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April 26, 2013
Island profile: John Needham
John Needham, president of Coecles Harbor Marina ever since his father died in 1987, sings the praises of everybody but himself.
A Glen Cove native, the 59-year-old credits his sharp, skilled and seasoned staff for having always kept things shipshape fair weather and foul, good times and slower times, such as the last few years, when the staff hit a low of 30; it’s about 60 in high times.
He calls his brother Peter the “visionary” who developed the marina’s specialized boat building and wooden boat expertise beginning in 1983. It has delivered 53 lovely Shelter Island Runabouts into the world that keep coming back for service and upgrades.
He credits his wife Laura Tuthill, who first worked as a high school kid at the marina and whom John later hired to run the dockside operation; she’s now running her own horse farm with a partner at Hampshire Farms.
He also cites his clients and customers, who he says are the kind of people who aren’t looking for mopeds or discotheques shore side.
“It’s not a conscious thing we’ve discussed but Peter and I have tried to keep this place reflecting the character of Shelter Island with the type of boats we build and the type of clients we have.”
A member of the town’s Waterways Management Advisory Committee for so many years he doesn’t remember what year he joined, he has no agenda, he said, “except that I’d like to see the character of Shelter Island preserved.” That means the fewer docks, bulkheads and boat lifts the better.
He’s also on the town’s Ferry Advisory Committee because “I was sitting in the room when they decided they needed somebody.”
As for himself and the business, he’s just a tinkerer, he said. “I always like fine-tuning the mix of staff, clients, boats, equipment, trying to get that recipe to blend.”
One gets the feeling there’s more going on than that. Some marinas are not tidy places. Coecles Harbor Marina is spic and span in every hidden workspace and storage area.
It’s full of well-oiled machines considered junk when John’s father, an aerospace engineer laid off by Republic Aviation, bought the place in 1973; John restored all that equipment and keeps it running. The bays are also full of classy boats, many of them wooden, in for winter restorations and repairs.
He shows where the water has risen in big storms, marked on the housing of a big band saw, one of the so-called junk machines John revived. The worst came in the snowstorm of 1978, with the tide an inch higher than Sandy drove it last fall. That inch was the difference between water in the office in 1978 and a dry floor when Sandy came.
It was a “devastating” storm nevertheless that went on forever, it seemed, and tore up the marina’s docks. Two of the many boats that were hauled ashore into the yard tipped over in the wind and two of 13 riding in the harbor broke lose. The damage to them was relatively minor.
The staff, he said, has storm preparation down to a science. “Everybody knows the drill when John flips the switch into hurricane mode,” from hauling out boats to removing the motor of the band saw and putting everything that must remain on the shop floors up on blocks.
For the Needhams, it all started 40 years ago this spring. After he was ordered to lay off his own staff at Republic and then finding himself jobless, John’s father declared he didn’t want his kids to experience the same thing.
With his parents, younger brother and sister Cheryl — “She’s the brains of the family,” an astrophysicist who’s raised a family in Maryland and worked hunting for lost satellites because “they kind of disappear once in a while” — John had been to Shelter Island aboard the family’s 26-foot sloop out of Glen Cove.
“So we knew this place. Somehow my father knew the marina was for sale.” And in 1973, “By selling everything we had, the house, our boats, we were able to come up with a down payment. It was a risk I wouldn’t have taken,” John said.
He laughed when asked how his mother, Florence, felt about it. “Coming from the North Shore of Long Island to Shelter Island was a lot of adjustment,” he said — but not for the boys, who were in college then. “We started at the bottom. It didn’t matter how dirty the job: digging trenches, painting bottoms, it was on-the-job training” for everyone.
“Everything’s exciting when you’re 21,” he said.
Peter was going to Southampton College. He went on to get his degree in marine science while John decided to quit the University of New Hampshire to work full-time in the shop.
“I had my job fixing boats” and when his father tried to draw him into the business side John thought “don’t bother me with all these complications. Then he died on me.”
Their accountant Richard Ferraris helped them handle the blow, divvying up responsibilities “between Peter and myself and our spouses,” including John’s first wife, now Stephanie Saryani, with whom he had his “terrific” daughters Emily and Catherine.
“We worked our way through it. I was astounded at the bills” and all the rest of the paperwork and red tape. “It was endless; I just couldn’t believe it. And it still is.”
For fun, John ice boats on Coecles Harbor when the weather allows. “It’s magical,” but it’s been two years since the ice was thick. He’s got five rigs, one Laura’s own single-seater. Before their separate businesses made it hard to schedule vacations, they also enjoyed sailing the Caribbean and the British Virgin Islands, scuba diving off Honduras and chartering a lobster boat in Maine.
You got the feeling, though, that he likes getting up every day and walking 100 yards down Hudson Avenue to his job. About retiring, he just chuckled and said, “That does not compute.”
“I came here not knowing anybody. Now I’m related to half the island by marriage. If you married a Tuthill and you’ve got a daughter who married a Brigham, you’re up to your elbows with Clarks and Mundys and Kilbs.
“It feels great. People associate me with the boatyard because that’s where I am all the time but it’s really the relationships with people that are the most memorable and meaningful to me. I can point at the apartment upstairs and I know Ray Congdon’s father built that, and Peder Larsen put in that cesspool out there, and Reich-Eklund put that addition on over there, the Labrozzi brothers poured that concrete slab over there. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m spoiled by that.”