hook fishing for cod and haddock years later, but the fishing community is close knit and everyone knows one another.
After about 16 years McGeoch got out of commercial fishing and started his own boat-building business. He has been in Orleans for a decade (in a commercial building owned by another lobsterman) and before that, 24 years in Dennis. He started out building fishing boats, but has since branched into the recreational set. McGeoch has built more than a hundred boats.
“I love to see my older boats still fishing,” he said.
When he launched his company he already had a fair amount of experience. He was often up in Nova Scotia helping build boats that would be coming down to Chatham. Novis, as they are called, are popular in the fleet.
“That’s how I got into it,” a dusty McGeoch said. “They let me help build, grudgingly at first.”
He had three of his own boats and he loved them, particularly the last.
“I always tried to have a nice-looking boat,” he said. “Fishing was something I did to support my boat habit.”
The other people working on the boat are also fishermen, which Leach appreciates:
“They know what I’m looking for and what I want because they’d want it too.”
Leach lobsters almost every day as well as selling direct to customers several days a week, but still finds time to see his boat take shape.
“I’ve been here a 1,000 times,” he said. “That is half the fun. You can come down and take a peek.”
He had the chance to make a suggestion or two before the project got too far along. One thing he asked for was a nice big wheelhouse.
“I like to shut the door and turn the heat on,” he said.
And he can access the hauler from inside the cabin or outside on deck with the crew.
“That’s why it’s great to have it built so close. It’s better than driving to Maine.”
The hull is a 44-foot Calvin Beal design (one of the boat-building Beal brothers, McGeoch explained), built at Southwest Boatworks in Maine.
“The hardest part was scheduling the trip over the bridge,” Leach related. “It actually spent the night in the New Hampshire Liquor Store parking lot.”
They had to close the Bourne Bridge and she arrived, escorted by three cruisers, last fall. Leach said he almost went down to see her come across, but he was working and was afraid he would get caught in traffic.
Usually it takes about six to eight weeks to construct a shell and Leach had ordered a while ago. His dad is considering retiring and he was thinking one of his lobster boats would make a good nest egg. There wasn’t a huge hurry though, the elder Leach still goes fishing and after selling a fish market, runs a wholesale lobster company located in Harwich.
The timeline moved up when a lot of people, hurt by the pandemic, pulled out. Leach, who had the funding set aside, moved up on the waiting list, which is about three years. He had been saving for a decade, the entirety of his fishing career, and since he decided, after graduating with an accounting degree from Suffolk, to go lobstering full time.
Still, it’s a big move.
“It’s a little stressful with the corona virus. I basically put everything I have into it. I’m kind of handcuffed,” Leach said, seemingly not overly concerned.
He also hopes to spend part of his year scalloping. Leach said that with increasing regulations aimed at protecting the endangered right whales from lines in the water, it seemed prudent to diversify.
“There is no certainty they are going to let us lobster forever,” he said.
The first boat Sean saw Andy build was in 2010. They have all been named Sea Holly for Sean – without the “n” - and his older sister Holly. This most recent one, which Sean hasn’t named yet, has been a little more difficult, for logistical reasons.
She is 17 feet, 5 inches wide and the bay doors to the workspace are only 17 feet 6 inches. To the surprise of McGeoch they fit her in, but they are going to have to take off the doors to get her out.
McGeoch said boats are built for the waters they will ply. That’s why Novis are wide. Anyone who has been to northern ports in the winter knows it can get so windy you can’t open the door of a truck. But the boats handle rough water well.
“They ride the ocean like a sea gull,” said McGeoch.
But they are slow, so Leach’s is built a little differently.
“This is kind of a happy medium,” he said.
McGeoch will wake up at 3 a.m. thinking about improvements and Leach will do some “imagineering” himself at about the same time. They laugh about how it’s one of the hazards of being self-employed; always thinking about work.
Several fishermen across the Cape are building their own boats now, but Leach didn’t want to go that route.
“I like having them done the right way,” he said, smiling at McGeoch.