He was a farmer turned master boat builder

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Gordon "Swifty" Swift '45

At the Thompson School of Applied Science, Gordon "Swifty" Swift milked the campus cows and herded sheep down Main Street with Rex, a border collie. After graduation, he lived above the stallion barn with his wife, Doris Pierce Swift '47. "It was very noisy," recalls Doris. "The horses were always kicking, and when they broke loose Gordon would have to round them up."

A childhood accident left Swift with a shattered leg that never healed properly. Ineligible for military service, he was one of the few men at UNH during the war years. While the two were dating, an image of Doris and Swifty riding his bicycle around campus appeared in a national women's magazine with the caption, "Doris Pierce has accomplished the almost impossible these days and gotten a man, Gordon Swift, all to herself."

After they married, Swift bought a sailboat. On the couple's first sail in Great Bay, the rudder fell off. Swift jumped in after it, and Doris clung to the mast as the boat drifted away. He managed to save both bride and boat, "but he admitted at that point that he could use some sailing lessons," says his wife.

Despite this inauspicious introduction, after years of farming, Swift decided to learn boat building at McIntosh Boat Yard in Dover, N.H. He opened Swift Custom Boats in nearby Kensington in 1976 and built custom yachts for 30 years. Doris says his philosophy was that boats should not be just for the wealthy and anyone willing to help build their own boat should have one.

John Noon is among those who remember Swift's generosity and energy. "I didn't know him when I walked in," he says of their first meeting, "and I walked out with a handful of tools. And I quickly learned that although Swifty was 30 years older than me, he could work me into the ground."

For many summers, Swift passed on traditional boat-building skills at the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine, where the Friendship sloop Belford Gray, which he built with his students, is still used in the seamanship program.

Swift died on February 26. His boat-building days had ended a few years earlier when a blood clot resulted in the amputation of his "good" leg. But he continued to enjoy boating, piloting a motor launch he had adapted years earlier for his two physically disabled grandsons, says his daughter, Laurie McIntosh '02G. "Little did he realize back when he was renovating the boat for my sons, that he was also renovating it for himself."

Originally published by:

UNH Magazine, Spring 2014 Issue