Inside the massive hangar near Founders Landing in Southold, a 97-year-old Fife gaff cutter named Clio is secured high off the ground. At the yacht’s stern, three workers carefully maneuver a long wooden plank into position near its bottom. The plank must bend just perfectly to form to the yacht’s angle. On an initial attempt, the fit was too tight, forcing the workers to hammer it out so it could be repositioned.
“These things have to be perfect fits,” said Donn Costanzo, co-owner of Wooden Boatworks in Greenport, which is restoring the yacht.
Since November, Clio has undergone a complete restoration — its interior gutted, the engine replaced and nearly 50 frames swapped out — under the guidance of project manager Steve Lubitz, who’s been with the company for about six years. The original plan had been to relaunch the yacht in spring 2019, but when the owner requested that it be ready by fall, the work accelerated and a team of two grew to seven.
It’s one of several projects underway this summer at the company’s Southold facility, its headquarters in Greenport and satellite space in Aquebogue. Whether it’s building a new boat, maintenance work or restoration projects, the staff at Wooden Boatworks keeps busy throughout the year. “I could hire 10 more guys tomorrow,” Costanzo said.
Clio holds special meaning for Costanzo, who founded Wooden Boatworks with his brother Bruce Wahl. He restored the yacht 34 years ago in Italy, and owned it himself for about eight years. Built from the design of famous Scottish yacht builder William Fife, Clio features a distinctive dragon logo on both sides of its bow, the signature of a Fife-designed boat.
“I’m a real fan of the Scots when it comes to naval architecture,” said Costanzo, 66. “They designed some of the fastest, most beautiful, most enduring yachts of anyone.”
When it comes to boatbuilding on the East End, those classic designs are a common theme. These are not the typical cabin cruisers frequently spotted on Peconic Bay or Long Island Sound. Whether at Wooden Boatworks or at CH Marine on Shelter Island, these yachts are of a vintage design and meticulously built, with attention to the most minute detail in mind.
Costanzo offered a musical analogy.
“These are works of Beethoven, Mozart,” he said. “We only work with the real iconic designers of the past — the guys that really made a difference in why we are where we are today. If it wasn’t for their input and their expertise, we’d be lost floating around somewhere in log canoes.”
A massive 57-foot cutter rig named Chicane, weighing 26 tons, has undergone a complete restoration in another room at the Southold facility. Built in 1926 and designed by Alfred Mylne, also a Scot and a Fife contemporary, it has been transformed into a brand-new boat, Costanzo said. After nearly two years in the care of Wooden Boatworks, the yacht was nearing completion in mid-summer as it awaited final paint and detail work.
As an example of the exquisite interior below deck, a sink in one head was chiseled out of Michelangelo White tile. The deck features Burmese teak lumber, “old world stuff” that’s “impossible” to find now, Costanzo said. The last remaining piece of the original yacht is a panel on the fold-down berth.
“When this boat goes in the water, she will be one of the finest sailing yachts in the world, bar none,” Costanzo said. “She’s very, very powerful, very well built.”
Before its restoration, this yacht had been valued at an estimated $2.1 million, and Costanzo estimated that could climb another $1 million upon completion. The yacht could sail around the world “tomorrow,” he said, adding that it is built so strong, a gale in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in February would be nothing more than a slight inconvenience for the crew.
“You just go down below and make yourself a cup of tea,” Costanzo said.
The company began with one Beetle Cat boat. As their work expanded and a client expressed interest in having them work on deep-draft boats, they needed more space. They connected with John and George Costello at Hanff’s Boat Yard in Greenport. The Costellos rented space to the brothers for Wooden Boatworks and they’ve been there ever since.
Costanzo said it’s been a perfect home base in addition to the other facilities they acquired as the business grew.
At CH Marine on Shelter Island, Peter Needham, his brother John and their team, which includes Needham’s wife and children, have been designing and building custom yachts for four decades. The current boatbuilding workshop at the head of Coecles Harbor has been the place where dozens of unique yachts, ranging from 16 to 57 feet, have been built. The facility has enough space for three boats to be constructed simultaneously.
On a recent July afternoon, boat No. 59 — the signature 38-foot Runabout — was under construction in the shop. Needham said the Runabout distinguishes itself from others with its speed, topping out at nearly 50 miles per hour, and few boats can match its comfort, speed and style.
“It goes through the waves really fast,” he said.
CH Marine received national recognition for its work designing and building boats for Billy Joel. The company built four boats total for the singer, including the 36-foot Downeaster Alexa, made famous by Joel’s 1990 song. Legend has it that Needham and Joel mapped out the initial idea for Alexa on a cocktail napkin.
No two Runabouts are exactly the same. What makes CH Marine stand out is the level of detail its boatbuilders put in to customize each one to the owner’s specifications, specifically the interior woodworking detail. It’s a part of the job Needham said he loves, poring over myriad options to design each individual boat. The list of options continues to grow over the years, limited only by the imagination of the builders and owners.
“It’s a true labor of love what they do out there,” said Kathi Needham, who plays multiple roles in the business, running the accounting, billing and purchasing. “They’re really proud of the boats that they make and it really shows.”
Needham said they find themselves working on older boats that were launched in the ’90s when the owners want them spruced up. Along with custom builds, repair work remains a large part of the business.
“The resale price has been going up on them,” Needham said. “There’s been a shift in the last few years of people looking for used ones more than new ones.”
A 38-foot Runabout was docked this summer at the adjoining Coecles Harbor Marina. Its owner requested that a generator be added to run air conditioning in the boat’s cabin. The project had recently been completed and the boat was set to begin its journey back to Annapolis, Md.
As one project ends, another begins.
This article is part of a series on The Working Waterfront, published in a special edition of Northforker magazine. The video was made possible by Greenport BID.