By Cricket Desmarais

Billy Kearins drapes the last of his newly silk-screened T-shirts out to dry along old sailing line hung from the beams of an aged tin shed. "COAST. Live by it," they read. Next he pulls the remnants of a weathered dock and a felled mango tree from the back of his '89 Ford, happy to be getting his hands dirty while he jams out to the Hackensaw Boys' latest release.

"We've become known as a place where old building materials find new life," said Kearins, remarking on two earlier phone calls that led him to the bounty.

Kearins is the founder of COAST — a rustic, funky space made up of a retail store showroom, studio workshops, an event venue and impetus for island-infused kids' camps — all located on Stock Island's Front Street where a hand-painted sign indicates "Mellow Folk Welcome."

Outside, a dusty lot is sectioned off with weathered sails, crab traps and reclaimed dock planks to create makeshift walkways that lead through a series of open-air workshops. The 1970s tin shed makes up the showroom where custom shirts, caps and bags are merchandised with the help of driftwood, dock line, planks, pallets and rusty pipes. It is at once soulful and salty, with nothing packaged or polished about it — exactly how Kearins prefers it.

"People's biggest question is always 'What is COAST?' and it's so hard to say because it's so many things," said the 30-something creative with a penchant for the sea and the business savvy it takes to make COAST float.

The innovative "craftsman by the sea" avoids being boxed into any one particular description, preferring a commitment to the creative process and the authentic unfolding that occurs as that happens. For him, COAST is a place that continues to incubate and evolve, "born from an idea for a space to create and experiment," he said. "Part of why we exist is to experiment with hobbies in hopes of making them something more."

In three short years so far, Kearins and the skilled hands of COAST have provided workshop space and studios for artists, presented a variety of creative workshops, offered services that range from sail repair to web design and hosted several community fundraisers. They also have welcomed many internationally known performers to their reclaimed wood stage including G Love and the Special Sauce, the Hackensaw Boys and Mason Jennings.

Like many of the island's residents, Kearins discovered Key West while on vacation and returned after college with the intention of staying just long enough to collect his thoughts and "figure out the long road ahead."

"But Key West got me good," he said. "I couldn't get enough of the water, found a solid crew of buddies, started driving boats and the rest is history."

Within a year he'd logged enough sea time to get his captain's license and was soon at the helm of several charter outfits, while also assisting in the boatyard building boats and attending to his own skate and surfboard building projects.

"At the time, it was about the best life in the world," Kearins explained. "I was outside, on the water, and making money sailing for a living."

But the long days of chartering trips back and forth to the reef led him deep into daydreams about what his future could be. After a brush with death from a bacterial infection in his heart that led to a medical evacuation flight to Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital for a double heart valve replacement, the then 27-year-old Kearins realized that "life is too short to live someone else's life and dreams."

"My days of driving and building someone else's boats were done," he said.

After Kearins recovered from his surgery, he met Danish designer Dorthe Thure. The two soon married and moved to Copenhagen where they had two children, Kristian and Naia. There Kearins did his graduate studies in entrepreneurship, got involved with a builder/creator collective and continued to make skateboards.

But he couldn't shake his need for the sun and the sea. Less than five years later, the island life lured the family back.

COAST was born almost as soon as they returned.

In addition to a handful of boats that have been built there since its beginnings, COAST now hosts a handful of artists and craftsmen and -women undertaking a range of projects. They include "tiny homes" by carpenter Mike Washek, fiber arts by Kelly Raspa, custom spear guns by Jason Tiller, paintings and photography by Sunflower Tedesco and a bona fide bonsai garden by Tedesco's husband John. Designer, web developer and videographer Chris Higgins keeps COAST's website fresh and assists with the expanding line of T-shirts, and a spectrum of other players layer in and out of the scene when special projects prevail.

"I've found a strange way to gather everything that is the most important to me — creativity, family, community betterment, the ocean, being active, music and classic design — and then wrap it into something that I can call my job, something that I immerse myself in every day that blurs the line between work, play and everyday life," Kearins said.

"Somehow all of the pieces of COAST just fit together and make sense, and I'm really thankful that it happened like that," he continued. "We are definitely promoting a way of life that takes into account the many meanings of the word. 'COAST' is something almost everyone can appreciate — no matter how it's translated."

Read full article at Monroe County Tourist Development Council Website