New London - Vinnie Silvester was taking advantage of the gas grills that customers can use at Burr's Marina, cooking up five London broil steaks to share over the next few days with whoever stops by his boat.
"This is like a down-to-earth marina,'' says Silvester, a resident of East Hartford who has kept his 26-foot fishing boat at the marina for the past two years. "Everyone's willing to talk to you here."
Three generations of Bergamos have run what they call a working man's marina, where peeling paint, patched window panes and dangling wires don't faze the regulars who dock their boats at the Pequot Avenue boatyard.
Along with Silvester on this summer afternoon are young families swimming in the inground pool that is plopped in the middle of an asphalt parking lot. Boaters are sanding the bottoms of their skiffs or searching for ice for their coolers.
The Bergamos - Peter; his son, Adam; and his brother, David - spend their days fixing engines, repairing docks, pumping gas and maintaining the 136 slips and 20 moorings on the Thames River.
"I'm a pool boy, the plant boy and now I'm doing the bathrooms,'' said David, who lives with his wife in the apartment above the marina store.
The family was just recovering from a booming July 4 weekend and was preparing for Sailfest weekend, the busiest two days of the year.
Burr's advertises itself as the perfect spot to watch the Sailfest fireworks. Boaters who come for the day or weekend have a front-row seat as the fireworks are set off from a barge in the river a short distance from the marina.
"It's just upside-down crazy,'' Peter said.
The marina is a lifestyle
Several years ago the Bergamos were offered about $4 million for the roughly one-acre spot along the Thames River. No one wanted to sell.
"What we do is not a real job,'' said Peter Bergamo, who after college returned to New London to help his father run the marina. His brother did the same thing.
Peter, 72, and David, 68, are still running the business.
"It's like a family down here,'' said Peter, who lives in East Lyme. "I work with my brother and my son. We have wonderful clientele. It's not work. It's the great American dream - own your own business."
Bergamo said working families need a place for their boats.
"We need to be competitive,'' he said, "but we want this to be a place for regular folks, too."
Bob Williamson, who has been going to the marina for 11 years, said the Bergamos are "nice people."
"They're honest and they have good values,'' said Williamson, who keeps his 40-foot sailboat "Black Douglas" at the marina.
"Burr's is the typical mom-and-pop business,'' said Grant Westerson, president of the Connecticut Marine Trades Association. "It's a lifestyle."
The statewide association has 300 members and about 450 business associates, including 200 marinas.
Last year was probably the worst for the boating industry, because of the recession and the high cost of fuel, Westerson said. But most marinas take on the personalities of their owners, and Burr's is no exception.
"These guys have seen good times and they've seen some pretty tough ones,'' Westerson said. "But they're still there. They are typical New Englanders."
A move that changed everything
In 1950, Raymond Bergamo uprooted his young family from a third-floor Hartford tenement and relocated to the shoreline, setting in motion the family's lifelong love affair with the Thames River and a career that has spanned three generations.
"It altered everyone's lives,'' Peter said of his father's decision to move.
Raymond Bergamo quit his job at Bond Clothing Store after he was denied a promotion, the son said, and became manager of a new hardware store in Groton. The store closed two years later and, after working at several businesses, Bergamo took a job at Burr's in 1961. A year later, the first generation Italian American bought the business.
Peter Bergamo said when he first came to New London, after childhood summers spent on Cedar Lake in Wolcott, the Thames River seemed immense.
"I was 12 years old when we got here,'' he said. "I didn't like salt water. I was scared to death of it."
On one of his first trips to the mouth of the Thames, on a 12-foot outboard motorboat, he was overwhelmed by the vastness of the water, he said.
"I thought I was Columbus,'' he said. "I've had the most wonderful and most terrifying experiences on the water. I can tell you, it makes a believer out of you."
Peter Bergamo was in Korea when his family sent him a newspaper clipping that said his father had bought the marina. He had graduated from college and finished the Army's school of journalism and was headed to San Francisco to try to get a job at a newspaper when his father became ill.
His brother David, who had worked as a psychiatric aide at Norwich State Hospital, also was traveling across the country.
The brothers put their careers aside and returned home in the early 1960s to help run the marina. They have worked side by side for about 45 years. The patriarch was 92 when he died in 2002. He worked until he was 90.
"My dad never went to college, but he was one of the smartest people I ever knew,'' Peter Bergamo said.
The brothers now agree that the things they were searching for as young men turned out to be what brought them back to Connecticut: family, a chance to be their own bosses and a job outdoors.
"We both set off in very different directions,'' David said. "But we came back."