Profile: First Light Boatworks and Marine Railway

This is one in a series of profiles of the boatbuilders participating in the Boatbuilders Show of Cape Cod. The show is the premiere event for the region's boatbuilders, a local industry that sustains and grows the traditional craft.

Owner(s): Woody Metzger and Jim Donovan
Established: 2016
Number of employees: 9
Number of boats produced per year: 1-6, depending on type of builds
Specialty: lapstrake power boat 26

Full circle for First Light
By Patrick Cassidy |

CHATHAM - It was probably inevitable.

"For me, I don't know if it was ever really a decision," Harwich native Jim Donovan said about why he builds boats. "It started out really young, it started out with my grandfather teaching me how to work on boats."

Woody Metzger first met Donovan while they were working at Arey's Pond Boat Yard in Orleans. Metzger grew up on Town Cove, the son of a commercial fisherman and an artist.

"So I just ran down the bank every morning and tried to get something to float so I could go play in the water," he said. "And just, you know, how do you grow up (on Cape Cod) without having some fascination with the water?"

Though their courses meandered, veering and crossing, the two men were bound for the same place.

Together again, they now own First Light Boatworks and Marine Railway in Chatham, the same yard on Mill Pond where they once ran a charter called First Light Sea Ventures for Pease Brothers Boatworks. Everything between Arey's and the second coming of First Light was a curve.

"Jim was a boat builder and I was doing a lot of restoration and finish stuff and then I was running (Arey's) sailing school. We became friends back then," the 49-year-old Metzger said. "Jim was building his own boat to go sail around the planet, which he ended up doing. But at the time - 17 or 18 years old and I'm 10 years older than him - I was just like 'What's this kid doing?' It was amazing so we became friends."

Inside the office they share with Jessica Julin - she keeps everything at First Light on track, according to Metzger - they talked about what came between then and now.

When Donovan, now 37, sailed away from Cape Cod, he was towed out by a Pease Brothers boat, he said.

"So he split, we kept in contact, went all over the planet," Metzger said. "He eventually landed in St. John and was there for a decade, right?"

"Yeah, roughly," said Donovan.

Donovan built houses and Metzger owned a couple residential construction companies, doing the "Cape Cod dance," before landing the position of director of client services for Wilkinson Ecological Design.

"(I) said wow this is neat," Metzger said. "OK, I'm bored out of my mind."

Metzger went back at that point, first to what he did before Wilkinson and then to the neighborhood around the Pease Brothers yard.

On his return, Michael and Brad Pease immediately asked him where he had been, Metzger said.

They told him they had spent the night before writing a job description for someone to run their shop and had basically used him as the template, he said.

"I ended up coming on as general manager for like 11 months before Jim and I bought the place," he said.

Donovan was still in the Caribbean. Halfway through his first day as general manager at Pease, Metzger stepped out to call his old friend to convince him to come back to the Cape, he said.

"Yeah, the timing was good," Donovan said.

At the end of December 2016, the two men bought the boatyard.

Since then they have built about eight boats, Donovan said.

They can build anything but their capacity is based on how they spread the hours over building, moorings and slips, launching and rigging, the yard, finishing, and work at an offsite storage facility, Metzger said.

"The pace over the last three years has been essentially right on,"Metzger said. "But for the most part ... we're trying to kind of have it be like 30 percent of the business being boat building. Right now it's probably more like 40 percent, something like that."

Images of their success so far line the walls of their organized but crowded office.

Outside the door, across several bays and levels, future successes take shape: the shell of the latest lapstrake, another in the semi-production line - a Tashmoo - waits to be finished next door, a small tender evolves plank by plank ("She's in the super embryonic stages of construction,"" Metzger said) one flight up. On the third floor, templates for each model are stacked and leaned neatly among the eves along with a drum set for Thursday night jam sessions. The whole building is run on solar power and tanks out back can hold four million shellfish fed on water from the saltwater pond nearby.

Metzger and Donovan clearly strive to make sure building boats is not just a job.

In October, they shoved off from Chatham early one morning onboard the Finale, one of the lapstrakes, to deliver it by water to Florida.

"We were in Manhattan that night," said Metzger, who shared the journey on the boatyard's Instagram account.

Call it another leg in their longer journey together.

Orleans to St. John, St. John to Chatham, Chatham to Florida and back again. Back in Chatham and back to building boats."Not only is it a yard that we loved, not only is it in a place that we cherish but it's, you know, with each other and good history,"" Metzger said.

So, why build boats?

"Jim's really a good one to ask that question to,"" Metzger said. "I can say from a more simplistic standpoint, there's a million boats we've been in in our lifetime and when you're in one you know what you want out of a boat and it doesn't really exist until you make it or at least try."

Donovan pointed at a framed image of the Empress, a 34-foot double ended ketch they built that was getting its winter work done.

"When you look at that photo there it's kind of obvious what it does, it's built much like an animal or a human,"" he said "There's all these elements but creating that shape, defining that shape and the accuracy necessary to do that, to me I've kind of lost some of that magic but at the time it just seems like you're just creating that out of thin air."

Later, Metzger showed off the real thing with an interior crafted entirely of curved lines. (It had been hauled into a bay on the facility's working marine railway.)

Anything is possible as soon as somebody walks through the door with an idea and some passion, he said.

"What Jim and I would really love to see happen is someone call up and really want to do a 60-foot schooner," Metzger said. "There's not really much we can't do."

Life on the water ex nihlo, shape from form, magic revealed again in the next build, round the next curved line.

 Patrick Cassidy is a Harwich-based writer. He is also the founder and captain of Cape Cod on the Fly, a boat and shore guide service to fly fishing the flats of Cape Cod.