Messing About With Mac
Mac McCarthy’s shop was like a candy store. So many things to see – canoes, sailboats, rowing skulls, woodcarvings, model boats, saw dust, tools, and pictures. Then the signs, two of which everyone who visited the shop would remember. The one was attached to a saw, and said “In case of emergency, place fingers on ice and call 911.” The second, etched in one of his cabinets, said, “You are never too young to have a happy childhood.”
From the stories of our Dad as a child setting model airplanes on fire and throwing them out the window of his home, only to set their tree on fire, it didn’t sound like Mac had to wait too long for a good childhood.
Born on June 5, 1927, Mac grew up in Scarsdale, New York, and visited New York City where his dad worked, as well as the Adirondacks in the Summer. During his senior year of high school, he took a special program so he could graduate early and enlist in the Coast Guard. His teachers wished he had shown that same enthusiasm for schoolwork earlier. Mac entered the US Coast Guard in 1945, serving as an aerographer’s mate on the USS Charlotte, USS Dearborn and USS Milledgeville.
After the War, Mac when to college, but did not stay long. He started doing handyman carpentry work in addition to working the shipyards in New York City, and then saw a job notice for ship builders in Miami. So he loaded up and headed south to Florida. At a stretch of 41 south of Tampa he saw a sign that said “Beaches” and took a side trip for a swim in the gulf. He ended up at the Mermaid club, where he later met his first wife Lois, and never continued on to Miami. Fort Myers Beach became Mac’s new home. He worked on shrimp boats, sailing to the Dry Tortugas and the Gulf of Campeche where the shrimp were huge and plentiful.
Mac and Lois lived happily, and traveled for a while as Carnies, before settling down again on a small lot on Ft. Myers Beach. Mac ultimately gave up shrimping and went back into construction when he had his first son, Patrick. Mac would build many houses, hotels, offices, restaurants and even the family’s Catholic Church on the beach. Mac was an avid wood carver, and even had gallery showings on Sanibel Island and Ft. Myers Beach. Mac also started to mess about boats, building several sailing models that he would rig up and launch from the beach, never to see them again. He even built a canoe, and then set it ablaze in the canal when he had no use for it, just like the airplanes he burned when he was a kid.
In 1968, Mac and his family, now four boys: Patrick, John, Thomas and Michael, followed the construction jobs and moved to Sarasota. In the 1970s, Mac divorced Lois and, fortunately, met “Bill W.” and turned his life around. Marrying his second wife Alice, Mac also renewed his interest in boatbuilding. He began building canoes and other small boats using the cedar-strip method of construction. He handcrafted hundreds of canoes, sail boats, kayaks, and rowing shells under his “Feather Canoe” brand. He studied small boat design and developed several popular models such as the “Wee Lassie”, “Wee Lassie II” and the “Big Mac”. In 1996 his “how-to” book Featherweight Boatbuilding was published by WoodenBoat Books. The book inspired hundreds of people around the world to build a Wee Lassie Canoe and get out on the water. His expanding reputation for strip building led him to teach at the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine. This teaching later shifted to his canoe shop on North Washington Blvd. in Sarasota. Dozens of residents and visitors learned to build boats amidst freshly milled cedar, tools of all description, model ships in every phase of construction and large photographs of Mac’s favorite canoeing waters.
Mac’s boat shop became a favorite meeting place for people interested in simply “messing about in boats”. Even people who weren’t building boats would stop by to join in. The shop was a like a country club of sorts. It was a place to loose oneself in sanding, gluing, epoxying and sanding again. Some people came once and then were free to take adventures in their boat. Some caught the bug, and continued making boat after boat. While boats were built – friendships were formed. Mac’s newsletter, the “Wee Lassie” was mailed to small boat fans around the world.
“Are you Mac?” would be the common phrase at canoe gatherings at the Okefenokee Swamp as people who had only written or e-mailed him introduced themselves.
For Mac, it was his second childhood. He was doing what he loved. He’d share what he knew – unless you didn’t take his advice on epoxy and came back to ask how to fix the cloudy finish. And if you didn’t get the message that the conversation was over and it was time for him to get back to work, he would start up the saw or sander and stop it himself.
When Mac had to close his shop and go to a nursing home, he left years of sawdust and epoxy in the warehouses. But his boat building continued – this time with models that he researched online. Tugs, British frigates, and shallow water Florida sailing vessels – you needed to move them to find a seat when you visited. A dragon boat was his last model. He was working on carving the dragon head for the front of it when he bought a dragon online and cut off its head instead.
Mac had many friends, and enjoyed everyone who wrote and later e-mailed him. He looked forward to the gatherings at the swamp and the friends at his shop. He enjoyed seeing parents building boats with children. As a kid, he told us canoeing was never about going fast, it was about enjoying the trip. I am sure our dad did, and a great deal of his joy came from all of you, his canoeing and boat building family.
Feather Canoes is dedicated to preserving the heritage of Henry A. “Mac” McCarthy, and his passion for teaching others how to build their own Cedar Strip canoe.
We hope you enjoy exploring Mac’s website.