HarborWorks and sailing into the future


The view from the publisher’s office of The Martha’s Vineyard Times looks out over the weathered, gray-shingled boatyard of the world-renowned Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, and beyond that, the storied blue waters of Vineyard Haven Harbor, one of the last great working waterfronts in New England. 

It is a stage set that opens every morning with a curtain raiser as the fog lifts off the water. And every morning the choreography is set in motion with a 6 am, first-of-the-day Steamship Authority whistle blast that will continue to blow on schedule with every ferry as it sets out for Woods Hole until that last one returns home at 10:30 pm.

All day, the harbor dances with the masts of sailboats amid a field of moorings. There are historic tall ships like the Shenandoah; beautiful schooners like the 65-foot Juno; as well as elegant sloops like the 25-foot Sally May. There are entrances and exits of rusted fishing boats and robust tugs, and recently we are seeing more and more of the swinging industrial cranes on the docks of Vineyard Wind’s massive operations. But right at the front edge of center stage all day is the constant motion and steady sound of saws and sanders, and the chatter and laughter of the crew at Gannon & Benjamin, which has authorship of the most beautiful wooden boats on the water, including both Juno and Sally May.

Like all theater, there is a conflict at the center of this drama: how to protect the working waterfront from the peril posed by profiteering developers looking to build high-priced housing and restaurants. The goal is to preserve and celebrate the maritime traditions and the studios of artists and sailmakers and other artisans who have long been part of this unique waterfront. This week, a new nonprofit entered the stage, and has filed ambitious plans for a new public space called HarborWorks, which seeks to ensure that the working waterfront is given a chance to thrive by opening it up to the whole Island community. 

Headed by Steve Bernier, the former owner of Cronig’s Markets and the owner of The MV Times, the new nonprofit Vineyard Lands for Our Community (VLC) and its proposed HarborWorks project seek to preserve the maritime history of the Vineyard Haven waterfront along Beach Road by creating a celebrated public square. Bernier’s vision is to showcase the work of Gannon & Benjamin, and give them the room they need to teach a new generation the craft of boatbuilding. And it will reimagine the cluster of ramshackle buildings along Beach Road into a sturdy campus, raised up on pilings to mitigate against rising sea levels and flooding caused by surface water. And if all approvals are met, which will admittedly take years, it could mean that our building, where The MV Times now sits as it marks 40 years in print, will be preserved and moved next door, within Boch Park, where a new public stage and pavilion will also be built. 

This vision for the waterfront, and the way MV Times figures in it, is in sync with my hopes as publisher to have our news organization remain at the center of the Island community, a public forum where all sides can come together to enlighten and inform our community on the most challenging issues we face, and help us all work together to navigate toward solutions. I believe this is the public service role of a community newspaper. If the Island accepts this proposal, The MV Times plans to develop a digital media hub, where we hope to inspire and train the next generation of Islanders on digital storytelling. We hope to invite them to apprentice with us, and continue together to tell the story of our Island. 

Every day I am in the publisher’s office at The MV Times, I ponder the activity of Gannon and Benjamin, and sometimes I find myself contemplating a haunting tale that Nat Benjamin shared. 

It was back in 1978, when Benjamin and his partner Ross Gannon were two self-described hippies building wooden boats by hand, and looking for a place to set up shop. They had been doing some work for an Island resident, Peter Strock, on Ariel, his Vineyard 15 sloop. 

As Benjamin tells the story, “Ariel was crammed into a small shed behind a larger, decrepit vacant building owned by Strock Enterprises on the Vineyard Haven waterfront. The sandy beach extended seaward in a gentle slope, the perfect location for a marine railway. While work progressed, the property was listed for sale. Ross and I told Peter our plans — told him that he owned the only piece of waterfront suitable for our slipway, and that we wanted to buy it. He loved the idea, and would love for us to have it. ‘But, so sorry,’ he said. ‘I just signed a purchase and sale agreement with the McDonald’s hamburger franchise. Wish I had known …’” 

That’s right: McDonald’s! Our waterfront was almost defiled by Ronald McDonald in a clown suit and the conquering symbol of the golden arches. A groundswell of opposition rose up from Islanders who fought to keep the Island franchise-free, and McDonald’s was put on the back foot.

Benjamin shared that “a barrage of lambasting letters appeared in the Sunday New York Times, signed by Vineyard legends such as Mia Farrow, Carly Simon, Art Buchwald, and William Styron.” 

The tables began to turn, and McDonald’s was forced into a rare retreat.

In 1979, the DeSorcy family, whose land abutted the Strock property, purchased the land to add to their waterfront holdings. The next year, Donald DeSorcy leased the prime slice of beachfront to Gannon & Benjamin. 

Benjamin remembers, “Within a few months, we had cobbled together a shipyard, and the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway was in business.” 

Now, 45 years later, Gannon & Benjamin have hand-built more than 85 new vessels, carried out dozens of restorations, created 102 hand-drawn designs, and developed a host of clients whom they call close friends. They added Brad Abbot as a partner, and they are all now part of an extended family on the waterfront that gathers most Friday nights, when the weather suits, for a harbor sail and a cookout on the beach with a cooler of cold beer. 

Benjamin put it this way: “It’s a waterfront community — a family where men and women of all ages may chase their dreams, find their space, and carry it on.”

Those words could serve as lines in an anthem for our Island, a place where we all hope to come together to chase dreams and to have the space to carry on beautiful traditions that celebrate who we are. The HarborWorks proposal, we believe, can be part of that honored tradition.

As Benjamin told our news editor, Sam Houghton, in writing about the newly proposed HarborWorks, “If a developer came in there, it would probably be another moped rental or restaurant. It would be a real slap in the face to our traditional, working waterfront, which is so unusual today. We need more of what we really value that represents this Island.”

We at The MV Times look forward to hearing input from the community about HarborWorks. We want to share your feedback and your ideas, so please visit us or write to us, or reach out online. We are fully aware it will take time and caution to navigate along the shoals of regulation and permitting. We will remain vigilant about the marked hazards as we seek to gain a consensus. And we are hopeful that this project and its ideas of reimagining our waterfront as a place for the public to gather will eventually find a graceful landing here in Vineyard Haven Harbor. 


Charles M. Sennott is the publisher of The MV Times, and this column is part of a series about the future of our weekly newspaper, and the ongoing process of sustaining and reimagining its role on the Island. 


  1. Wonderfull story by Charles about the opportunity for VH harbor. If anyone wants to see a close up look at Gannon and Benjamin in action I recommend finding the documentary film “Charlotte” by Vineyarder Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte. Watch a ship being built from concept to Journey.

  2. This is wonderful news! Thank you Steve and thank you Charlie. People have been trying to do something like this for a long time. Makers of the world unite!

  3. You asked for input, here you go.
    I believe we need an actuate definition of what a working water front is. I believe there is some zoning rules that talk about water dependent use. I see water dependent use as boat yards, barge terminals, fishing boat dockage, ferries and such. It is also a place watermen work – where fishermen load there traps and gear, where aquculture farmers load there gear, where mooring barges and dockbuilders load the materials they need to take care of the harbors infrastructure. Things of this nature are water dependent because they can be done no place else except where the land meets the sea.

    I am unclear how artists, production studios and news papers are water dependent.

    I like the Mystic seaport look I is quite a nice place to visit, but it is not a working waterfront it is a model of a 18th century working waterfront.

    Edgartown has a nice waterfront look- they did not however forget the watermen, both at the end of main street and at the reading room as well as north wharf the town has worked to make sure there is a place for the watermen to perform there marine related tasks.

    perhaps if your going to build a working waterfront dock it should be more assessable to the people who work the waterfront.

    question- will all this non profit land pay any taxes?

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