Bullhouse Boatworks
Arundel, Maine (1990-2007) ~ Dave Corcoran, boatbuilder


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  • Corcoran, Dave, builder: "Abranet: Dust-free Sanding," 179:105
  • Corcoran, Dave, builder: Currents (obituary), 197:13
  • Corcoran, Dave, builder: on daysailer Coquina (N.G. Herreshoff cat-ketch), photo, 187:76
  • Corcoran, Dave, builder: project profile (1995), 124:32
  • May 2006-June 2006 Sticks in the Water, page 108




Author(s): Donna Gold, Globe Correspondent Date: June 21, 1998 Page: B6 Section: Metro

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- One morning earlier this month, David Corcoran was hand-casting some bronze hardware needed for the 26-foot wooden sailboat he had been commissioned to build when a knock came on his door.

" `Where is everybody?' " Corcoran recalls the inspector from the Bureau of Labor Standards of Maine's Department of Labor asking. " `We had a report that you had people working here that you were not paying. Corcoran, 36, smiles grimly as he tells the story of inspector Curtis Semones looking around his boatshop, as if expecting to find illegal immigrants hiding among the wood shavings. There was no one working at the time, but Corcoran did not hesitate to tell Semones that he has had people work without pay.

Corcoran is proud that four times in his nine years as owner of Bullhouse Boatworks, he has taken on apprentices. Three of the four currently work in the industry.

"I love it," Corcoran says of his craft. "On launching day, when you see your boat go down the ramp, it's like looking at a work of art. To know you've built it with your own two hands, it's so emotional. I want other people to have that feeling."

But because Corcoran has yet to make over $20,000 a year building boats, he says he cannot pay his apprentices even minimum wage. Which is why, after receiving an anonymous tip, the state labor department came calling.

Royal Bouchard is the chief inspector of the Bureau of Labor Standards' Wage and Hour Division. While he declined to speak about any specific case, he did discuss the clause in the Fair Labor Standards Act that Corcoran was told he was violating. It states, in part, "no person, firm or corporation shall require or permit any person as a condition of securing or retaining employment to work without monetary compensation." The law, legal experts say, is intended to safeguard employees from a wide range of employer expectations, such as taking a training course or working overtime without pay. Bouchard says if there is "an employment relationship," payment must be made -- even if the parties themselves have agreed that the relationship is something else.

It is illegal, Bouchard added, to make a deal that circumvents the law.

Bouchard, however, acknowledged that such informal arrangements go on all the time. Craftspeople agree. Scratch the surface of many skilled trades, they say, and you will find informal relations of all kinds. Bernie Vinzani, who makes paper by hand in eastern Maine, has seen many kinds of arrangements with apprentices. Some pay to learn a trade; some barter; some get paid. His apprentices, he says, are always paid.

"We feel people need to earn a wage for work they do, even in training," says Vinzani. "If I owned a garage and hired someone with a potential of being a master mechanic, I would not hire him as an apprentice without pay."

But Potter Gerry Williams of Goffstown, N.H., author of the 1981 book, "Apprenticeship in Craft," does not see nonpayment as exploitation. To judge an apprenticeship, he offers the following criteria: "If it can be shown that the master is giving complementary time in terms of space, tools, education; if a master spends a certain number of hours teaching the apprentice; if the environment allows tools to be used, then it seems to me a non-exploitative environment."

Corcoran says he takes on apprentices for the companionship, for the insight teaching offers, and because as a 16-year-old in Manhasset, N.Y., a master cabinetmaker allowed him to apprentice with her for two summers, launching his woodworking career.

Corcoran eventually moved onto boats, and apprenticed, worked, and studied until he obtained the skills to become a boat builder. He continues to his hone skills by working alongside master craftspeople. And other professionals come to him to learn aspects of the trade.

Kurt Hasselbalch, curator of the Hart Nautical Collection at MIT, an archival source of boat plans, thought he would learn to loft (a mathematical process of drawing full-sized, front, side, and overhead projections of the boat) by visiting Corcoran. Now Hasselbalch isn't sure it will be allowed.

"I think it's absolutely preposterous that the law could cause. . . the traditional idea of apprenticeship, which was nonpay, to not be practical," says Hasselbalch. "Dave is a highly skilled boatbuilder and a really phenomenal teacher."

At Bullhouse Boatworks, Corcoran builds reproduction daysailers from the plans of Nathanael G. Herreshoff, founder of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co.

It is time-consuming work and Corcoran is a perfectionist at every stage, beginning with handpicking trees for the plankings. He does everything himself: lofting, handfashioning the hardware, even making his own tools, none of which are electric.

Corcoran will only take on an apprentice if the person can commit to the nine months it takes to build a boat, so he or she can learn every stage.

Paul Waring, Corcoran's last apprentice in 1996, was hired as a ship's carpenter at the highly respected Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine.

"The agreement with Dave was great; my labor in exchange for his teaching," Waring says. "Everything was right up front. It was like going to a free school."

But to remain within the law, Corcoran now will have to pay whomever he instructs, which he says he cannot afford to do. His other options include trying to change the current law through legal manuevers, or incorporating as a nonprofit school.

"In the last resort I may do that; but I don't like it," he said. "It allows me to skirt the law; but not to assert the principle of my right to pass on the knowledge that I have.