Bob Burnham

Bob Burnham

“One hundred forty students, 10 boats out, this place is packed. I love it."

It’s early March and the thawing Squamscott River creeks and groans under the midday sun. Stranded ice shoves turn to slush and sift through shoreline rocks while melting snow drips in rhythmic time off the roof of the William G. Saltonstall Boathouse. Inside, hunched over a workbench, Boathouse Manager Bob Burnham needs none of nature’s cues to know spring is coming. “From the start of the school year on, I’m in here most days getting ready for the [crew] season — running the building, keeping the equipment in good shape and anything that’s needed, really,” he says in a sharp New England accent. “When spring hits, it’s long hours, six days a week. I bring the boats to the racing events wherever that might be. I’m in control of basically everything that’s going on other than teaching the kids to row.”

For Burnham, when the boathouse is in full bloom, there’s nowhere he’d rather be. “One hundred forty students, 10 boats out, this place is packed. I love it,” he says. “The kids are great to work with, to be around. They’re always happy, upbeat. They work harder than anybody you’ve ever seen for a sport because this sport is not easy.”

Burnham’s voyage to becoming Exeter’s resident boatman began along the banks of the Merrimack River in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Through a co-op program at his high school, Burnham was able to work for credit and pay at the legendary Lowell’s Boat Shop, where he learned the craft of boatmaking. He stayed on at Lowell’s while completing his trade-school degree in boat building. “After I graduated, I was working full-time and building all kinds of stuff, cigarette boats, you name it, but they weren’t carbon fiber back then like these,” he says, gesturing to the fleet of racing shells hanging throughout the boathouse. “They were wood.”

Bob Burnham

From there, Burnham embarked on a 24-year career with the Essex County Sheriff ’s Department in Massachusetts, retiring as a deputy sheriff in 2010. A few months later
Burnham bumped into a friend, then-Exeter Campus Safety Director Jim Gilmore, who suggested Burnham join the department. Burnham did just that, working as a campus safety officer before moving into his current role in 2015.

During his time as a police officer, Burnham continued building and restoring boats as a hobby and as a way to make some extra cash, operating out of a rented storage unit. Now, Burnham relishes the opportunity to work out of the nearly 10,000-square-foot Saltonstall Boathouse. “This place is unbelievable,” he says. “For a high school boathouse, this is second to none.”

Pass by on Water Street in downtown Exeter during the warmer months and you might hear a Bon Jovi power ballad spilling out of the open bay doors as Burnham tends to any number of fix-its. “Nothing goes out [for repair], I do everything in-house,” Burnham says with a confidence anchored by experience. “If they hit a log out in the river or something, I’ll put the radio on and get to it. It just puts me in a different place. Fixing it, sanding it down, painting and then stepping back and looking at it.”

Over the decades, Burnham estimates he’s built hundreds of crew boats and fixed even more, but he’s never taken one out for a spin. “I’m a little too big of a guy to sit in one,” he says with a laugh. “I like my boats with a throttle.”

— Adam Loyd

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.