A conversation with Frank Rapoza

‘I’m taking my retirement one summer at a time.’

Frank Rapoza is spending his retirement on both Martha's Vineyard and Cuttyhunk. — Courtesy Granary Gallery

Interview by Geoff Currier

I grew up south of Falmouth in Padanaram, went to Dartmouth High School, and graduated in 1970. From a very early age I knew what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to work with ships, and after high school, I became an apprentice at the Concordia Boatyard in Dartmouth.

After a couple of years, Concordia ran out of boat contracts, so I got a job apprenticing at the Mystic Seaport for about three years. It was there that I learned to be a shipwright, and I carved out a specialty as a ship’s caulker, which I would do for many years. Over the years I would go back to work at Mystic three or four different times to work on projects like the whaling ship the Charles W. Morgan, and the construction of the modern-day version of the slave ship Amistad.

When I first started work at Mystic, I made a deal with them which I’ve stuck to all my career. The deal was I would take my summers off, and live on Cuttyhunk Island on one of the boats I built. Even way back then, I was thinking that I pretty much had to work the rest of my life, but rather than taking retirement as one big chunk at the end, I’d take it in 2½-month installments in the summer over my lifetime.

I moved to Martha’s Vineyard around 1975, buying a house in West Tisbury in partnership with a friend. My friend put in the money, and I built the house and lived in it, except in the summer when I rented it out and went to Cuttyhunk. During the winter, I did some work for Gannon and Benjamin, working on some of their big schooners. I traveled around the country doing caulking jobs, and worked as a finish carpenter for Gary Maynard at Holmes Hole Builders. I also operated a nautical antique shop in Vineyard Haven.

I learned to do wampum mosaics, which I saw in a church on Cuttyhunk, and they were taught to me by Manny Sarento, the caretaker of Nashawena Island. I thought they would be cool to do, and the money was really good. I came to my art from my father Francisco, who was a painter, specializing in maritime scenes. He had a studio in our house, and I spent a lot of time there.

As I got closer to retirement age, I began to spend more time concentrating on my artwork, and I sold my house and began working on my art out of a small studio I built over a sailing shack I built for a friend on Pilot’s Hill. I put in my name for elderly housing, and after about six years I moved into a vacancy they had at Havenside, overlooking Vineyard Haven Harbor. The views are great. It was the first vacancy that came up, and it was the best one as well. The manager does a good job with the property, and the grounds are well maintained. The Vegan Society even has a program where they drop off a bag of groceries every week. So I’m pretty well set up; I love Havenside, and I’ll always have Cuttyhunk in the summer.

What’s a typical day for me out at Cuttyhunk? I live aboard a 26-foot Marshall catboat converted into a trawler. It’s roomy and set up to live aboard. This morning I spent some time putting in a new starter in my boat. I live on a mooring in the northwest corner of the harbor. I have an icebox, so I can have block ice, and I have a refrigerator on one of the shacks on the dock.

I have a way to order fresh meat and have it sent over to Cuttyhunk. After 35 years out there, I’ve got everything pretty refined. I love to fish, and I have a nice little peapod dinghy I use to row out to my boat, so I get a lot of exercise. Sometimes I’ll just go down and look at who gets off the ferry. It reminds me of the old days on the Vineyard, when you’d go down and see who’s getting off the boat because you knew most of the people.

I live like a wealthy person out at Cuttyhunk, I’m lucky and I’m blessed, and by the time fall rolls around, I’m rested and relaxed and ready to get into some new projects.