Meet our Staff


Tom Brandl, Executive Director and Boatbuilding Instructor

Graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1979, Tom served 29 years as a U.S. Marine Corps Officer.  During his career he held numerous command and leadership billets, senior staff positions, and earned a Master of Arts in National Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College.  After retiring from the military in 2008, he worked as a defense analyst and Director of Operations for a defense consulting firm.  In September 2014, he left that job to fully concentrate his time and energy toward directing Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop (TWBW).  Tom has over 14 years' experience teaching and mentoring youth while coaching youth athletics and at TWBW.  Previous nonprofit experience includes serving five years on the board of directors of his community civic league, three of those as president.  He has spent the past seven summers completing wooden boatbuilding course work at the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine.  Tom is certified in the nationally recognized "Building to Teach" methodology, developed by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation to teach math through woodworking and boatbuilding, and he is a member of the Teaching With Small Boats Alliance (TWSBA).  Through his involvement in TWSBA, Tom personally experienced the tremendous, positive impact a boatbuilding program can have on the lives of underprivileged youth, and he founded Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop to bring those benefits to the Hampton Roads community.


Joseph Filipowski, Workshop Manager/ Boatbuilder Emeritus

Joe pursued an education in American and European history at Old Dominion College before embarking on a career in the heavy construction industry in 1969. During the mid-1970s he worked in the U.S. Merchant Marine service. Sailing on small and medium sized tugboats provided 'hands-on' educational opportunities for applying fundamental engineering principles while controlling tugs and barges of vast tonnage under challenging sea and weather conditions. A fascination for research and academic pursuits, combined with a respect for traditional building skills enabled him to teach woodworking and boatbuilding at the Norfolk School of Boatbuilding. In 1980 he went to work with the Norfolk Shipbuilding and Dry-dock Corporation as a first class rigger, eventually working his way into production engineering management.  In 1985, Joe started Decking Design, Inc., a shipboard marine flooring and decking firm. Through 1993 he worked with 35 full-time tradesmen serving naval and commercial shipping on the East Coast of the U.S. and in Europe. For the past 20 years he has continued to work as an independent boatbuilder, artisan, craftsman and instructor.  During this period he also worked with the historical department at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, VA as an interpreter and historical character actor. This work led to his being hired as a character actor in several documentaries and film projects, most recently in Stephen Spielberg's movie "Lincoln." He has served on the boar of directors for Nautical Adventures, Inc., a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged youth in  Hampton Roads.  Joe brings over 30 years of boatbuilding experience Tidewater Wooden Boat Workshop. 


Melissa Swanson, Administrative Director

 Melissa served in the US Navy for four years as a parachute rigger. She earned her Bachelors of Science in Business Administration and Management at Kaplan University in 2011. Before joining TWBW she worked for the United States Postal Service in various positions, eventually running a Remote Post Office in King George County, Virginia. She began working at TWBW in September 2017. 

Besides her administrative and book keeping duties, Melissa also assists with program and volunteer coordination, and with development. She also applies her Navy training in the workshop teaching canvas and leather work to our students. 


John (Jay) F O’Brien Jr., Program Director


Life-long sailor and boating enthusiast, Jay brings a wealth of ocean sailing and program management experience to the workshop. He grew up working on and restoring sail and power boats, starting with a complete rebuild of a Nova Scotia styled lobster boat when he was a high school student. Prior to graduation from Villanova University, Jay worked summers as a sailing instructor and then as a yard worker at Norwood Chris Craft (the former George Lawley Shipyard) in Boston, MA. In the summer of 2019, he completed his latest project, building an Oxford Shell II rowing shell.

A career U.S. Navy officer, and recently retired U.S. Coast Guard senior intelligence civilian, Jay also competes as navigator and tactician in a variety of ocean races around the world. He has completed 12 Bermuda Races, The Fastnet and Middle Sea Races in Europe, two Sydney Hobart Races, the Caribbean 600, Marblehead to Halifax, FT Lauderdale to Key West, and numerous races along the U.S. East Coast. He is an expert celestial navigator, licensed amateur radio operator (General class), and is a USCG licensed Master of 100 ton motor and sail vessels. Jay is also involved with the Hampton Roads rowing community, coaching at Catholic High School and Hampton Roads Rowing Club. He still rows competitively in sculling and sweep boats.