Boatbuilder Chris Brennan Keeps His Tradition Alive In Westchester
Laura Mogil gets onboard with the only boatbuilder in the county.
Brennan has helped maintain the wooden sloop Woody Guthrie, which often sails the Hudson.
Chris Brennan is fast at work inside his custom wooden boat shop, tucked inside an old brick warehouse at the Westerly Marina in Ossining. You might wonder just how many other wooden boatbuilders there are around Westchester, and the answer is zero. “The nearest one is in Albany,” says Brennan, “but they’re shipbuilders and do very large projects. In Kingston there’s a guy that does woodworking, but he isn’t a full-time boatbuilder.”
It turns out Brennan, 39, who lives in Briarcliff Manor with his wife, Christine, and their two dogs, is the guy to go to in Westchester if you need to have a wooden boat built or repaired. And he does have quite a following. His 600-square-foot workshop, along with a nearby 800-square-foot tarped boat shed in the marina, are bursting with projects: new trim for a 40-foot Wheeler, a sport fishing boat built in the 1950s; resized planking for a 15-foot recreational ice boat; and a companionway hatch from a 24-foot double-ended sailboat that needs refurbishing after a snow-laden roof collapsed on the boat last winter.
Brennan has also done work on a number of locally renowned wooden boats, including the Woody Guthrie, a 19th-century Hudson River ferry sloop replica commissioned by Pete Seeger in 1978 to educate people about the Hudson River. And he just completed the fourth year of a proactive restoration of the R. Ian Fletcher, the Chesapeake wooden patrol boat used by the Riverkeeper organization to protect the river from polluters.
Tom van Buren, director of the Folk Arts Program at ArtsWestchester, first got to know Brennan when he was doing research for the ArtsWestchester 2013 exhibit From Shore to Shore: Boat Builders and Boat Yards of Westchester and Long Island.
Van Buren and his co-curator, folklorist Nancy Solomon, did extensive research on the history of boatyards and boatbuilders in the lower Hudson Valley and on both shores of Long Island Sound. According to van Buren, “Many professional wooden boatbuilders had retired or were forced out of business when demand for wooden boats ended after World War II, and when fiberglass boat construction was introduced in the 1950s.”
When asked what makes Brennan stand out, van Buren says, “It’s his great attention to detail and his ability to think creatively about the use of wood in boat construction and repair. Chris has a true knowledge of his materials. There are certain kinds of wood that behave differently in water, that don’t rot as quickly as others, and that have particular qualities. Some are better for bending into complex shapes, and others are known for being very straight and sturdy.” For Brennan, he says, “boatbuilding is not just an avocation. He lives it and breathes it.”
So, why this love of wood as opposed to fiberglass? In addition to its aesthetic value, Brennan says, “Wood is this organic material, this reusable resource that I feel comfortable working with as opposed to fiberglass.” He adds, “You can shape a piece of wood, you can read a piece of wood, and you can work with it. It has a soul.”
Brennan’s passion for wooden boats dates back to his childhood. “I grew up in Yonkers on Warburton Avenue, and my bedroom window had the most wonderful view of the Hudson River. I would just sit there with my binoculars and look at the tugboats,” he recalls. “So, having that exposure—growing up and being able to walk down to the river—I always had a fascination with the river and with boats."
According to Brennan, the sad thing about growing up on the river in Yonkers was there wasn’t good access. “You might as well have been 500 miles away. As opposed to today, there weren’t programs or resources to get kids out on the river,” he says.
In high school, Brennan made it his goal to get out on the Hudson. First, he enrolled in the Croton Sailing School to learn how to sail, and then he set about building himself a canoe. “The funny thing is, after I built it, I realized I could never put it in the river,” he recalls. “It didn’t have the stability to handle how rough the Hudson is. But I was able to enjoy it on some ponds and small lakes.”
After high school, Brennan went off to college at SUNY Oneonta to study writing, then left to work in carpentry and woodworking for a few years. However, it wasn’t long before he felt the pull of the water.
Luckily for Brennan, he was able to get an apprenticeship with master wooden boatbuilder Mike Marino at his Piermont, New York, shop in 2001. In between carpentry jobs, Brennan worked on and off with Marino until 2006, when the boatbuilder moved to California. Brennan opened his own wooden boat building and repair business in Nyack, New York, the following year.
It was right after Brennan started his own shop that he met his wife Christine; they got married in October 2012. “Our dogs actually met first,” Christine says. “We started talking at the Nyack Dog Run, and then at some point we realized we lived next door to each other. One of his windows actually overlooked my backyard.”
Christine, who grew up in New Jersey, had done a little sailing in her youth, but says, “I didn’t know much about boating and certainly boatbuilding before I met Chris, and I was fascinated by it.”
Christine says that she “came to realize that this was who Chris was. [Boatbuilding] wasn’t just a hobby, and it wasn’t something he was tinkering around with on the side; he was definitely fully vested in it emotionally and professionally,” she says.
When she and Brennan started dating, Christine was working at a corporate-communications job in Manhattan, but was contemplating switching careers. “Watching Chris following his dream and making it work was very influential for me,” Christine recalls. “I saw it could be done. He just had to sacrifice certain things, or not place so much importance on them. All of a sudden, I was applying to nursing school, and he was instrumental in this. It’s one of the many reasons why we’re together and I love him.”
Brennan’s years of hard work are finally paying off. He moved over to the Westerly Marina in 2010, and his business has been steadily growing. This year, he received a grant through the ArtsWestchester Folk Arts Program from the New York State Council on the Arts to hire a part-time apprentice (he already has one assistant) to pass the tradition along.
Even with the extra hands, Brennan works very long hours, taking only every other Sunday off. In the little free time he has, he loves to hike the Hudson Highlands—Anthony’s Nose, Breakneck Ridge, Mount Taurus, and Sugarloaf—with Christine and their dogs.
“My only days out on the water now are when my customers invite me out,” Brennan says. But he’s not complaining. “I get to wake up in the morning and do exactly what I want to be doing. It sounds simple, but I just enjoy it. I really love wooden boats. So, to have that goal way back when, to have that dream, and then to have it happen, to be living it, it’s worth it.”
And Brennan has plans. “It’s years down the road, but I’ll build my sail-away boat,” he says. Where will he sail? “You name it. I’m fascinated with every corner of the world, be it Patagonia, the South Pacific or the North Pacific, Iceland—wherever. I would love to see the world.”