Flyer’s Boat Rental | Flyer’s Boat Shop.

Yes, Flyer’s will rent you a 24-foot Bentley pontoon boat that seats 12, or a 19-foot Grady-White Tournament speedboat with a 115-horsepower engine, or a 16-foot skiff, or a 10-foot Sailfish, or an Ocean kayak, or a paddle board, or — if you’re a highly experienced sailor — a Rhodes 19 sloop.

But it also offers transient, seasonal, and private moorings in the harbor; a summertime shuttle from MacMillan Wharf to Long Point every half hour; sunset cruises; sailing lessons for the beginner and refresher courses for the rusty; boat and engine repairs; cleaning and detailing; hauling and launching; winterizing and de-winterizing; and dry storage for most boats up to 28 feet. Oh, and did I mention the marine supply store? And the four-bedroom apartment? And the marine railway, one of only two remaining on the Provincetown waterfront? (The other is next door, at Taves Boatyard, 129R Commercial Street.)

Left: Francis A. “Flyer” Santos, in a 1988 portrait by Salvatore Del Deo that is in the Town Art Collection. Image from the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 1443. Right: Francis John Santos, in a 2010 photo by David W. Dunlap.

Flyer’s, in short, is pretty much the complete boatyard. And a bit more. “Flyer,” as anyone in town will tell you, was the boatbuilder Francis A. Santos (1914-2015). Casual visitors know Santos as the creator of the magnificent Rose Dorothea model that fills the Provincetown Public Library like a ship in a bottle. Residents and neighbors remember him as a man who perpetuated the town’s seagoing ways through the declining age of fishing and well into the age of recreational boating, with a special focus on ensuring — through the West End Racing Club at 83 Commercial Street — that youngsters learned how to sail and knew how to swim.

Why “Flyer”? I asked him in 2010. “That’s the best story in the history of Provincetown,” he allowed.

“When I was a boy — my right name is Francis A. Santos, I’m of the third generation of people, Portuguese — they called me the Flying Machine. Nobody had ever seen me sit down. You know how you people sit down for coffee and everything? No one ever saw me sitting down. I was swimming in the water like a fish or doing something. My biggest hobby was going in the woods — you couldn’t do it today — and you had a big long stick; three inches at the bottom, two on the top, 20 feet high. And I used to jump over fences. So that’s what they called me: Flying Machine.”

Aerial view of Flyer’s Boat Shop and Boat Rental, taken in 2010 by David W. Dunlap.

Before World War II, Santos learned the art and craft of boatbuilding from Manuel “Ti Manuel” Furtado (1879-1945) at Furtado’s Boatyard, 99-101 Commercial Street. He also ran a restaurant called Flyer’s Square Deal, at 99-101 Commercial Street, where Sal’s Place is now. Santos remembered Bette Davis among his customers. With the coming of war, he took his talents to the boatyard of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol, R.I., working on the 71-foot motor torpedo boats made there for the Royal Navy and the Soviet Navy.¹ At war’s end, Herreshoff closed down and laid off its workers.

By then, Santos was back in town. In early 1945, he constructed a 32-foot trawler, Dolores, for Capt. Manuel Lema in a small boatyard at 103 Commercial Street, called Flyer’s Beach. It was directly opposite the stately home at 94 Commercial Street that he shared with his wife, Blanche Irene (Maille) Santos (1914-1999), whom he had married in 1940. Dolores was 8½ feet abeam, drew 3½ feet, and had a 40-horsepower motor. The Advocate reported that Dolores was the first trawler to have been built in Provincetown since the beginning of the Great Depression, and Captain Lema reported that Capt. Emanuel F. Gracie remarked that she was “the prettiest little fishing boat of its kind ever to be launched at Provincetown.”²

Harvey Dodd painted Flyer’s Boat Shop, Taves Boatyard, and the Cape Cod Cold Storage pier. The painting is in the collection of Francis John Santos.

Santos also built a 26-foot and a 42-foot boat at 103 Commercial. But he was reaching the limits of what he could do there. It might take a full day to haul a boat up at his makeshift operation; a boat that could be hauled up on a marine railway in 45 minutes. There was no prospect of constructing a railway at 103 Commercial because the owner would not sell it to Santos. He offered only a 10-year lease.

Meanwhile, the waterfront was littered with the monumental carcasses of the defunct cold storage freezers. Frank Rowe, the local manager of the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Company, offered the site of the Colonial Cold Storage freezer, 229 Commercial; the Consolidated freezer (now the Ice House condominium), 501 Commercial; then the Cape Cod freezer, at 125 Commercial Street. Santos wanted none of them, usually because there wasn’t room for a marine railway. Instead of giving up, however Rowe finally struck a handshake deal with Santos for the Puritan freezer site, 133 (now 131A) Commercial Street, which Atlantic Coast had purchased in 1929. The freezer had been burned to the ground by arsonist in 1927, during Prohibition. According to Santos, the arsonists were working in league with rumrunners. Fires were routinely set in the West End to divert the authorities from Beach Point, around the Days Cottages, where hundreds of bottles of bootlegged liquor were landed.

Left: Ad in the 21 July 1960 issue of The Provincetown Advocate. Note that the night phone number — 898 — is the basis of the number that Flyer’s still uses, with an exchange and area code added: 508-487-0898. Right: From the 19 August 1986 issue of Provincetown Magazine, in the Municipal Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 6121.

Left: Ad in the Provincetown Pocket Book of 2000-2001. Right: Ad in the 2010 Provincetown Visitor’s Guide, with delightful artwork by John Andert.

The deed to the Puritan property, which included a wharf, was signed in November 1951. No matter the onset of winter, Santos had to start working on his marine railway. There was no way he could afford to let the property sit unused. But first, he had to clear the wreckage of the freezer. “I worked 16 hours a day,” he told me. Then came construction of the railway itself — a formidable task. The tracks were salvaged. They had been abandoned by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. Each section of track, Santos told me, was 30 feet long and weighed 1,500 pounds. “New Haven tracks,” he said with satisfaction. “They’ll last forever.”

Work would typically be done between the hours of 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., when the tide was low. This attracted the disapproving attention of Clara (Cabral) Cook (1900-1988), the proprietor of Cookie’s Tap, 133 Commercial Street, which she and her husband, Frank “Friday” Cook (1898-1946) had established in 1927. “Your men are going to catch pneumonia,” she reprimanded Santos. “If those men only had a place to put their clothes to dry.” Turning word into deed, Cook offered Santos the garage behind her restaurant as a locker room and tool shed.

Winter boat storage is one of Flyer’s many services. The wrapped-up boats become sculptural objects in their own right. David W. Dunlap (2011).

Pontoons in the left foreground, and Ocean kayaks on the rack. David W. Dunlap (2011).

Boat ghosts. David W. Dunlap (2012).

Things look a little less abstract when the plastic comes off. Photos taken in 2009 and 2018 by David W. Dunlap.

Then there’s this. David W. Dunlap (2012).

By January 1952, two months after the deed was signed, Santos had his railway, as The Advocate noted approvingly:

“New construction, most important to our fishing industry, though, and potentially for our pleasure boat trade, if we ever get around to encouraging it, is the completion by Francis ‘Flyer’ Santos of a new marine railway with dual cradles, capable of handling 200 tons, in the rear of Cookie’s Tap on the Commercial Street shore. With two cradles, one being kept open, ‘Flyer’ will be able to handle emergency work without delay. He plans to move his whole boatyard setup, eventually, to the railway site and to equip himself to handle anything in boat building and repair.”³

To reciprocate for Cook’s neighborliness, Santos had a member of his work crew renovate the garage so that Cook might rent it out to transients, and earn extra income. When she learned that the man had performed about $400 worth of work (let’s say about $3,800 today), Cook told Santos she wanted to repay him. “But Clara, you’ve done so much for me,” he said. Nevertheless, she persisted. Cook wrote out a check for $400 and presented it to Santos, who tore it into four pieces. Word of that soon got around town: the man who rescued Queen Mary from the West End Breakwater (see 103 Commercial) would also simply tear up a big check for work he’d done.

Left: In January 1962, Margaret Rose of Gloucester went aground near Wood End Light. Right: Flyer Santos salvaged her, purchased her, and re-outfitted her as Flyer I. Both photographs are from the collection of Francis John Santos.

The three-story Main Building at the yard was constructed in 1955. That was the year Silver Mink, Capt. Manuel Phillips, was christened and launched here, after Flyer’s outfitted the boat, which had come from Florida. At 70 feet, Silver Mink was the longest in the Provincetown fleet, The Advocate said.⁴ The next year, the abandoned Nathan Freeman Wharf was deliberately razed, as it had become too hazardous. Santos added a second, and much longer, marine railway, in 1959. This one stretched at least 300 feet into Provincetown Harbor.

In January 1962, Santos undertook one of his larger salvage operations. Margaret Rose, a 70-foot dragger out of Gloucester, had gone aground near Wood End Light. Her insurers reached out to Flyer’s Boat Shop. “‘Flyer’ said he plans to use bulldozers to try and dig around the vessel, which is high and dry at low tide, to see the condition of the keel and extent of the damage, if any,” The Advocate reported.⁵ Santos wound up purchasing the boat and undertaking extensive repairs, including the installation of thousands of dollars of new electronics in the pilot house. She was on the ways until May, when she was relaunched as Flyer I, skippered by Capt. Ralph Andrews, who would perish in 1978 when Cap’n Bill sank off Highland Light.⁶

Don Aikens created a three-dimensional diorama and mural of Flyer’s boatyard for a seating area at the Provincetown Inn. David W. Dunlap (2009).

Left: Old Pro, a 31-foot wooden sportfisherman, was built by Francis John Santos and Donald Thibeault, in the early 1980s. David W. Dunlap (2008). Right: The boat’s name honors Flyer Santos. Photo in the collection of Francis John Santos.

Old Pro on the rails at Flyer’s in 2010. David W. Dunlap.

Flyer’s Boat Shop won the particularly Provincetown honor of being included among the murals painted by Don Aikens at the Provincetown Inn, 1 Commercial Street, beginning in 1966. Almost more of a diorama than a mural (recalling the Dory Bar at the Flagship and presaging somewhat the Rose Dorothea model), the boatyard scene takes up two wells of a seating area, floor to ceiling. In the center of the main wall, half a hull of a small sailboat projects into the room, complete with a physical mast, rigging, and boom.

Francis John “Grassy” Santos, one of Flyer’s sons, took over the family business in 1978, upon the retirement of his father, who was approaching his 75th birthday. Francis John purchased the boat rental business — which was still being run at 103 Commercial Street — from his brother Arthur Joe Santos in 1983. The business was subsequently moved here. Flyer’s began offering moorings in the 1980s and added the Long Point shuttle in 1987. It purchased Doc’s Marine Service 1983 and opened a facility in North Truro for boat sales and storage in 1985.

The older and shorter marine railway was removed in the late 1990s to make way for a new concrete dock.

The last vessel constructed at Flyer’s Boat Shop was a 31-foot wooden sportfisherman, 11 feet abeam, with a 3-foot draft. Francis John Santos and Donald Thibeault laid the keel in the winter of 1981-1982. She was completed and launched in 1983, with a name that could refer to no one else but Flyer: Old Pro.

Flyer’s Long Point shuttle in 2008. David W. Dunlap.

Noah Santos, one of Flyer’s grandsons, joined the business and worked with his father on a major expansion of the concrete dock, which was completed in 2007. Noah also runs TowBoatUS in Provincetown, Bass River, and Chatham, which has participated in numerous rescues, aiding the Coast Guard.

Among the most meaningful jobs handled at Flyer’s in recent years was the restoration and rebuilding from 2014 to 2016 of the 25-foot sailboat Ranger — originally Omar when it was designed and constructed in the early 20th century by C. C. Hanley in Monument Beach. Francis John worked on the project himself, along with Omar Smellie, from Jamaica. The replaced all of the ribs and many of the planks, and installed all-stainless-steel fasteners.⁷

As young men, Flyer and Joseph Andrews had purchased the sailboat together in 1939, for $19 (about $325 today), and rebuilt it. They changed the old gaff rig (four-cornered mainsail) to a Marconi rig (triangular mainsail). Ranger raced competitively in the 1940s and 1950s, but was capsized at her mooring and badly damaged by Hurricane Carol in 1954. Santos’s hands were full in the wake of the storm, since much of his rental fleet was destroyed or damaged, so Andrews assumed sole ownership of Ranger on nothing but a handshake. He rebuilt her in 1960. Santos built his own version of Ranger, called Columbia, which was one foot longer and had a much taller jib (the sail in front of the mast). The two boats competed. “I think we won more than we lost,” Andrews told me with a smile in 2018.

Ranger, more than a century old, and seen here in the 1990s with her owner, Joseph Andrews, at the tiller, was restored in the 2010s by Francis John Santos and Omar Smellie. Photo from the collection of Deb (Andrews) McGonnell.

Andrews reluctantly took her out of the water in 2000 and kept her under wraps behind his home at 28 Conant Street. “It makes me feel good to look at her,” he told me in 2010. Though his legs were too weak to allow him even a brief return to Ranger after her recent reconstruction, Andrews waxed lovingly in 2018:

“The Ranger used to respond to everything I ever did to it. If I turned the rudder left, she’d go to the right, where I wanted to go. If I came up in the wind, I could put her in the lay and let her lay there, and go do something on the boat and she’d just hang there. I could do everything I wanted with that boat. And she still does today.”

In 2017, Flyer’s applied for a permit that would allow a major expansion of operations. Under the plan, the concrete dock would be lengthened to 216 feet and widened to 52 feet. An eight-food-wide pier would extend alongside the dock and out 617 feet into the harbor, rivaling the nearby Coast Guard Pier in length.

Flyer’s website, flyersboats.com, as it appeared in early 2019.

¶ Last updated on 16 January 2019.

131A Commercial Street on the Town Map.

Also at 131A Commercial Street:

Flyer’s main building.

Flyer’s boat rental shed.

Flyer’s marine railway.

Flyer’s dock.

Flyer’s pier (Proposed).

Puritan Fish Freezing Company cold storage plant.

Puritan Cold Storage Pier.

Thumbnail image: Francis A. “Flyer” Santos, in a 1988 portrait by Salvatore Del Deo that is in the Town Art Collection. Image from the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 1443

For further reading online

• Clara (Cabral) Cook

Find a Grave Memorial No. 91341793.

• Francis A. “Flyer” Santos

Find a Grave Memorial No. 106905618.

• Flyer’s Boat Rental

Flyer’s Boat Rental website.

• 2017 pier proposal

“Application by F. J. Santos Living Trust, 131A Commercial Street, Purpose: To license and maintain a proposed wharf, pier ramp and float system in Provincetown Harbor, Barnstable County, Ma.,” 1 August 2017, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, File Number NAE-2017-1193.

• TowBoatUS

TowBoatUs Provincetown web page.

• West End Racing Club

West End Racing Children’s Community Sailing website.

¹ “Vosper Torpedo Boat,” Herreshoff Catalogue Raisonné, Herreshoff.info, Model No. 3019.

² “‘Dolores’ Launched at West End Yard; Crowd Watches Ceremonial of Blessing and Christening Craft,” The Provincetown Advocate, 26 July 1945.

³ “To Fellows and Friends Afar and Abroad,” The Provincetown Advocate, 24 January 1952.

⁴ “To Fellows and Friends Afar and Abroad,” The Provincetown Advocate, 27 January 1955.

⁵ “To Fellows and Friends Afar and Abroad, The Provincetown Advocate, 18 January 1962.

⁶ “Draggers Return to Fishing,” The Provincetown Advocate, 10 May 1962.

⁷ “New Life for a Treasured Wooden Sailboat in Provincetown,” by Peter J. Brown, The Provincetown Banner/Wicked Local, 18 December 2015.

⁸ “Application by F. J. Santos Living Trust, 131A Commercial Street, Purpose: To license and maintain a proposed wharf, pier ramp and float system in Provincetown Harbor, Barnstable County, Ma.,” 1 August 2017, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, File Number NAE-2017-1193.

2 thoughts on “131A Commercial Street

  1. What a great saga. Generations of history, all in one very special town, created by a very special family. Flyer, Francis John (Grassy), and Noah Santos have set the bar high. Good wishes on your latest project to expand Flyer’s. From Flyer’s decision to move his business and build his railways to John and Noah’s pier expansion project, this is obviously a family with a vision. A vision that will keep the history of Provincetown alive, well into the future.

  2. Thanks for your fine work in highlighting this great Provincetown family. I am lucky enough to have them as neighbors, especially the great story-teller Flyer, for my four decades in the West End.

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