Mayor of Malletts Bay

Other jobs have come and gone, but Jake DeForge Sr. has made Malletts Bay Marina his life since he was a child

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

On a bright, breezy morning in early May, the waterfront of Malletts Bay in Colchester is starting to emerge from its long winter sleep. Forests of masts are mustering here and there, ready for action. A lone yacht is scudding across the water under full sail. At Malletts Bay Marina, the boatyard is a hive of activity. A group of people, including owner Jake DeForge and his son, Jake Jr., are hard at work repairing docks damaged by Hurricane Floyd. Elsewhere, a few boat owners are attending to their craft, touching up paint or mending woodwork. Unlike surrounding marinas, there is a feel of industry here, almost like a seaport in miniature.

Jake-of-all-trades: Everything from the retaining wall to the pump-out system at Malletts Bay Marina in Colchester were designed and/or built by Jake DeForge Sr.

DeForge has known the marina almost his whole life. Born in Burlington and raised in Colchester, he grew up on the lake. "In winter," he remembers, "people still used to harvest ice. We would ride on the ice truck out into the bay." In the summer, the marina was the draw. "I started working here when I was about 10 years old," says DeForge. "I started doing a little work for the owner, Pat Patterson, and that turned into a full-time summer job. I was a dock boy," he continues. "In those days there were no docks, only moorings out in the bay. I would row people out to their moorings for nickels, dimes, quarters."

As a young man, DeForge experimented with other jobs. "I worked for GE, then ran my own service station," he says. Then in 1960 came the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to buy the marina. "At the time I was working at Lincoln Mercury for $68 a week. That was big money!" he recalls. "So I was able to make the down payment. I was 24 years old."

It was hard work at first -- "28 hours a day, eight days a week, 13 months a year," he jokes, but hard work is not something that seems to faze DeForge. Almost everything in the marina, with the exception of the big machines, has been designed or built by him, and often both, like the pump-out system used to remove waste from boat holding tanks. "We built the docks as well," he explains, gesturing out into the lake. "They go straight out in one piece, no hinges."

DeForge also built the marina's steel retaining wall, which keeps the lake at bay. "The steel is from big oil tanks; I bought it in New York. Then I needed a pile driver, so I built that out of 18-inch water intake pipe filled half-full of cement. Dropped it from a crane. If you build it yourself, you know it'll last," he adds, "and you know how to repair it."

There's a no-nonsense, can-do air to the yard. In one corner, old drop-tanks from jet fighters, still with their lightning insignias, wait to be transformed into floats for the docks. The heavy machinery is all well-used and perfectly maintained. There are two travel lifts, the big devices used to hoist boats in and out of the water. One has "No cash, no splash" and "We float boats, not notes" emblazoned on its uprights. "It's from the 1950s," explains DeForge. "I bought it in Freeport, New York, in 1970, took it apart, brought it up here in two trips, reassembled it again. It's paid for itself a thousand times over."

DeForge has seen great change come to his part of Vermont. "The most amazing to me," he says, "is when I drive down Battery Street in Burlington. I used to see industry; now it looks like Park Avenue." The marina has seen big changes over the years, too. "We started off with over a hundred moorings and no docks," says DeForge. "Now we have 108 dock spaces and only about 30 moorings.

"I've seen boats go from wood to fiberglass," DeForge continues. "We have more power boats now than sailing craft. And most of our summer business used to be from Canadians. We have very few Canadians now. That business started to dry up eight or nine years ago, when their dollar went to hell."

Neil Wells has worked at the marina more than 40 years. "Neil's like a second father to me," says Jake DeForge Jr.

Malletts Bay Marina is the only full-service marina in the area. "The closest is Shelburne," says DeForge, although Bill Wakefield, who has kept his 1970 Sea Rover houseboat here for four years, thinks the service "is certainly unique for Vermont. This is the only working marina -- where the owners are also mechanics -- on this side of the lake. At other marinas, they just put your boat in and take it out," he says. "Here, if something comes up, their guys can fix it, which is incredible.

"There's a close relationship between the DeForges and their customers," says Wakefield. "We're all on first-name terms. It's like a small community."

Dan Mendl, a Malletts Bay resident who has known DeForge for 30 years, says, "From May 30th to Labor Day, Jake is the mayor of Malletts Bay."

Many owners, like Wakefield, live on their boats during the summer. "You are living with your customers," says DeForge, "working, eating, sleeping with them. I live across the road, and if something goes wrong at 4 a.m., they'll be calling me. We have customers who've been with us for 40, 50 years, he adds. "Imagine taking your car to the same repair place for 50 years!"

"Jake is the most loyal, dependable person I've ever known," says Mendl, who also calls his friend The Great American. "I suspect that's why people go back to him. He's the type of guy that if you break down in a snowstorm at 2 in the morning, he'll be there."

The sense of community is heightened by the close family nature of the business. "It's different here, because it's family," says DeForge's son, Jake Jr. "I've been around here my entire life, and I'm 37 now. I used to be a pain in my father's butt," he laughs, "but I went from being a mechanic to doing just about everything. Now I oversee everything that goes on in the yard."

"He's a marvelous person," Mendl says, "the glue that makes the organization work." Jake Jr. lives in Shelburne with his wife, Martina, who works for her mother at Moms & Tots in Essex and is a free-lance artist. "That's why we get on so well," he grins. "She deals with her mom, and I deal with my dad."

DeForge's partner, Angela Allard, is responsible for the administration side of things. "I'm kind of the general manager," she says.

"She does everything except haul boats," adds DeForge. The couple are raising two children, Jessica, 11, and 7-year-old Kalvin. "He's happy to tell you, it's Kalvin with a 'K!'" says Allard.

Allard, too, has known the marina most of her life. "My parents had a boat here since I was very little, and my mom was secretary here for five years before I started in 1984," she says.

"Her dad helped us on the docks for years," says DeForge. "He still comes around and helps out."

"We have a lot of long-time friends who do that," explains Allard. "Like when Hurricane Floyd hit or when the shop caught fire in the middle of the night six years ago."

"I'm so grateful to whoever called it in," interjects DeForge. "We never found out who that was. The fire was smoldering under the floorboards. It was like a bomb waiting to go off."

Jake DeForge Jr. (left) and Angela Allard join Jake Sr. in daily operations. "I used to be a pain in my father's butt," jokes the younger DeForge. "Now I oversee everything that goes on in the yard."

"The old barn-raising spirit" is how Allard describes the special nature of the marina. "You don't find much of that any more." Apart from the willing hands of friends, the marina employs seven or eight people during the summer, says Allard, "around the core group of Jake, Jake and myself. Jake Sr. and I go to Florida in the winter, but Jake Jr. keeps us up to date on everything. Jake Jr. and his father handle boats like no one I've ever seen," she continues. "It's a feel. They can turn a boat on a dime, or walk it sideways."

Just as vital to the business is Neil Wells. "Neil's a jack-of-all-trades," says DeForge. "Mechanic, boat builder, roofer, car mechanic. He's been here over 40 years. We can't replace him."

In a climate like Vermont's, the boating business is highly seasonal. "Business comes quick. It's go-go-go, then it's over and you're sitting in a bunch of snow," says Jake Jr.

"The season is so short, really from when school lets out to when school lets in," agrees Allard. "Officially the season starts June 1. We try to be up and running by mid-May. We've had a late start this year, though." High levels of water in Lake Champlain meant the yard was under water at the beginning of the month, and there is still much damage to repair from last year's hurricane.

"Hurricanes aren't meant to come to Vermont, right?" Allard says, ruefully.

"Fifty-ton boats were piled up on themselves over here," DeForge says, pointing to the dock's retaining wall. "And over there," he says, pointing to a big pile of old lumber at the back of the yard, "that's all wood from smashed docks." The family were up all night during the storm, trying to prevent damage.

"Jake Jr. was pretty incredible," remembers Wakefield, "out at 4 in the morning, saving boats."

DeForge and Allard spend what free time they have on their boat, a 35-foot 1975 Chriscraft. "It's in immaculate shape," beams DeForge. "We've been up to St. John's in Canada, and down to Lock 12 in Whitehall."

Jake Jr. also prefers power-boating to sailing. "I like rough, aggressive sailing, so when there's no wind I'm not happy." he says.

DeForge and Allard are also hoping to bring back an older tradition. "In the '60s and '70s we had cruising clubs," remembers DeForge. "Families and friends would form up in flotillas and spend the day just sailing around. We're trying to revive that."

DeForge is clearly a man with too much energy to be confined by one career, so it's no surprise that he has interests outside the marina. "I've owned the Starboard Side Restaurant in Colchester since 1989," he says. "I ran it myself for a couple of years. What a nightmare! I leased it out after that," he grins. Approximately 15 years ago, he built Malletts Bay Mini Storage, a venture he has since sold.

"I was involved in a paper products company, which I bought in Montreal and moved to Costa Rica," he says. "I've built houses in Florida. I've tried just about everything -- but I've always come back to this."

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London.