Rigging the Rigging

Keeping things shipshape

darling-leadGeorge and Pam Darling run Darling’s Boatworks on Ferry Road in Charlotte, a boat repair and maintenance business George started as Charlotte Boatworks in 1978.

by Will Lindner

A boat in the water is the very image of serenity: quietly elegant and almost uncannily at home in its environment.

A boat out of the water is starkly different. Held off the ground by jack stands, with its ungainly keel and rudder exposed, its hull bears the wounds of myriad subsurface mishaps. A boat out of water is oddly reminiscent of a big-game trophy, a haunting representation of something that should be beautiful.

Doubtless, George Darling and his staff of patient, meticulous craftspeople at Darling’s Boatworks in Charlotte don’t see it that way. For them, a boat’s beauty and elegance is right before them, just waiting to be recaptured. Bent to their tasks at their winter workspace on Ferry Road, they are surrounded by these hulls — four or five indoors, and 30 more perched outside under plastic wrap. Their work is maintenance and restoration, and they go about it with an eye for fine detail.

“Boat owners have a lot of pride of ownership,” says George, who founded his business in 1978. “It’s not like getting your car’s brakes fixed because you have to. They’re spending their money because they want their boats to look nice, and be safe and functional. They have high standards for their boats.”

Jan Rozendaal of South Burlington is a case study of the obsessive boat owner. Although maintenance is the bread and butter for Darling’s Boatworks (painting and varnishing, hull and deck repair, detailing, deck hardware restoration, and, for sailboats, rigging installation), Rozendaal has taken classic, antique boats to Darling’s more than once for total restorations. His first was a 1902 Herreshoff sailboat that Rozendaal found in the “Save a Classic” section of Wooden Boat magazine around 2005.

“Herreshoff was probably the most prestigious yacht designer in American history,” says Rozendaal. “The boat was totally derelict: It had been sitting outdoors for years, the wood had rotted, the structural pieces were gone.

“Most of the people who do this work are in Maine, but I wanted to have it done locally. In three years George and his staff turned it into a beautiful, classically restored boat. It’s been in the water now for four years without problems.”

Another Rozendaal restoration project — a 36-foot Maine lobster boat built in 1932 and more elegant than the utilitarian vessels often associated with the industry — has occupied a prominent place in Darling’s workspace this winter.

“I’m a glutton for punishment,” Rozendaal confesses. He has a particular fascination with the work performed by Pam Darling, George’s wife (hailed as the “Varnish Queen” on the company’s web site). “I love watching how she works, and the results are spectacular. Varnishing is an art in itself. To be a wooden-boat guy, like I am, you’ve got to have people like that around.”

George, 58, is a New Jersey native, but his formative boating experience was in Vermont, in Lake Champlain. His family frequently visited relatives who lived in Burlington and had a boat. His father also purchased a small wooden powerboat and kept it in Vermont. “Working on it was all part of the program,” Darling recalls. “But I enjoyed it; I love working with my hands.”

He loved Vermont, too, and not just the boating. His second passion was, and still is, skiing — downhill, backcountry, and Nordic (he was a volunteer on the ski patrol at Stowe Mountain for some 30 years). So his destination was clear; all that remained was figuring out how to make a living in Vermont.

After graduating from high school in 1972, George landed a job at the Shelburne Shipyard, near the tip of Shelburne Point. He stayed there five years, learning the trade of boat repair and maintenance and sailing in his spare time. In the winter of 1977-78 (“looking for the next challenge,” as he describes it), he took a full-time job with the ski patrol in Stowe. But boat work had gotten in his blood, and when the snow thawed, he worked out a symbiotic arrangement with Point Bay Marina in Charlotte.

“Allen Martin, who owned the marina at the time, realized the need for someone to provide those services to his customers, but had no interest in that type of work. He was happy to turn it over to me.” George called his new business Charlotte Boatworks, and he stuck with it for 10 years before returning, briefly, to Shelburne Shipyard. “I really preferred to be independently employed,” he says, “so in 1990 I came back to Charlotte.” He reestablished his business and gave it a new name: Darling’s Boatworks. And so it has remained.

This time, though, there was a major change. George wanted a larger workspace to accommodate several projects simultaneously, with good lighting and heat for working through the wintertime. So rather than returning to Point Bay Marina, he leased the former Garden Way warehouse and assembly site on Ferry Road, just west of the little village. The building provides a large bay with a broad overhead door for getting boats in and out, and a smaller bay that’s still big enough to hold a good-sized vessel and the equipment needed to work on it. There’s an office and a small additional room between the bays. It’s now the company’s main facility.

“The only problem,” he notes, “is it’s not on the water. We’re landlocked. But this is a fairly common phenomenon; a lot of boat works have moved inland because of the price of waterfront property. But we have a lot of outdoor storage, and a truck and trailer that can move a 40-foot boat, or larger, to the marina.”

Darling’s Boatworks has also reestablished a presence at Point Bay Marina, which is four miles away. “It’s a small shop,” says Darling, “but we keep employees there year-round.” And by now a seasonal ritual has evolved: During April the focus shifts from the Ferry Road operation to the busy marina for performing routine maintenance and, later, to be on hand when boaters run their crafts aground or suffer damages from storms or accidents; in the fall the action picks up again at the inland site, where George invariably has scheduled a winter’s worth of work doing routine, but meticulous and demanding, maintenance jobs along with the restoration projects.

Ownership at the marina changed several years ago, but the mutually advantageous relationship between Point Bay and Darling’s Boatworks remains. “When there’s fiberglass work to do, bottom painting, or woodwork, they do all of that, along with rigging and mast work on the sailboats,” says Todd Smith, Point Bay’s general manager. “They’re the best in the area at what they do, and our businesses go hand in hand: We need them and they need us.”

There is also compatibility in the two businesses’ operating philosophies. Point Bay is now a certified “Green Marina,” employing practices to minimize the negative effects of boats and boating on the lake. Similarly, Darling’s Boatworks has adopted paints and varnishes with fewer volatile organic compounds, and uses dust-collection and tenting systems to reduce pollution.

It’s not easy to find expert boat craftspeople in Vermont, but George’s staff — usually numbering five or six — is anchored by two foremen who have been with him for more than 20 years. Peter Russett, an expert in fiberglass and woodworking who also oversees painting projects, is the foreman at the Ferry Road facility, while Charlie Langworthy — who, like George, grew up working on boats around Lake Champlain — manages the marina worksite. This enables George to concentrate on customer relations, scheduling jobs, purchasing materials (which can be hard to find for the restoration projects), and consulting with his employees.“

I occasionally pick up my tools,” he says, “but less and less.”

Pam, a Charlotte native, was Pam Roberts when she met George in 1977, not long before he started his business. She was an education major at the University of Vermont, planning to go into teaching, but it never happened. The opportunity to participate in the boatworks, and the scheduling flexibility it provided when sons Kyle and Sam came along, charted her course toward becoming the “artist” at varnish application that Jan Rozendaal so appreciates. She’s been honing those skills for more than 30 years.

Kyle and Sam, not surprisingly, fell close to the tree. George’s volunteer service with the Stowe ski patrol made it affordable for the family to ski almost constantly, and Kyle, who is now 30 and married, is a ski technician for the U.S. men’s World Cup ski team. Sam, the younger brother, is studying maritime transportation at the Massachusetts Marine Academy at Buzzards Bay.

Much as customers such as Rozendaal appreciate Darling’s Boatworks, the boatworks appreciates them right back. When they’ve prepared a boat for the start of the season, George and Pam will often leave a “care package” in the cabin to welcome the owners back.

“It could be a bouquet of flowers, some crackers and cheese … a celebration of the start of the season,” says Pam. “We have a lot of repeat customers,” says George, “and that’s a great part of this business — helping people get out on the water and enjoy a beautiful place like Lake Champlain.” •