Some assembly required: Merle Bailey's backyard flotilla

Some people in Bay Creek refer to Merle Bailey as “the guy who builds boats.” He insists otherwise.

“I’m not a boat-builder,” he says. “I do and have built boats, but today anyone who could assemble a plastic car model or boat model can build a beautiful, durable wooden boat.”

In front of his house on Gilson Street, a trailer large enough to fit six boats rests on the side of the road. Merle often works on his boats in the yard and even sold some from there, although none of the ones he made himself.

His wife, Lauranne, remembers leaving the house one day and returning a couple hours later to find Merle hadn’t made much progress while she was gone. Instead, she found him talking to six different people who stopped by to see what he was up to.

“It becomes a conversation magnet,” Lauranne says. “And some people know him and some people don’t. They just stop and ask questions.”

It helps that Merle can spout boat trivia like a “walking encyclopedia.”

“Some guys might know all the batting averages of everybody that’s ever played baseball or something. They know all the statistics. He knows everything about boats,” Lauranne says.

Despite putting several wooden boats together, Merle still makes the distinction between himself and “real” boat-builders. “Real” builders are highly skilled woodworkers, shaping material into complex curved patterns (rather than flat edges) to get it to do what they want, he says. User-friendly kits make the process much easier now. 

Merle built his first boat in the ‘60s, but really started assembling them in the ‘90s, when Chesapeake Light Craft, a company that sells boat-building kits, took off. The kits cost anywhere from $500 for child-sized kayaks to over $3000 for sailboats with interior space for sleeping, according to the company’s website. Most cost around $1000.

Except for his first two boats, which Merle built with an experienced cabinet-maker, all of his projects have been from kits. They come with pre-cut plywood pieces that are “shaped exactly,” which the builder holds together with copper wire. He then glues all the joints with epoxy resin and coats the entire thing with several layers of the clear resin.

Many people go through this process “not because they want to paddle or row or sail as much as they want to create a beautiful wooden object,” Merle says.

He adds that some people never even use the boats they build.

“I’m the opposite of that,” he says. “I like to be on the water and using boats. Building them was simply a way to build a fleet that I could do that with.” 

“Fleet” is not an exaggeration: he currently owns roughly 18 boats, including inflatables, kayaks, catamarans (boats with two hulls), a trimaran (three hulls), and a 22-foot steel boat.

One of Merle's boats is prominently displayed in Lakeside Fibers, a local knitting storeOne of Merle's boats is prominently displayed in Lakeside Fibers, a local knitting storeLauranne used to call their backyard the “boat garden,” but now he only keeps eleven at home—a few alongside the driveway and in the shed, along with some inflatables in the basement. The rest are scattered around the county in friends’ barns.

“If I never know where they are, I’m okay with that,” Lauranne says with a laugh.

Merle learned how to row before riding a bicycle, a result of growing up on Chesapeake Bay. When he reached the age of 11 or 12, he upgraded to motorboats.

“I told people for years that I was into hot boats when my peers were into hot cars,” Merle says.

By his late teens, he shifted his interest to sailing and never returned to powerboats. Lauranne says this preference is something that makes Merle unique in a society that loves speed.

Merle likes to share his passion for being on the water with others, especially kids, which Lauranne says nudges them away from playing video games and toward enjoying the outdoors.

Merle loves spending time with his grandchildren, and going on camping and boating trips with Lauranne’s nieces and nephews. He credits these experiences with helping him realize he wanted to teach after retiring from a career in social work.

Sailing is not the only thing Merle teaches. He also teaches private music lessons, having taught himself several instruments over the years.

Between plucking the strings of a guitar, he made a hobby of buying hard-luck boats when he was younger. He would spend a year fixing one, use it for a year, and then sell it to buy another fixer-upper.

He’s now 67, retired, and still “rescues” boats from eBay to pass along to interested people.

But after waking up one morning in 2010 with a lump on the side of his neck, Merle had to set his hobby aside for a year. His doctor removed the cyst and found it contained cancer.

Radiation treatment proved taxing for Merle, and he got sick on the first day. Over the course of treatment, he lost 50 pounds (one-fifth of his weight), became very weak, and lost his sense of taste. It took six months to regain his normal strength, and about twice that to recover fully.

Merle’s struggle with cancer made him realize he needed to do what he loved.

“He’s really had to look at ‘what is important to me,’” Lauranne says. “And to him, it’s always been boats and music.”

Before the cyst, Merle was in the process of planning a ‘wooden boat club,’ a business where he would haul six boats around to different parts of Madison for club members to use at a fraction of the cost of owning one. 

Lauranne says many people showed interest in his idea, telling Merle they wanted to be a part of it whenever he got it running.

Cancer temporarily halted his plans. Now, he says he wants to focus more on his music, but will probably pursue the club again, this time with four boats.

“That year of being so sick just brought it home, that boy, you better spend your time doing what you really want to do. And you better get clear about what’s most important,” Merle says.