For the love of boats

Sunday Star - - LIFE - By CON­NIE CON­NOLLY cconnolly@ches­pub.com Tal­bot His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety pho­tos are from the H. Robins Hol­ly­day Col­lec­tion, cour­tesy of the Tal­bot His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, Eas­ton. Fol­low me on Twit­ter @con­nie_s­tar­dem.

ST MICHAELS — Bryon Reilly is feel­ing a bit nos­tal­gic these days. He’s made the tran­si­tion to free­lancer from busi­ness owner. He and his wife Linda are mov­ing from St. Michaels closer to Eas­ton. Their lives are chang­ing.

But one thing hasn’t changed. He hasn’t stopped work­ing at the one job he’s had his whole ca­reer. His new busi­ness card says it all; it reads sim­ply, “Bryon Reilly, Ma­rine Me­chanic.”

Bryon has a deep love of boats and the place he spent most of his ca­reer as a me­chanic and coowner of Hig­gins Yacht Yard for 38 years.

“The land that that boat­yard sat on right here was where (Kirby and Sons) built clip­per ships,” Br yon said. “St. Michaels kind of grew up around this lit­tle piece of land, and I was just very proud to be a part of it for a long pe­riod of time — to be one of the care­tak­ers of that yard be­cause it has so much to do with the his­tory of St. Michaels and the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay — and the coun­try, for that mat­ter.”

“They built clip­per ships right there on that piece of ground,” Bryon said, point­ing at an aerial pho­to­graph. “Some pri­va­teers which, af­ter the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, were ba­si­cally le­gal­ized pi­rate ships — they were built right here in sleepy, ol’ St. Michaels,”

While he grew up on the wa­ter and al­ways has been around boats, Bryon spent most of his time in hot, cramped en­gine rooms re­pair­ing es­sen­tial me­chan­i­cal sys­tems.

“I was in­ter­ested in boats, and dad’s fam­ily were boaters, and I had a boat grow­ing up as a kid,” he said. “I went to get a sum­mer job, which turned into a life­long , em­ploy­ment” en­dur­ing 45 years as of this month.

Born in Sus­sex, N.J., Bryon learned to sail in Long Is­land Sound and the Hud­son River. He moved to Clai­borne with his par­ents and sis­ter in 1968. “There was a lit­tle bit of trauma leav­ing friends be­hind, but I guess I got over it be­cause I’m still here,” he said, smil­ing.

His par­ents had a cat boat, a New Eng­land style sail­boat, “kind of like a small skip­jack, if you will, in ref­er­ence to Long Is­land Sound and Ch­e­sa­peake Bay,” Bryon said.

In 1968, a fire burned down Hig­gins’ wooden re­pair shop, “and there were sev­eral boats that were dam­aged, and I was able to buy a yacht with my dad that I turned into a crab­bing work­boat.” Bryon said. “The cabin had burned off, and we kind of re­built it, put an en­gine in it and got it work­ing well enough that I was able to go crab­bing in it dur­ing the sum­mers.”

Bryon’s first job was at Lo­cust Hill Boat Works in Clai­borne on the Til­gh­man Creek side. He worked for Tol­son Cockey and his son John.

The sum­mer be­fore 10th grade, “I would go out crab­bing early in the morn­ing, and then when I came in about noon, I worked for them paint­ing (wooden boat) bot­toms, haul­ing boats, sand­ing — the grunt work,” Bryon said. “I loved it. It whet my ap­petite for work­ing on boats.”

In 1973, Bryon grad­u­ated from St. Michaels High School and started work the next day at what was then Hig­gins Ma­rine Ser­vice at 203 Car­pen­ter St.. Bryon went to school with both of Mr. Hig­gins’ daugh­ters and had talked to their father about go­ing to work for him.

He even­tu­ally worked on Chris-Crafts and Hacker-Crafts for “Capt. Jack” Hig­gins at what was then Hig­gins Ma­rine Ser­vice. Hig­gins, too, grew up in Clai­borne and, at one time, was the youngest pi­lot in the ferry sys­tem on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, Bryon said.

“Capt. Jack was a fine gentle­man,” Bryon said. “He had com­pas­sion for peo­ple. We kept his name be­cause he was such a well-re­spected guy in this busi­ness.”

One of Bryon’s more mem­o­rable boats was Rum Run­ner,a var­nished Hacker speed boat on which Bryon spent “hun­dreds of hours” sand­ing it for six winters to pre­pare it for var­nish­ing.

Even­tu­ally, Hig­gins of­fered to sell the yard to Bryon.

Bryon bought the yard, along with part­ners Fred Kemp, a car­pen­ter at the yard, and Tad and Ebby duPont. “We sat down to­gether to fig­ure out how we could pool our funds and do this,” buy­ing the yard in Au­gust 1979. Fred was bought out by the other three part­ners about 18 months later. Bryon and Tad, with Ebby as a silent part­ner, worked to­gether as co-own­ers for 38 years un­til Septem­ber 2017.

Bryon was more hands-on, do­ing the me­chan­i­cal, plumb­ing, elec­tri­cal and safety work on the boats, trou­bleshoot­ing, prob­lem-solv­ing, manag­ing the yard, di­rect­ing em­ploy­ees and meet­ing with cus­tomers, while Tad worked the of­fice and fi­nance end of the busi­ness. While Capt. Jack’s busi­ness dealt with work boats, Hig­gins Yacht Yard was ori­ented “more to­wards the yacht­ing world,” Bryon said.

“One of our ear­lier cus­tomers was Harry Mey­er­hoff, who de­vel­oped Perry Cabin,” Bryon said.

“The Mey­er­hoffs were in Florida and bought a 90-foot Trumpy that was go­ing to be their flag­ship yacht,” Bryon said. They flew Bryon to Florida to get their yacht sta­bi­lized for the trip to Mary­land.

“Wow, it was hot in Florida,” Bryon said. “I was in the en­gine room (below the gal­ley) al­most the whole time com­ing up the in­land water­way. It was very hot. And noisy. And they had oil leaks all over the place. It was try­ing to fix one en­gine and they’d run the other en­gine. Fix one gen­er­a­tor while the other gen­er­a­tor was shut down. It was a beau­ti­ful boat, but like old, wooden boats, it suf­fered from ne­glect for a long time.”

“It was only a week or so, but it felt like an eter­nity,” Bryon said.

Linda said Bryon’s years at Hig­gins were of­ten spent in “lit­tle, tight, hot spots” with the tem­per­a­tures at 90 de­grees with lit­tle to no cir­cu­lat­ing air.

Bryon learned his trade through ap­pren­tic­ing, as well as for­mal train­ing. His grea­tun­cle worked for MercedesBenz of North Amer­ica, and he got Bryon into a week-long train­ing course in New Jersey. “It was very high-tech — much more than I was ex­pect­ing. It paid off be­cause there were quite a few Mercedes-Benz ma­rine diesel en­gines that I ran into over the years that used their 5-cylin­der 300 D.”

Be­cause of gas short­ages and higher fuel prices, the ma­rine in­dus­try shifted from mostly power­boats to sail­boats from the 1980s into the next decade, and from mostly wooden to fiber­glass con­struc­tion. “Boats be­came more of a sec­ond home” than sim­ply day boats,” he said.

“For the most part, I en­joyed our cus­tomers,” Bryon said. “It’s a mat­ter of know­ing what peo­ple ex­pect from you and what they ex­pect of their boat and how they want it pre­pared.”

“My motto was I wanted to make sure that peo­ple had a safe boat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Bryon said. “If there’s a dan­ger, if there’s a prob­lem with your boat — I want you to know about it.”

“Bryon can fix just about any­thing” even around the house, Linda said. “I’m very spoiled.”

They’ve made the move to Wood­lands with their Welsh Corgi named CeCe. “I’m for­tu­nate to be mar­ried to the best per­son in the world,” Linda said.

“The feel­ing is mu­tual,” Bryon said. They will be mar­ried 29 years in Septem­ber.

Bryon said they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some “sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety” leav­ing the house they’ve oc­cu­pied since they got mar­ried and St. Michaels, where they made their life to­gether. Linda Covell Reilly grew up in Bai­ley’s Neck, so they’re mov­ing closer to her child­hood home.

In the mean­timee, Bryon is a free­lance sub­con­trac­tor, do­ing the work he’s al­ways loved as Lo­cust Street Ma­rine LLC. “Lo­cust Street is ad­ja­cent to Car­pen­ter Street where the boat­yard was,” Bryon said.

He’s on the road more these days in his van. He sub­con­tracts with sev­eral area boat­yards, as well as cus­tomers who keep their boat at their home docks. “So it’s a lot more con­ve­nient for me to go right to them now than it is for them to go to the boat­yard if they need some­thing,” By­ron said. “I’m still do­ing what I en­joy, but I’m not manag­ing peo­ple any­more. I have a lot more flex­i­bil­ity in my sched­ule.”

“You don’t have that in­flux of ques­tions com­ing at you,” Linda added.

In a way, Bryon has come full cir­cle. “I’ve al­ways heard when the lo­cust trees bloom, that’s the first shed of crabs.” He plans to go out on the Step­pin more with Linda and “dip some crabs.”

As Bryon pores over his­toric pho­to­graphs of the work­place he oc­cu­pied for nearly half a cen­tury, it’s clear the bond he formed with the place has be­come part of him. He’s re­searched the own­ers, which in­clude T. Kirby, Wil­liam H.T. Coul­bourne, Her­bert Pomeroy Brown, Lee Gillis and then Capt. Jack Hig­gins’ ten­ure that be­gan in 1956.

He may no longer own Hig­gins Yacht Yard, but its en­dur­ing im­por­tance to the town and river and the peo­ple who live and work there has taken up per­ma­nent res­i­dence in his mem­ory — and his heart.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO PHOTO BY CON­NIE CON­NOLLY CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO PHOTO COUR­TESY OF TAL­BOT HIS­TOR­I­CAL SO­CI­ETY

Bryon Reilly, left, and Capt. Jack Hig­gins ride the John Deere 2-cy­cle Model B trac­tor that be­longed to Mrs. Hig­gin’s un­cle on Kent Is­land and which was used to haul boats on the rail­way. Bryon drove it from Stevensville to St. Michaels in Fe­bru­ary in the mid-1970s wear­ing “ev­ery piece of work cloth­ing I owned, and I still froze to death,” Bryon said. This aerial view of Hig­gins boat yard his­toric was taken when the rail­way was still in­tact. Hig­gins Yacht Yard co-owner with Bryon Reilly was Tad duPont, shown with his son Sam in this snap­shot taken in the early 1990s. Linda and Bryon Reilly have moved to Eas­ton af­ter 29 years in St. Michaels. Bryon Reilly in the early 1990s. Bryon Reilly at the helm of Step­pin, the 26-foot wooden dead­rise hull work­boat he built with the help of friends be­tween 1979 and 1989. He, Fred Kemp and oth­ers built it “on spec.” The Reillys still own it and plan to “dip for crabs” from it in their leisure time.

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