As another spring arrives, another season for the Swan Boats nears
Eleven teenagers, two adults, and a small white dog criss-crossed a muddy backyard behind a three-story home in Boston. They scraped paint from 12 copper-sheathed pontoons, wiped down the foot-power propulsion systems, and strained together to lift 800 pounds at a time off the snow-spattered ground.
It’s dirty work, but after yet another storm in the winter that won’t end — whether or not the calendar says spring — Lyn Paget and her crew took a big step in Sunday’s sunshine to resurrect the Swan Boats for their 141st season on the Public Garden lagoon.
The Red Sox play Monday at Fenway Park in their ballyhooed season-opener. But in this backyard crammed with seemingly random pieces of metal, wood, and basic tools, another harbinger of spring took slow but steady shape.
“I’m glad for the weather, but I’m feeling the pressure,” said Paget, the fourth-generation owner of one of Boston’s iconic diversions.
Opening day for the Swan Boats is April 15, and Sunday marked the first full day that Paget and her busy-bee squadron of teenage workers could devote to cleaning, chipping, and painting the disassembled pieces of her archaic flotilla, much of which is stored outdoors under protective cover for the winter.
“We’ll grab every day we can now,” said Paget, whose great-grandparents began the Swan Boats business in 1877.
Lyn’s cousin, Phil Paget, orchestrated the work like a soft-spoken, benevolent drill sergeant — wasting no time as he guided the crew, who also will paddle the boats on the lagoon, to their next assignment. At one point, he gently chided his 17-year-old son, Nick, for spilling white paint on a tarp.
“A little bit less than that, I’d say,” Phil Paget, the Swan Boats manager, said with a smile.
At another, Paget supervised six teenage boys as they used thick straps to lift one of the slender but heavy pontoons. “One, two, three!” yelled Nick, who served as the group’s de facto foreman.
Little has changed over the decades in the preparation ritual, Lyn Paget said. And the same can be said of the Swan Boats themselves — the look, construction, and feel of this life-in-the-slow-lane “ride” that the Pagets are determined to maintain. The cost: $2 for children and $3.50 for adults.
“Everything about it is a throwback,” said Paget, who also works as a health-policy consultant. “I really enjoy being a part of the history and tradition of the business, but it comes with a real commitment.”
It’s a seven-days-a-week operation from mid-April to September, weather permitting, that can bring as few as 50 customers a day to as many as 2,000.
But every season gets its start in the backyard of a home where the gliding, graceful Swan Boats have been broken down and put away. Paget asked that the location not be disclosed for security reasons.
Ardani Mello-Daigneault, a 16-year-old from Brookline, is entering his second year with the boats. He wiped down protective housing for the paddles — called a paddle box in Swan Boats terminology — as Brennan McGowan, a fellow Brookline High School student, scrubbed with a heavy brush.
“It’s a great first job,” said Mello-Daigneault, who enjoys chatting with the riders around a lagoon that’s never more than 3 feet deep. “And each boat is really different.”
The Swan Boats might look the same, but each is unique with custom-made parts. One boat dates back to about 1910, a few were built in the 1920s, and the remainder came later. But the centerboards, dual pontoons, and other connecting tissue for each of the Swan Boats are not interchangeable.
The boats do not weigh the same, some are longer or shorter than others, and each boat has a different speed than its neighbor. To tell them apart, markings are painted in yellow on each put-away piece in the fall. In the spring, they are fitted together again like an out-size puzzle.
As the teenagers bent to their work, nary a grumble was heard.
“They have to be able to interact with the public, be reliable, and not be afraid of hard work,” Paget said of her young staff. “We have a really high bar because people look up to them. They’re ambassadors for the city.”
It’s also fun, Nick Paget said, even if scraping paint in the spring is part of the job.
“It’s a great day, being outside in the city, conversing all day,” Paget said. “And you can get the boats going if you want a workout.”