Irish Boat Shop Preserves Wooden Boats in Harbor Springs

In the run-up to summer boating season, the crews at Irish Boat Shop are busy behind the scenes keeping wood boats primed to live on the waves forever.

To understand the importance of a couple of young guys working on wooden sailboats along the Harbor Springs waterfront, you have to step back. And not just a few steps, either. We’re talking about traveling both space and time. Moving away from the ladders and boat cradles, away from the zigzag maze of colored hulls and concrete floors, away from Bruce Springsteen on the radio in a giant metal building at Irish Boat Shop. To get at the heart of why it matters to watch two mid-20s men talk with great passion (and knowledge) about wooden boat care, it’s best to walk over and stand on the docks overlooking the harbor of Little Traverse Bay. Take a deep breath. Let the mix of wind and blue water and whatever’s being barbequed down the shore soak in, and then, imagine yourself in the same spot, 50 years ago. Eighty years ago. One hundred years ago.

All photography in this article by Andy Wakeman.

In those years past there may be fewer docks and cottages. The shoreline may have more tall white pines, maples, and curved-back hemlocks. There will definitely not be wake-boarders, wake-surfers or kids screaming happily, bouncing on bright red and yellow and orange tubes. But there will be wooden boats and the people who love them.

“It’s part of who we are,” Irish’s Michael Esposito tells me. He’s the president and general manager of Irish Boat Shop. In a town where water defines sense of place, the history of watercraft matters. Investing in the care of wooden boats, so someday great-great-grandchildren will still identify them as iconic images of home, is as much an honor as it is a necessity for the team at Irish.

“It’s a skill set that could have been lost when, in the 1980s and 1990s, boat builders really transitioned into fiber-glass designs. Wood—even wood trim—requires a lot of maintenance. There was a point in this industry where boat companies almost got rid of wood entirely,” says Esposito, noting that Irish too, sells everything from wake-surf boats and Whalers to Lasers—all of which fall in the fiberglass category.

The Sail Loft is tucked above Irish Boat Shop, a place where the art of sewing and capturing wind combines on a daily basis. Mike McWilliams pictured.

The Sail Loft is tucked above Irish Boat Shop, a place where the art of sewing and capturing wind combines on a daily basis. Mike McWilliams pictured.

We’re sitting in Esposito’s second story office. One window faces the lake, another faces the building where boats are stored and maintained. It’s a good metaphor for the balance of the business’s mission: to promote getting people out on the water and to provide a level of service that keeps tradition alive.

Thankfully, tradition here will always mean wooden boats. Irish’s history is steeped in handcrafted vessels, sailboats in particular.

“An entire fleet of NM’s (Northern Michigan one-design sailboats built specifically for Little Traverse Bay) is still around after more than 80 years. That’s incredible,” Esposito says. “It takes almost three generations to keep [the wood boat culture] going: those who have known and loved the boats almost all their lives, the generation that now races or owns them, and the younger sailors and craftsmen who help maintain them. It’s a partnership between us and our customers, to keep this rich part of our community’s history going. We’re very fortunate.”

Herb Irish, who sailed into Little Traverse Bay and started Irish Boat Shop in 1961, is a devotee of wooden boats—particularly the NM’s. “It’s a wonderful thing to see young sailors today really enjoy racing on these old-fashioned boats,” Irish says. “In Little Traverse Bay, we are able to see how broad the sport of sailing truly is; we have old wooden NM’s, new sleek J70s, Moths, Lasers, and more. But the NM’s and their owners helped me get started in this business. It’s been part of our company’s mission to protect and preserve those boats.”

The art and craftsmanship of maintaining boats is a time-honored tradition at Irish, one that is being carefully passed down from one generation to the next.

The art and craftsmanship of maintaining boats is a time-honored tradition at Irish, one that is being carefully passed down from one generation to the next.

Preserving a culture of wooden boats also takes skilled hands and an understanding of the nuanced way the craft are built and cared for—often a reflection of both the original designer and the subsequent owners. “A lot of our crew is older, and they have been working on wooden boats for decades. When most boat companies were doing fiberglass, we were also still caring for the NM’s. Then we teamed up with Hinckley Yachts (a very high-end yacht company based in Rhode Island), to provide their service in Northern Michigan. That really saved the level of craftsmanship we have and can employ,” Esposito says, nodding toward an image of a stunning powerboat that resembles the sleek wooden cruisers of an era gone by.

With several masters working at Irish already, Esposito says he knew they had to start building up the next generation of caretakers. While wooden boat construction is now a niche market, there are a few schools in the country working to preserve the art. One is in Newport, Rhode Island, one is in Arundel, Maine, and the other is just north across the Mackinac Bridge in Cedarville, Michigan.

One Irish craftsman moved here after graduating from the International Yacht Restoration School in Rhode Island. Two others graduated from the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville. Having institutions teaching wood boat construction and repair skills is “critical,” Esposito says, to Irish’s ability to sell and service the boats.

Irish agrees, saying the company is fortunate to have year-round work for skilled craftsman. “One of the reasons we focus so much on customer service is to keep our crew working all year. When I was young, at the end of the season boats would get hauled out and a boatyard would shut down until spring. We can’t do that and expect to keep talent here.

“We’re also lucky to have old masters on staff who are invested in helping young people learn their trade,” Irish adds. “The training our younger employees have coming in is important, but there’s a difference between learning and actually working alongside a master. We provide a lot of extra skill training as well, to try and always make sure there is enough work. Our company was based here, developed here, and we are devoted to doing what we do. Sometimes our employees take classes online. Sometimes we still send them away for hands on, old-fashioned learning experiences.”

Jim Ingraham double checks his work.

Jim Ingraham double checks his work.

Both Irish and Esposito say having an infusion of young energy is as essential as the institutional knowledge. The crew talks about tradition. The new guys honor all the wisdom and skill of their mentors. They also bring their own ideas and modernized techniques. It’s a blend that works well. From a practical point of view, Irish’s staff uses what’s available today—technology, tools, and products—to keep boats as original and as well maintained as possible. “That’s what’s fun to watch,” Esposito says. “We have a lot of very long-term employees here, and to see them training and helping develop the next generation is really something.”

Irish Boat Shop by the Numbers …

  • 60 Full-time, year-round employees
  • 90 Employees in peak season
  • 300 boat slips
  • 830 boats stored each winter
  • 10,906 work orders written by the service departments in a year
  • 243,172 square feet of indoor storage

We walk over to the shop to meet some of the young craftsmen—Andrew Baittinger, 26, and Ryan Kasik, 25. Esposito lingers only a minute, happy to let the young men do the talking.

Baittinger is about 10 feet off the ground,and he chats with me from inside an NM sailboat that’s in for maintenance. He’s shy about the idea of being called an artist, but there’s no question he’s proud of being a craftsman. Raised in Rhode Island, Baittinger graduated from the International Yacht Restoration School—where Irish sends him back each year for additional training. He was drawn to boats simply because he was born into a port town that lives and breathes sailing. After high school, he worked on schooners and traveled up and down the East Coast, all the way to the Bahamas.

“Obviously, I developed a love for wooden boats, and maybe even more so for the tradition of wooden boats,” he says. He tells of walking into a boatyard and just asking for a job.

“I was hired on the spot,” he says, grinning. “I knew I wanted to be formally trained as well, so for two years I went and learned everything I could about wooden boats, the tradition of the craft,and how to maintain and restore them.” Baittinger’s wife grew up in Michigan, and he happened to hear about Irish Boat Shop—and their fleet of NM Sailboats. “I called and asked for a job,” he says. “And it worked.”

Baittinger adds that because of the way fiberglass has taken over the boating industry, it’s tremendous that Northern Michigan still welcomes “young guys who are trained to do old fashioned stuff.”

“It’s a very specific skill set, and we’re lucky people still want it around,” agrees Kasik. He’s ground level, working on the wooden trim of a small powerboat. Ball cap tipped up and easygoing smile, he barely looks like he’s out of high school. A Roscommon native, Kasik says he fell hard for wooden boats as a freshman, when his shop teacher said his class could build anything—including a boat. So during his junior year, that’s exactly what Kasik did.

“From there, I learned about the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville,” he says. He attended the program and went on to an apprenticeship at Van Dam Custom Boats, one of the country’s premier wooden boat builders, based in Boyne City. “It’s such an honor, to carry on this tradition,” Kasik says. “We are able to learn skills that have been around for centuries. We collaborate and we also get to bring our own style of how we do things. That’s where the art comes in, I think.”

It doesn’t take long before I realize both Baittinger and Kasik are eager to get back to their projects. The boats they are working on are side-by-side, and as soon as the conversation lulls, attention shifts back to the wood. In quiet companionship, they pick up their tools and start to work. It’s calm and quiet under the fluorescent lights, the long bodied sailboats and wooden vessels cradled like artifacts in a living museum, only better. This is a place, where they’ll be protected from extinction for generations to come.

Kate Bassett writes from Harbor Springs. Her first novel, Words and Their Meanings, is available wherever books are sold. Contact her at: [email protected]

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This Irish Boat Shop feature was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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