James Casey was a remarkable man. He was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1924, grew up in the Great Depression, attended Rhode Island School of Design, and, with the arrival of World War II, enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Italy. In January 1942, then Private Casey saw action in the Battle of Rapido River in an ill-fated effort to secure Rome. American losses were 2,100 troops either wounded, killed, or captured. In January 1944, in another attempt by American forces to reach Rome, Casey took part in the Battle of Monte Cassino, a victory for Allied forces that came at the cost of 55,000 casualties; Casey was among them, having been hit in his right foot by German rifle and machine-gun fire. Four months later, in the Battle of Anzio, he took a German machine-gun round in his left leg. By the end of the war in Europe, Casey had been raised to the rank of Sergeant, and for his service in Company F, 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, he was awarded six Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for bravery. Following the war, he spent two peaceful years as a Trappist monk.
James Casey married Audrey Barton in the 1950s, and the couple raised a family of 10 children. He worked as a calligrapher and stone carver at the John Stevens Shop, a company in Newport that has been doing inscriptions in stone since 1705. Some of Casey’s carving is on the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington Cemetery, at Rockefeller Center in New York and the Prudential Center in Boston.
In addition to being a master craftsman and artisan, he had a lifelong interest in boats. One of Casey’s four sons, Martin, took to boats too. He had been, by his own account, “a rebellious, tormenting teenager who challenged his father frequently,” an uncomfortable match for a father who was a strict disciplinarian. Even as he grew into adulthood, Martin found it difficult to connect with his father, but when he became a father himself he was able to leave the discomforts of the past behind and develop a greater appreciation for his father and compassion for the unseen scars he bore from his experience during the war.
Martin had taken to building wooden surfboards while his father was in his 80s and thought building another board would be a way to connect with him through their common interest in boats and woodworking. James replied to the offer with “No, I don’t know anything about it,” an answer Martin was prepared for. He made other overtures for experiences they could share, without success, until he suggested visiting Newport’s International Yacht Restoration School, where the 131’ schooner-yacht CORONET, built in 1885, was being restored. The day went well, and provided an opening between father and son. A few weeks later, the elder Casey accepted Martin’s offer to join in building a new surfboard. While his spirit was willing, his health was failing and he was hospitalized. He passed away in June 2017 at the age of 92.
Martin had been considering building a wooden boat for camp-cruising in his retirement and settled on Iain Oughtred’s Caledonia Yawl, a boat that appealed to him as both beautiful and practical, and a design of which his father, who loved small double-ended oar-and-sail boats, would have appreciated. James had purchased an Old Town double-ended rowing boat in 1958 and in the ’80s had built a cold-molded Wee Lassie canoe with Martin’s younger brother.
In March 2018, eight months after Martin’s father died, Audrey became ill and was hospitalized for what was expected to be a short stay. During that time, Martin ordered the Caledonia plans and got his workshop ready for the build. He started with the small parts: thwarts, laminated stems, spars, centerboard and trunk. Audrey was pleased to know her son was happily occupied with a complex and engaging project, but sadly, she didn’t live to see the boat finished. Before the month’s end, she passed away, as had her husband, at the age of 92.
Martin continued with the Caledonia Yawl, and as the work progressed, he gathered resources on boatbuilding to help him through his first experience with lapstrake construction. He discovered that Oughtred had written Clinker Plywood Boatbuilding Manual and was poised to buy a copy.
While settling their parents’ estate, Martin and his brothers cleared out their father’s shop, sorting through tools and materials accumulated over six decades for working on his boat, carving wood and stone, doing calligraphy, making paper, and casting concrete. Among the books James had collected, Martin found a copy of Clinker Plywood Boatbuilding Manual. It was confirmation that his father would have approved of the Caledonia Yawl.
Martin added his father’s tools—planes, chisels, clamps, files, rasps, and handsaws—to his own in his small shop. He also inherited several sharpening stones and leather strops; his father always kept a keen edge on all of his edge tools. Whenever Martin used those tools he thought of his father and often felt he was fulfilling his father’s dream. Bits of wood from James’s shop were incorporated into the yawl: cherry for the mizzen thwart, black walnut for the tiller, and a salvaged maststep from the Old Town for the Caledonia’s mizzen maststep.
On August 1, 2019, with most of his siblings and his two grandsons present, Martin launched his Caledonia Yawl and christened it AUDREY/JAMES in honor of his parents. She sails the waters of Newport as a link between generations.
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