Charlie Dana—yachtsman, shipyard owner and family man—reflects on his life around boats.
Photos Dana Jinkins
Sporting a preppy pink button-down shirt and khakis, Charlie Dana zips into Newport Shipyard on his signature scooter. His distinguished silver hair blows back revealing a high patrician forehead, a devilish twinkle in his eyes and a bemused smile. He gives a friendly wave to various and sundry and stops to chat with a few individuals vying for his attention. Dana is the president and, along with his family, majority shareholder in this vibrant shipyard abuzz with welders, varnishers, crew, owners and folks eating at Belle’s Café. A gregarious man, Dana is the veritable “Mr. Newport,” and this weekend he is exceptionally “on” as he is hosting the annual Newport Bucket regatta.
With residences in Newport, Charleston and Nassau, Dana is never far from the sea, which suits him just fine. He is passionate about boats. He is also quite keen on business. The third in a line of successful and philanthropic Charles A. Danas (i.e. Dana Foundation in New York and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston), he sits on a number of boards and foundations and has carved out his own path in life, distinct from his father and grandfather.
Resuscitating Newport Shipyard and being the man with the clipboard for the New York Yacht Club’s Harbour Court are two prominent projects he spearheaded. He describes them as “luminous bookends to Newport Harbor.” Neither was easy.
“Can you imagine getting permits to transform Nicholas Brown’s out-of-code house into a waterfront facility?” he says. “It took 32 permits for things like bedrooms, sprinkler systems, a liquor license, a dock, zoning designations—even a permit to sell milk.”
Then, a decade after Harbour Court became a clubhouse, he managed to adorn it with the original 1845 New York Yacht Club gingerbread Gothic clubhouse, known as Station 10. Originally constructed on the Stevens estate in Hoboken, New Jersey (now the site of Stevens Institute of Technology), it was the actual building in which the club’s first commodore, John Cox Stevens, assembled a group to launch the effort that resulted in the race around the Isle of Wight for the trophy that became known as the America’s Cup. The clubhouse was later loaned to Mystic Seaport, where it stayed for 50 years. Even glossing over the politics, it was a feat to move it to Newport. It was transported by barge.
Dana has enjoyed various roles at the New York Yacht Club: fleet captain, rear and vice commodore. Then, in 2001 to 2002, he served as commodore. Dana’s track record attests to his ability to get through red tape to make things happen. Not only is he a businessman, but he has also managed to weave his avocation—yachting—into his professional life.
Growing up in the landlocked part of New Jersey, he spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard. As a grade-schooler, he built an eight-foot pram in his barn from a kit. He raised chickens and sold eggs, adding to the pot to buy an outboard motor. Tooling around in it in Edgartown Harbor, he fostered a particular fascination for Prettimarie, a 41-foot Concordia yawl that completely captured his heart. He yearned to have the boat.
He went west as a young man and, post-college, he worked in Denver for a project-oriented company to which he attributes any business acumen that may have rubbed off on him. However, he returned to the East Coast in his late twenties, propelled by his love of boats. Such was his desire to own a boat, he bought a 56-foot Ted Hood yawl, the former Northern Light, on credit—unheard of in those days.
A couple of years later, he married Rose (Posy) Cutler and they raised their children—Milo, Eli, Isabella and Nick—on a working farm near Newport. They sold their beloved yawl when the kids were small and built a kid-friendly, 65-foot Hunt powerboat. Then, his childhood dream became a reality.
“I heard Prettimarie was on the market,” he says. “I bought it within hours, and that night at dinner told my family. Posy said, ‘Charlie, we already have a boat. Usually we discuss these things.’”
“The idea that our kids might fall in love with the same first boat I had comes from so deep within me that there’s really nothing to discuss,” he said to her.
Dana’s passion for boats is palpable. Since he is a self-professed do-it-yourselfer, he eventually scaled back to one boat. As the kids grew up, the family acquired a 71-foot ketch called Saint Roque. They’ve sailed her for 19 years to and from the Bahamas. In 2001, they transported her to England for the America’s Cub Jubilee.
Boats practically define Dana’s family. At the shipyard, there is a 36-foot Beals Island lobster boat belonging to Dana’s son Nick and built by Posy’s grandfather that has been in their family 38 years.
“Nick is the sailing star in the family with a Volvo race under his belt,” Dana says.
His daughter, Isabella, the namesake of Belle’s Café and the one who manages the retail operation at the shipyard, and her husband, Andy, have a 1955 Rhodes yawl. Son Eli works side by side with his father and has been a real backbone for the business, ensuring it will continue in the family. Dana is obviously proud of his family.
“Eli was deservedly named general manager,” he says. “I am very lucky to be in a situation where I am working with my wife, kids and grandchildren on a daily basis.”
He also feels lucky to love what he is doing. Dana thrives on having a mission. Newport Shipyard, similar to his efforts with Harbour Court, became his raison d’être. Prior to his arrival, the city’s oldest shipyard had gone bankrupt, didn’t have a yacht in it and was up for auction. There was a strong possibility the property was going to be turned into timeshares. Dana got together with a few friends to purchase the property in order to renovate it and preserve it as a waterfront business. They rebuilt everything. This year they added a 500-ton Travelift—the biggest in New England. Simultaneously, the shipyard acquired several houses nearby as places for crew to stay when their boats are being worked on.
“We try and build relationships with the community in addition to our customers,” Dana says. “We have no electric gate. We pride ourselves in being an integral part of Newport.”
Charlie Dana has a lot of “good time Charlie” in him. He is as comfortable having a Dark ’n’ Stormy at Harbour Court as he is having a beer with the guys, or a glass of Champagne at one of the number of fundraisers he attends. He is a man who loves life and the culture that keeps all of us dedicated to all things nautical.