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Building boats and reinforcing maritime museum’s foundation

Boatbuilders at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, showed off the 11-foot rowing skiff they are making by hand that will be raffled off at next year's annual fundraiser. The reitrees building the boat have raised thousands of dollars through the raffle that go toward the museum's operating expenses. (Credit: Ed Betz)

It’s really a glorified dinghy, but the 11-foot rowing skiff being handmade by a seasoned crew at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville is expected to make a big splash at next year’s annual fundraiser raffle.

For a $5 ticket, a lucky winner will take home the new boat, varnished and finished with mahogany railing. This year’s vessel is a copy of “Defender,” an original design by Philip C. Bolger, a renowned Massachusetts yacht architect, according to Martin Sievers, 79, of Islip, who is crew chief of the volunteer boat builders.

“His construction is different from what we usually have done,” Sievers said, as the crew — all retired and ranging in age from their mid-50s to their upper 80s — worked on the skeletal boat frame in a corner of the museum’s Frank F. Penney Boat Shop.

Their efforts have raised thousands of dollars through the raffle that go toward the museum’s operating expenses, said administrative coordinator Mary Sullivan. The boat builders construct about one boat every other year. This year, the museum will raffle a stand-up paddle board, put together from a kit by another group of volunteers.

Among the boat builders on a recent Wednesday was Roy Fager, 74, of Bay Shore. Nostalgia brings him to the shop at the edge of the Great South Bay to volunteer. When he was younger, Fager spent 3 1⁄2 years at sea in the U.S. Navy and four years in the Merchant Marines.

Fager enjoys the camaraderie and shoptalk shared by the group of men with experience in diverse work backgrounds — from mechanical engineers to business executives. “One of the reasons I like coming here is that all these gentlemen bring in different trades,” said Fager, a retired tractor trailer driver. “You learn about a lot of different skill sets here over coffee.”

Also working on the skiff was Chuck LaCarrubba, 82, of Nesconset, a retired mechanical engineer. His background comes in handy around the shop’s woodworking tools, such as a 10-inch table saw, and the 8-inch and 14-inch radial arm saws.

“I have a mechanical background, so any machinery that breaks down, I repair it,” LaCarrubba said.

And when it comes to dry-running the finished product next spring, Joe Pecoraro, 72, of Ronkonkoma, a retired Verizon technician, is always ready to set sail in the canal that borders the museum property. “I test drive the boat in the canal because many of the guys are afraid to do it,” joked Pecoraro, a recreational sailor. When he has time to spare, he’s restoring a boat damaged by superstorm Sandy.

Some of the volunteers have been around for 25 years. Others, for as little as three months. Volunteers are welcome, no experience necessary. It’s a learn-on-the-job opportunity to master the craft. Sievers, a retired tool-and-manufacturing engineer who took courses at The WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine, says he runs the shop like a factory. “I kind of hover over them and watch what they are doing so they don’t make any major mistakes,” he explains.

From 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the volunteers gather at the shop to transform raw materials: cedar into planks; oak into ribs; mahogany into fixtures for elegant watercraft. Past raffled vessels have included a Westhampton-style Super Stock racing sailboat and a 21-foot cat boat from a design by Gil Smith of Patchogue.

The shop is one of nine historic buildings on the museum’s 14 waterfront acres. Visitors can walk right in to watch the crew and pepper them with questions. “If they think you are interested, they will be more than happy to explain what they’re doing,” said Barbara Forde, librarian for the Long Island Maritime Museum (limaritime.org/index.html).

“We get a lot of traffic in here,” Sievers said. “It’s part of the fun when people come in.” But don’t be surprised, however, if your answer comes back in shipbuilding jargon.

That open-door policy was how Joe Stork, 68, of Bohemia, found out about the crew. The spring after retiring in 2010 from his job as vice president of services optimization for NCR, he and his wife, Terry, decided to take their infant granddaughter for a stroll on the museum grounds.

“We saw guys working, and my wife said, ‘Hey, that would be a great place for you to volunteer,’ ” Stork said.

Terry, 66, who has volunteered at museum events, said of her husband, “He likes boats and it’s a great group of guys. It’s really nice to see them keeping alive the tradition of making boats by hand.”

Stork made a call to Jim Sodaitis, 69, of Holbrook, who had recently retired from his 30-year career at the Long Island Lighting Company. The longtime friends had collaborated for years as weekend woodworkers, making furniture and molding for their homes and countertops for home improvement clients.

“Jim is a master woodworker. He’s our best craftsman as far as the woodworking piece goes,” Stork said.

Sodaitis, who had been a cabinet maker in Westbury for 15 years, said he especially enjoys his wintertime visits to the shop. “If you stay home, they want you to shovel snow,” Sodaitis joked. He enjoys working on the rough-cut wood, which the volunteers strip of bark and trim to needed sizes.

Peter Richichi, 79, of Oakdale, a retired carpenter, looks forward to the end of the process, when the preliminary work is completed and the woodworkers can add finishing touches, such as mahogany railings.

Sometime next year, raffle tickets will be sold when the finished boat is paraded at events such as the Sayville Summerfest. The winning ticket will be picked at the museum’s 2018 Halloween Boat-Burning, a yearly tradition. (The boatbuilders have a hand in that, too, stripping the old wooden boat of metal pieces before it’s lit up.)

Before the raffle winner claims the prize, the boat builders launch the small craft that’s taken many hours to complete.

“We usually take it for a test rowing to make sure it doesn’t leak and see how it handles,” Richichi said.

Seeing the plans to fruition is a long but satisfying process, he said. “Once we start to plank it, then it gets to be a little more interesting, and it requires a little more care and skill. We do the seats and the varnishing, all the things that are going to make it nice, and once that’s done, it’s, ‘Wow, look what we just built.’ Everyone has that sense of accomplishment when we finally finish.”

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