For the love of boats
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.
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.