Mackinac Island boat builder
By Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki
Photography by Jennifer L. Wohletz

For some, the best path is the one less traveled. And Roman Emory Barnwell — Emory to friends — knows that well. He’s a master wood boat builder on Mackinac Island.

Barnwell has a degree in forestry from the University of Montana. He later earned a degree with distinction from the International Boatbuilding Training College in Lowestoft, England, which teaches traditional boatbuilding and joinery courses, as well as woodworking skills and maritime crafts.

For the past 10 years, Barnwell has been building boats the traditional way.

“Working with wood is wonderful,” Barnwell said. “It’s a natural material, it’s durable and it’s proven. Anybody that’s seen a varnished deck — it’s timeless.”

Barnwell Boatworks is housed in the old coal dock warehouse on Mackinac Island. His family has lived on the island for three generations. His 90-year-old grandmother owns and still runs the Hotel Iroquois.

“I grew up in Harbor Springs, on the water, always on the water. I was also an art student and loved wood classes,” Barnwell said. “(Boat building) is just a combination of all my interests.”


Barnwell can design, construct or restore almost any type of wooden boat. His favorite so far is a 16-foot runabout call Sea Sea, a speedboat with classic lines. His biggest project was restoring the 32-foot racing sloop Bernida, the sailboat that won the inaugural Bayview Mackinac race in 1925. Bernida is now on display at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven.

Robert Brown of St. Ignace was an early Barnwell Boatworks customer.

“He designed and built a couple of these Whitehall-type rowing boats, which I always loved and thought I would enjoy rowing in the Les Cheneaux Islands, where I have a cottage,” Brown said. “It rows beautifully. He is as good as any shipwright I've seen and doesn't take years to build them.”

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