Steve Thomas: Handyman To Waterman

"This Old Boater" Shows The Pros A Thing Or Two

Published: February/March 2012

This Old House Host; A Circumnavigating Family; Shark Man's Daughter

Steve Thomas has always had a knack for fixing things. When he was 10, his family moved to Southern California and he bought a defunct surfboard. "It was 10 bucks and needed a new fin, so I fixed it up and went surfing," he recalls. When he was 14, he decided he wanted to go sailing, so he bought a small sailboat for $42, fixed that up, and off he went. After studying philosophy in college, he headed out in the Victoria to Maui race in a Valiant 40, and then sailed the boat back to Seattle. That was followed by a stint in the Mediterranean as first mate on a 103-foot schooner, followed by another on an 89-foot Italian motoryacht, and a third on a 75-foot ketch.

Photo of Steve Thomas on his boat
Thomas and his family live on an island in Maine where they commute on one of their three boats.

The DIY skills came from his father who used to buy and rehab old houses to accommodate his growing family. As the oldest of six kids, Thomas soon got into the business, too. After coming back from Europe, he bought his first house for $14,000, fixed it up, and sold it to a college buddy, and so began a career of buying and renovating houses, between sailing gigs. Various carpentry and skippering jobs followed, until a fascination with ancient Micronesian navigation began. That resulted in his book and PBS documentary, "The Last Navigator." While he was editing the documentary, he got a call from a publicist who happened to ask him what he was doing next. Thomas told him he was in the middle of renovating his attic. "He said, 'I didn't know you knew about that sort of thing. Did you know they're looking for someone at "This Old House"?'"

Beating out 412 other candidates, he landed the presenter's job in 1989 and stayed until 2003, based mostly in Boston. His boating career continued apace. By the early 1990s, he was competitively racing Shields sloops, both nationally and locally. From there it was on to center-console sportfishers, because his son wanted to fish more than he wanted to sail.

"If your kid has a passion for being on the water, you feed that passion," says Thomas. Around the same time, he and his wife Evy bought an old camp on an island in Maine, where they still live. Not surprisingly it was a fixer-upper, which he renovated (of course), then built a barn and filmed his latest show, "Renovation Nation."

"There was no dock or anything in the beginning. You had to land on the beach and schlep all your stuff up the hill," he says. "It's about a quarter-of-a-mile across the harbor to get to the mainland, so if you want to go anywhere, you've got to get in a boat." To that end, Thomas keeps several boats, including a 23-foot center-console sportfisher he calls the cocktail cruise boat; his wife Evy's 18-foot lobster skiff; and a 16-foot Novi flat-bottomed workboat. "I put Honda four-strokes on everything. They have to be in perfect condition because we rely on them like cars."

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