Mark Siino never met his grandfather, Angelo Siino, but he now spends his days running his hands over a boat his grandfather built. The General Pershing is a 60-foot fishing boat hand-built in the 1920s in Monterey by Angelo, with his brothers Gaetano and Francesco and their father, Erasmo, all Sicilian immigrants. Now, after moving from owner to owner for nearly a century, the boat has retired its fishing permits and come home – and back to the descendants of its original craftsmen.
Siino, along with a team of volunteers, has for years been restoring the boat to convert it into a floating environmental and marine science classroom. He created a nonprofit, Monterey Boat Heritage Inc., that he hopes will get kids out on the water starting in spring 2021.
In addition to creating a nonprofit learning venue, Siino is inhabiting his family’s history. Angelo died in 1956, the year Mark was born. Mark’s dad, Frank Siino, was a celebrated Monterey boatmaker who ran Monterey Bay Boatworks on Wave Street until 1970, but Mark never worked in the family business. Now, he’s restoring the General Pershing in the Frank Siino Boatyard, named after his father, at the Breakwater Cove in Monterey. (Frank also built the Liboria, a 22-foot felucca hanging in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.)
Like the other boats Angelo and family built, there was no blueprint for the General Pershing. The first owner of the boat, Neno DiMaggio, named it after John J. Pershing, the general who’d led him in World War I.
Mark Sinno’s brother, Andy, says the work has been a meaningful way to spend shelter-in-place. “There’s nothing more satisfying than completing a labor of love,” he says. “At this point, we feel really good about what we have.”
Weekly: When you first got the phone call, from a San Francisco attorney, telling you a retiring fisherman wanted to sell his fishing permits and give you the boat, what did you think?
Siino: She was born in Monterey, she’s got to go home to Monterey.
You are a home builder by trade, not a boat-builder. When you first got to work on the General Pershing, what surprised you?
When I first dropped a saw and opened it up, that quality of work – it’s a handcrafted boat – to me, that just means a lot. It brought tears to my eyes. And they did this without plans, just a rendering.
The craftsmanship that went into this – guys took this boat out in deep, nasty, heavy water, and it’s never sunk, to my knowledge.
What’s the restoration been like?
The whole stern was rotten, they hung iron plating all around the stern. It wasn’t easy. It’s probably a $200,000 retrofit, we’ve done it for $50,000 with volunteers over hundreds of hours.
We’ve brought it back to its former grace.
You grew up in what sounds like the last ship-building family in Monterey, with your dad’s shipyard closing down in 1970. What was that like?
My brother and I were raised in Carmel Valley, on a ranch with horses. Our parents split, and we had the benefit of both worlds, with our mom on the ranch and with our dad on boats. I feel very fortunate.
You did eventually go on to have a career working with your hands, but not on boats. Did you consider following in your dad’s business?
He was probably the last Sicilian boat builder on the West Coast, and one of the best known. I was working as a carpenter and making $20/hour. He said I could come work for him for $12/hour. It just killed me, but I had a wife and a new baby.
Now you’re moving on to lead an education nonprofit. Where does the vision come from?
The General Pershing has done its job harvesting fish. I want to turn it into a teaching platform for kids. I just believe we need to leave something for you guys, the next generations. We really need to speed things up [in our response to the climate crisis]. We’ve lost so much time.
This boat’s killed enough fish. Now it’s time to be a teacher.