I came to Rhode Island’s Wickford Shipyard with the intention of interviewing a builder of ship models, but as usual got more than I bargained for.
“Any idea where I might find Dominic Zachorne?” I asked a yard worker who was prepping a hull for spring painting.
“Dom? Yeah, his shop is right there at the end,” the guy said, pointing to a long building sheathed in grey, corrugated metal.
I walked over for a look. Several old skiffs and a vintage truck that looked to be from the 1940s sat outside the building. Above the small side door was a white oar and a sign bearing the words “George W. Zachorne Jr. & Sons—Boat Builder”.
I stepped inside and found myself in a dim room crammed with machinery—lathes, planers, bandsaws, drill presses. Wood shavings crunched underfoot. A long bench along the wall bore an array of handsaws, files, planes, clamps of every size and old photos of sailing ships, family snapshots and racy postcards. Looming amid this clutter was a 32’ wooden sailboat. The place looked like something off a Hollywood set—complete with 2 characters out of central casting.
One, a short, bespectacled gentleman, sported a scraggly beard, a red woolen watch cap and a vest replete with pocket watch and chain. Next to him stood a younger, craggy and similarly bearded man with a long ponytail. They regarded me with stony Yankee skepticism.
“Dominic Zachorne?” I ventured. Neither man would claim ownership of the name. I feared this was not going to be easy.
Meet the Zachornes
Long-time residents of Wickford, especially those who appreciate wooden boats, would have little trouble recognizing the 2 men in question, as George, 60, and his son Dominic, 39, have lived aboard vintage sailing vessels in the harbor for the last 28 years. In summer they keep the boats on moorings; in winter they have slips in the shipyard.
Despite my somewhat prickly introduction, the Zachornes proved themselves friendly and talkative hosts. I wound up spending a few hours with them, during which they showed me some of their work, including the 40’ Lyle-Hess designed cutter they had built for a Wickford resident and which is currently docked behind the shop. As for the boat inside—a 32’ Alden cutter built in 1941—she’s just one of many projects the Zachornes have cooking at any given time.
An adjacent storage building houses several other vintage vessels in various stages of repair or reconstruction, including a Herreshoff Fishers Island 28 and a 20’ outboard skiff. I was amazed that the mostly 2-man operation could take on so much work, but Dominic assured me that most, if not all, of the boats in their care would be ready to launch on schedule.
How about hiring some more workers? “We’ve tried that,” says Dominic. “But a lot of them find out that the work is not as fun as the photos in Wooden Boat magazine make it out to be, especially when they have to wrap duct tape around their fingers because the skin is peeling off from all the sanding and reefing.”
Labors of Love
Building and restoring wooden boats is tough love, but the Zachornes are no strangers to hard work. As a child, George helped his father build a summer cottage on Hog Island, just outside Bristol Harbor, Rhode Island. After enlisting the advice of some local quahoggers, young George eventually built his own sailboat to earn a few bucks ferrying other Hog Islanders to and from the mainland. The experience spawned a lifelong passion for wooden sailing craft and boatbuilding.
When George married in 1972, he and his bride immediately set off on a sailing adventure down the East Coast. But the couple ran out of money midway through the trip, forcing an unplanned landfall in Virginia’s Gloucester County.
George fell in with local boatbuilder Lewis Jenkins, who taught him some sound fundamentals of the trade. Also of consequence, Dominic was born the next year, so beginning his lifelong residence aboard sailboats.
Upon returning to Rhode Island in the mid-‘80s, George received his higher education under the tutelage of Bristol-based Godfrey “Unc” Allen, who knew a thing or two about wooden yacht design and construction.
A few years later, George started his own boatbuilding business in Wickford, where he currently lives aboard the 1929-built 39’ English pilot cutter Ampelisca. Dominic’s home is the 1937 Alden cutter Atea.
A Sailing Life
Living on a sailboat might seem challenging, unless you’ve done so your whole life. Aside from his time in Wickford and voyages that have taken him from Nova Scotia to the Virgin Islands, Dominic—a licensed captain—has crewed aboard the Alabama and Shenandoah, the popular charter schooners that sail out of Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard (Dominic appears in several of Alison Shaw’s photos in the book “Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha’s Vineyard”). His love of maritime tradition also extends to Dominic’s other passion: model shipbuilding.
While he often restores damaged models, his original work is remarkable. He makes all of the ship’s parts by hand, using jewelry-making tools and small lathes to craft such items as miniature working windlasses, anchor chains, sails, cleats, pulleys, spoked wheels and dainty 3-strand line that can be spliced. Dominic also uses the line to make earrings, bracelets and decorative items, which he sells through the Wickford Cove Framing Gallery, just across the harbor. You can visit the gallery HERE.
As I took my leave of George and Dominic, I felt as if I had uncovered some kind of rare New England treasure: a father-son team quietly keeping the wooden shipbuilding tradition alive in New England, and proof that the apple (or Zachorne) doesn’t fall far from the tree.