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Refitting yachts, rebuilding a community: Charlie Dana and the Newport Shipyard story

New-Build Refit Business Ownership
Written by
Gemma Fottles

When Charlie Dana’s wife rang in the middle of the night on a sailing trip to let him know that the last remaining shipyard in Newport was going to be put up for auction, Dana just couldn’t stop thinking about it. The yard’s fourth bankruptcy had obviously taken its toll, and though it would mean throwing away almost four centuries of Newport history, it was time to say goodbye and turn the once-booming yard into something a bit more modern… like condos. Or timeshares. This idea appalled the long-time sailor and former Commodore of the New York Yacht Club. And so he decided to do something about it. 

Charlie Dana at Newport Shipyard

Originally purchasing the yard with three other partners 20 years ago, Dana has since transformed the once-failing shipyard into one of the most successful yards in New England and, buying out his previous partners, now runs the business as a family operation. With a history in sailing, Dana proudly told me that today, Newport Shipyard welcomes the vast majority of the sailing superyachts in the area, and a fair portion of the motor yachts and smaller boats, too. But that’s not the ultimate aim. Newport Shipyard is about securing the future of a community, celebrating the maritime history of the area, and creating an establishment where everyone feels not just good to be there, but great. 

Recently turning 70 and with a new 28.65-metre all-aluminium motor yacht on the way from New England Boatworks, here, Charlie tells us the Newport Shipyard story. 

Rendering of the 28m Contraband

You’ve been sailing with your wife for over 40 years now. Did you always have a connection with yachting?

No, my family weren’t into yachting at all! My mother rented a small house every summer in Martha’s Vineyard, and I would look out at the water and wonder why every single person didn’t want to be there. I actually have a very famous ancestor who wrote the book ‘Two Years Before the Mast’ - Richard Henry Dana Jr. He was from a good Boston family, Harvard-educated, and became an advocate for the common seaman because he had the ability to describe their lives at sea. But aside from that, no family connection! My wife and I both love it though. We built our former sailing yacht, the 71’ Saint Roque over 20 years ago and have sailed all over the world, and our youngest son is currently part of the Volvo Ocean Race.

Tell me what attracts you to the Newport area.

I went to college at the University of Denver, so I was away from the water for some time. What got me up to Newport was Ted Turner and the 1977 America’s Cup - the race where Courageous defended the Cup. I went up there as part of the organisation of the defence of the America’s Cup and I really never left after that! We raised our kids in Newport and we’ve been there for 41 years. 

The yard went bankrupt four times before you purchased it. What made you take the plunge?

You have to look at photos of it because any description will never make it sound as bad as it was. We launched a new concept when we took over… we opened up a great café, we created a warm, welcoming atmosphere where people can watch the work being done on boats, and mix with crew and people working in the yard. I’ve always noticed that people love to see work going on, and it’s a great yachting vibe which has proven really successful. It’s really the yard that changed Newport.  Historic photo of Newport Shipyard before refit Newport Shipyard before the transformation (above) - Newport Shipyard today (below)
Newport Shipyard during the Candy Store Cup Photo: Stephen R Cloutier / Newport Shipyard
You’ve owned the shipyard now for 20 years, and now run the business with your family and three minority shareholders. Tell us about that progression.

The first five years were very rough. We had to really build it as we went. I had great partners, but I was the biggest believer in the yard, so I started to buy out the other guys. I got into a majority position and I took in additional partners that are still in today. 

The yard also owns 11 houses in Newport, which you rent out to crew. How did that come about?

My son, Eli, is the General Manager, and he was about to be a father for the first time six years ago. He wanted his family to live across the street, close to the yard. So he brought me to look at a blue-collar type of house. I told him that I thought it’s great and… maybe we want to buy more of them? Here we are six years later with 11 houses. It’s a good move for the yard and it also puts us into the neighbourhood, which is one of the oldest in Newport. We love the neighbourhood and they love us. They put out a newsletter every quarter, and they often write nice articles about the yard. 

Apart from the obvious economic benefit of a thriving Newport Shipyard, how else do you connect with the community?

Anyone can walk into the shipyard. We have security but we don’t have a gate… so if you want to come in and go to our café or just go and take a look at the boats, you can. A lot of people in the community love that. When you arrive at most boat yards, you go in through big gates and they tell you everything that you cannot do. Of course, you have to have rules, but we’re trying to say yes in every way we can.

Can you tell me a bit about the 28m Contraband you have in build at New England Boatworks?

She’s progressing really well. We’re at the same yard where we built Saint Roque. We never had any crew on her, and my wife and I have done a lot of it on our own - sometimes we’d go from Newport all the way to the Bahamas. The reason we’ve gone to a powerboat now is that we’re very independent people, and we’re getting older… This boat is set up for the two of us to handle, and we have the option to have three crew as we get older. It has a long range capacity; she’ll cruise at 13 knots and she’s got tugboat-like engines, continuous duty Mitsubishis. She will be able to cross the Atlantic and she’s pretty rough and rugged. It’s our new adventure and to be honest with you, it’s still the idea of living on the water that appeals to me most. 

Will you cruise with your family onboard?

Absolutely, our kids grew up on boats and they’ve all taken to it. We have eight grandchildren. My daughter told me that she hopes that Contraband will be for the grandchildren what Saint Roque was to her and her brothers when they were growing up, which is fantastic.

Charlie Dana and Eli Dana with family in Newport

Do you have an exit plan? 

I love this business and I am very confident in the management of my son, so I don’t have an exit plan, but I don’t put in quite the hours that I once did. Eli isn’t trying to push me out of the door, and we get along incredibly well. I’m letting the next generation run things, and Eli is doing a great job. When he came in 14 years ago as dock master, he doubled the bottom line in dockage in just one year. He deserves a tremendous amount of the credit for the yard doing so well. Not only am I lucky, but Newport is lucky.
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Did you know that in 2017....

  • 180 new yachts over 30 metres were sold
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  • 443 yachts over 30 metres were under construction
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