Tom Hale, artful shipyard owner, dead at 87

Tom Hale in 2010. — File photo by Susan Safford

Tom Hale, a life-long sailor, designer of boats large and small, businessman, homebuilder, artist, author and witness to the horrors of World War II, died Sunday. He was 87.

Mr. Hale, owner of Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, was an influential and respected figure in Vineyard Haven and across his adopted Island. He helped build the Vineyard Haven Yacht club, where generations of Island children learned to sail. He shored up sagging churches with scavenged boat rigging and designed swift, eye-catching sailboats and powerboats, some of which still moor and sail from Vineyard Haven harbor.

When war was declared following the attack on Pearl Harbor, military recruiters judged him too small and lightly built to serve. He attempted to enlist in the Air Force and the Navy, but the answer in each case was the same. So he joined a volunteer ambulance medical corps, and served with distinction, hauling wounded soldiers off the front lines in Italy. Mr. Hale was on the front lines with his ambulance during the four battles of Monte Cassino, a four-month fight against the Nazis and their Italian allies.

“He put his life on the line several time dragging people out of places he probably should not have gone to,” his son Phillip Hale said. “He said that was where he clearly saw man’s inhumanity to man. It impacted him for life.”

He was also among the first to see the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, when Allied forces liberated the survivors.

Mr. Hale was born on December 30, 1924. Raised in Newburyport and Dedham, where his father was in the shipping business, he learned to sail in the 1930s around New Bedford.

Mr. Hale’s parents bought him an John Alden designed sloop, “Hard A Lee,” when he was a young boy, and he sailed it for the next 80 years, out of Vineyard Haven.

In recent years, Mr. Hale had loaned her to Sail Martha’s Vineyard, where she handled an energetic schedule of summer sailing lessons in Lagoon Pond. Next to the high-tech 420s, and the Optimist prams, she looks ancient. But she is a favorite among sailors of all ages.

“She’s easy for one person to handle, even for a relatively inexperienced sailor,” Mr. Hale told The Times in a recent interview. “She’s an ideal learning boat for youngsters, teenagers, even adults.”

Mr. Hale explained her name.

“Hard A Lee is an old term, a sailor’s term for a sudden shift of heading,” he said.

Mr. Hale graduated in architecture from Harvard University. He first visited the Vineyard in 1948.

After working as an architect for eight years, he responded to a more compelling call, and from 1959 to 1961, worked for Edouard Stackpole at the Mystic Seaport Museum as assistant curator.

In 1961, driven by his passion for the sea and for boatbuilding, he and his wife Anne bought the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard from Bob Love and rebuilt it to accommodate recreational boaters. During his 25 years at the helm, the shipyard, incorporated in 1856 (the third-oldest uninterrupted business on the Vineyard), built about 150 boats, along with providing regular shipyard maintenance services. Mr. Hale’s descendants now operate the shipyard.

Included among the boats he built were 53 Vineyard Vixens, Mr. Hale’s own design, of a popular double-ended fiberglass cruising sailboat. After selling the business to son Phillip in 1986, he turned his attention elsewhere, and that included model making, storytelling, and history.

“I remember growing up, he always said he wanted seven children, seven boats and $7 million dollars,” Phil Hale said of his father. “We know he didn’t have seven children, we know he didn’t have $7 million, but he did have a hell of a lot more than seven boats.”

Phil Hale said his father loved Martha’s Vineyard. “He and my mom moved here in 61 and they dug their roots here pretty fast and pretty deep. He had a huge commitment, not only to the waterfront but to Martha’s Vineyard.”

After his friend George Moffett bought land in Oak Bluffs to protect it, later the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Mr. Hale’s wife Anne began the Fern and Feather camp program.

Mr. Hale said the father valued integrity and exemplified it. “When you give somebody your word, you give them your word, and when all is said and done that is all you have,” his son said.

Five children and ten grandchildren survive Mr. Hale. Plans for services will be announced at a later date.

The Hale family has designated Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, P.O. Box 494 Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, or Sail Martha’s Vineyard, P.O. Box 1998, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, as organizations to receive donations in his memory.