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Dock builder Ian Crowley. (Credit: David Benthal).

Stepping onto a dock, it’s easy to overlook the carefully laid wood under foot. For many, a dock is simply something you walk on to board a boat for an afternoon on the water.

Ian Crowley sees it differently, though. He’s worked in the North Fork dockbuilding industry since he was 18 and founded his own company, Crowley Marine Contracting, more than two decades ago. 

For him, the docks and jetties that line the North Fork’s shorelines represent a lifetime of hard work.

Crowley launched his business in 1997 with little more than hard work and “a good relationship with the local bank” to fund the heavy equipment and materials needed. Now, Crowley Marine keeps a full schedule with year-round work involving everything from dockbuilding to jetty construction to dredging for local municipalities, private residents and commercial enterprises.

“It’s just really word of mouth,” he said of how his business has grown. “It is very difficult to afford to live around here and work. The guys I have with me now I’ve been working with for a long time. We’re committed. It is very capital intensive and we’ve got a lot of money invested. We’re just going to keep plugging away.”

Crowley pointed to the jetty at Gull Pond Beach in Greenport, which his company maintains, as some of the work he’s proudest of.

For dockbuilders, a lot of the learning happens on the job and it forces everyone to acquire a working knowledge of many related trades, like plumbing and mechanics. You also have to have a good understanding of environmental factors, like the cycle of tides. Without it, projects would stall and the inherent dangers associated with working in construction would be amplified.

“It is hard work and you have to be alert, but I don’t think I could ever work inside, ever,” said Dave Gillispie of Greenport, who works for Crowley. “I wouldn’t know what to wear … I wouldn’t know what to do. There are a lot of people that wouldn’t want to do this type of thing and I wouldn’t want to do what they do.”

For 27-year-old Tim Heaney, it’s been a lifetime of learning on the job. His memories of working on docks at Orient Yacht Club and Mitchell Park go back as far as he can remember. His father, Kerry Heaney, founded Heaney Marine Construction in 1996 and often took Tim and his younger brother, Sean, along to work.

“We were probably in kindergarten — or maybe even younger — and he would wake us up so early,” Heaney recalled. “But we would always get an egg sandwich from Sterlington [Deli], of course. Sometimes we will drive by a marina or a random house and I’ll think, I remember being there when I was 6 years old.”

Dockbuilder Ian Crowley. (Credit: David Benthal).

The Greenport High School graduate now holds a degree in heavy equipment operation and is half of the Heaney Marine team. He and Sean, 26, are the two-person operation carrying on the work of their father, who died in 2011.

“We have a lot of the same customers and we go to their houses [or businesses] every year to do repairs,” Heaney said. “Like the Pridwin on Shelter Island. The same dock has been there since the 1930s; it has just been repaired and repaired and repaired, so it is all new.”

Taking the helm at Heaney Marine before turning 30 is not something he ponders often. He worked for the family business as well as other area dock building companies — including Crowley Marine and Costello Marine Contracting — throughout his teenage years and during summer vacations from college.

“There is camaraderie … and there are different aspects of each company,” Heaney said. “With Costello, it was broad. Some days I was driving a dump truck. With Ian, I was learning how to make things perfect because he was on the job with you making sure it got done the way things needed to be done.”

Waiting is not a luxury for the crews, who work around permit specifications and timelines set by at least four governing agencies at any given time. The piping plover that nest on the shores of the North Fork also factor into the schedule.

The four-member Crowley crew was up bright and early on a frigid March morning this year with heavy equipment in tow for a Shelter Island Town dock job.

“It had to be done by April 1 because of the piping plover,” Crowley said. “It was cold, but the weather is the weather. Focus on the things you can control. We had to have that done.”

The reward is not found in the day to day, Crowley said, but rather in seeing his work stand the test of time.

“To anticipate that dock being here through the next 40 years of what Mother Nature has to offer, we can be proud of what we do,” he said. “Absolutely.”