Made in Dartmouth: Marshall Marine catboats

Aug 27, 2019

If you asked him thirty years ago, Geoff Marshall never thought he’d take over the family business.

Marshall’s father Breck started Marshall Marine Corporation in 1962 with the first fiberglass catboat model ⁠— an 18-foot boat called Antidote ⁠— built out of a barn in New Hampshire.

“He sailed very actively up and down the coast, and loved this area,” said Geoff of his father, who moved his boatbuilding operation to Dartmouth almost immediately. “He probably moved here because of the harbor.”

Marshall Marine is located on Shipyard Lane in Padanaram, which seems to be a good place to build boats.

“This facility has been a boatyard for, oh, a couple hundred years,” said the younger Marshall.

Before his father turned it into Marshall Marine, he said, it was called Picket’s boatyard and before that, it might have been part of the booming whaling industry in the area.

“I heard stories that small whaleships were built up here back when there was enough water,” Marshall said, before adding with a shrug “Maybe it’s urban legend.”

After the causeway went in, silt carried by the river started to build up, making the boat launch shallower and shallower.

“We have very little water out here. At low tide we can’t haul or launch any boats,” he said.

But Geoff and his brothers grew up in Dartmouth, and he can’t imagine being anywhere else. “We like it, we like our neighbors. They walk their dogs through here quite often, which is great.”

They store 80-90 boats per year through the winter, as well as hauling and launching boats, washing bottoms, and providing full services — including painting, waxing, and repair and maintenance work for their catboats.

The facility — which employs 9 people — makes three different catboat models: 15’ Sandpipers, 18’ Sanderlings, and 22’ boats called Marshall 22s. 

Catboats have been around for 160 years, according to Geoff. They were traditionally working boats off Cape Cod and Nantucket, built so one fisherman could sail on his own with enough room to haul his catch.

Breck Marshall was a fiberglass boatbuilder in Narragansett Bay and loved catboats. So when the opportunity came up to build a fiberglass catboat, he seized it.

“He took an older wooden cat, or parts of it, and sort of recreated and refined it, changed the whole shape of it,” Geoff explained. “He was quite a successful racer, so he built them for performance.”

Fiberglass boats are lighter and faster than wooden ones, with less maintenance required.

The Chesapeake Catboat Association credits Breck with the “rebirth of the catboat” after the success of his first lightweight fiberglass design.

After his father passed away, Geoff’s mother Sarah owned and operated the business for years.

In the mid-1980s, after he graduated college, she asked him if he wanted to take over the business.

Geoff said he responded “God no. No interest at all.”

So she ended up selling the business to family friend named John Garfield, who had worked with Breck for decades.

Meanwhile Geoff ended up getting into boat building on his own. 

He became a ship’s captain, went back to school for naval architecture and eventually worked for Concordia another Dartmouth boat company before coming to work for Garfield at the old family business.

Fourteen years ago, he bought it back, and said he has no regrets.

“Honestly, if I’d jumped into it right after college, it probably wouldn’t have worked,” he said.

“Any business has its ups and downs,” he added. “Some years are better than others. All in all, it’s pretty good.”

Each boat is made to order, and takes anything from two weeks to four months to build, depending on the size of the boat and the options requested.

“All told now, we’ve built close to 1900 of them,” said Geoff. 

Marshall boats are sold all over the world, and can be found as far away as New Zealand, South America, Europe, and Canada although New England is the catboat’s home and most are still in the area.

“One guy sailed his all the way to Greenland, although I wouldn’t recommend it,” Geoff said with a wry smile.

Marshall Marine also builds Sakonnet 23 boats with a mold bought from Mattapoisett boatbuilders Edey & Duff, which closed down in 2010.

As for the future of the company, Geoff isn’t sure if anyone will follow in his footsteps. He says his son and daughter are too young to know if they want to join the family business just yet.

“They’re not even thinking about it,” he said. “I know at that age I wasn’t thinking about it either.”