Production Boatbuilding of Smaller Boats
By Laurie Fullerton
September 4, 2020
Time was when New England was preeminent among the production boatbuilding regions of the world. More recently, however, the mantle of leadership has seemingly passed elsewhere as the industry has gone increasingly global. Nonetheless, an enduring legacy of hard work and talent has allowed New England to remain a center of excellence and innovation in both boatbuilding and design, of smaller boats in particular.
Interestingly, the region’s success is in many ways the result of the same collaborative style that has been part and parcel of the way its many small shops have been doing business since they first came into being in the early 20th century—with owners, designers and shop-floor workers all pitching in as part of the development process. Whether it’s producing beloved classics or breaking out into the cutting edge of design, this legacy of camaraderie and cooperation has resulted in a way of doing business that can be difficult, or even impossible for a larger-scale operation to duplicate—all driven by a work ethic and expertise that is second to none.
“We are in a sense all real Yankees in that we are in it for the long haul. Our products and approaches may be different, but we all work hard to stay in this together,” says Chris Hood, founder of C.W. Hood Yachts, based in Marblehead, Massachusetts. “We also all know and respect each other,” he says of his fellow boatbuilders—and it shows.
The importance of being local
Arey’s Pond Boat Yard in Orleans, Massachusetts, is located on conservation land that was once a Native American settlement. Since 1991 when Tony Davis purchased APBY, he has built over 70 of the company’s classic catboats, including 10 in wood and 60 in fiberglass.
“For sure our boats are part of the fabric of these coastal waters, as is the boat shop itself. In my own case, I apprenticed for four years in Deer Isle, Maine, in 1977 before there were really any boatbuilding schools to speak of. It was a time when a trade like wooden boatbuilding was simply passed on through apprenticeships,” Davis says.
As for the way he and his peers run their businesses, Davis says that at a boat shop like his the customer is usually not just talking to a salesperson but the actual owner-builder. “Every customer I have has my cell phone number,” he says. “There have been times where one of the owners of an APBY boat has called me in the fog saying, ‘Tony we’re lost! Can you get us home?’ And I have.”
Being part of the community has also always been a factor for Morris Yachts of Southwest Harbor, Maine. Now affiliated with Hinckley Yachts, the company still maintains its own boat shop across the harbor from Hinckley, which in turn allows the duo to share resources. Longtime Morris Yachts broker Whyte Ingebritson, notes that this synergy, in combination with Morris’ historic commitment to design and innovation, has allowed it to successfully keep pace with its customers’ changing demands. This in turn has resulted in the fine-tuning of its entire M-series line of daysailers and cruisers, as well as the creation of what Morris calls its performance “X” line.
“Currently, our award-winning M-series appeals to a wide spectrum of sailors,” says Ingebritson, adding: “[Company founder] Tom Morris used to say, ‘We have spent 30 years building cruising boats satisfying the dreams of what people want to do.’”
Similarly, catboat specialist Marshall Marine Corp. in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, also sees its business fueled by customer loyalty. In 1962, company founder Breck Marshall built his first molded-fiberglass catboat. Three years later, he developed the now iconic Marshall 22, followed by the Sandpiper in 1972, thereby establishing a tradition of building this distinctively Northeastern type that his son, Geoff, carries to this day.
“The simple rig, shallow draft and wide beam work so well in shallower water. People love that the design enables them to cruise into areas other people can’t,” Geoff says. “They are also a very sociable boat,” he adds, describing the appeal of catboats among catboat sailors as being “a bit like a cult,” a cult in which he very much considers himself a member in good standing.
Also adhering to a combination of traditional one-designs and other classics is the 120-year-old Cape Cod Shipbuilding Co. in Wareham, Massachusetts, the same town where the Beetle Boat Shop builds the nearly century-old Beetle Cat catboat. In 1947, the company acquired the rights to the Herreshoff 12½. It also brought out a modified version of this same Herreshoff design called the Cape Cod Bull’s Eye (over 900 built), as well as the DaySailer 17, Mercury 15, Shields 30 and Atlantic 30. Most recently it introduced a production version of a boat originally designed by owner Wendy Goodwin’s grandfather and now called the Marline Heritage 23.
“I believe it is our family experiences that have given us an emotional attachment to all of our boats,” says Goodwin, describing both her company’s longevity and its commitment to excellence.
Another East Coast builder following in the Herreshoff tradition is Ballentine’s Boat Shop in Cataumet, Massachusetts, builder of the Doughdish, an exact fiberglass replica of the Herreshoff 12 ½, and the drop-dead gorgeous L. Francis Herreshoff-designed Stuart Knockabout daysailer, as well as many customs yachts. Which is not to say the company is stuck in the past.
“We are pretty entrenched in the classics, but we certainly do incorporate custom refinements,” owner Amy Ballentine says of her company's approach to business. “However, our customers also tend to know what they want, and they know their history. The Herreshoff name is so iconic, it’s one they truly recognize and want to sail.”
Similarly, the Classic Boat Shop of Bernard, Maine, has made a name for itself building the Chuck Paine-designed Pisces 21, a modernized version of Capt. Nat’s old Fish-class sloop. (Funny how often the name Herreshoff seems to keep popping up in this rugged part of the world, even all these years later!)
As for Peter Eastman, owner of Howard Boats in Barnstable Village, Massachusetts, and Alerion Yachts of Kingston, Rhode Island, he says that in his case it all started back when he was first drawn to John “Bunny” Howard’s 82-year-old shop just off Barnstable beach as a 16-year-old.
“I was a Cape Cod summer kid. I had always loved this place, and I had always wanted to be here,” he says. “I had the opportunity to purchase Howard Boats [in 1999]. It has been 21 years, and I am still here.”
According to Eastman, back in the day, Bunny Howard purchased the fiberglass molds for the Barnstable Cat Boat, and to this day it remains Howard Boats’ most popular model. “Our Barnstable Cat Boat customers are not your typical mainstream boater,” he explains. “In a sense, this is a kind of lifestyle boat that is an adjunct to their summer program. It has a ‘have to have it’ kind of appeal to customers like Martha Stewart, Ron Perlman, and even Paul McCartney’s brother-in-law, to name a few.”
More recently Eastman also acquired Alerion Yachts, builder of an award-winning line of daysailers ranging in length from 20 to 33ft. Eastman’s Howard Boats facility is also now building an all-new, modern catboat it calls the AlerionXL.
Finally, there’s the story of the aforementioned C.W. Hood Yachts and the way its founder, Chris, nephew of the late Ted Hood, of sail-making and America’s Cup fame, created his celebrated C.W. Hood 32 daysailer.
According to Chris, after establishing his business building powerboats, he hit a slow patch during the Great Recession of 2008. “I was mulling over what designer Dieter Empacher said to me once,” Chris says. “He said those original boats you are building are designed by others. Why don’t you come up with something new? That is what your uncle would have done.”
Soon afterward, Chris says, he had a dream about a sailboat, which he then immediately started sketching out. “I showed it to yacht designer Ben Stoddard, and we put this beautiful dreamboat together on the table and got the drawings done. I had no customers, but I asked Bruce Dyson of Marblehead to come to take a look. He happened to bump into Dr. Frank Morse, also of Marblehead, and they came over together. Dr. Morse said, ‘That is exactly what I want.’ He went on to name [his] boat Dream.”
Old and New
Another celebrated aspect of New England boatbuilding is the iconic New England boatyard—more often than not a weather-beaten structure encased in gray shingles, set close to the rocky shore—a tradition that, like New England boatbuilding itself, remains as alive and well as ever.
The C.W. Hood 32, for example, is built in the same shipyard where Ray Hunt, Chris’ Uncle Ted, Jim Taylor and many others also designed and built their dream yachts. Similarly, Howard Boats is situated on a picturesque stretch of beach adjacent to the Barnstable Bay Yacht Club. Boats can be launched into the adjacent protected harbor either from the beach or a wooden pier.
“There was a time when I had the romantic dream of living in Maine in a shack on the water,” Eastman says of the Howard Boats facility. “And now I have it. This place started as a boathouse in 1938. It has always been small, but it’s right on the water. It never gets old to me.”
As for the Cape Cod Shipbuilding Co., situated on the banks of the Wareham River, 120 years in the same waterfront facility has resulted not only in easy coastal access over multiple generations but the ability to put down serious roots.
“We have seen our industry shift to places where it is not as expensive to live and build, but we have the ability to stay connected to our past,” Goodwin says, noting the buildings in which she currently builds her boats are the same ones where Starling Burgess once came by with his “Atlantic” designs, and Nat Herreshoff himself once paid a visit while on his way to deliver a newly built Herreshoff 12½.
That said, though aesthetically old-school, these concerns are anything but museum pieces in terms of the ways they do business. The fact that they look worlds apart from the high-tech, mass-production-boatyards of, say, Northern Europe doesn’t mean they’re any less competitive or efficient in terms of their build process. Don’t be fooled by those gray, weathered shingles and salty Down East accents. These companies are just as smart and hard-working as the rest of the boatbuilding world, as they, like their larger brethren, strive to do whatever it takes to overcome the many challenges facing manufacturing these days.
Chief among the resulting survival strategies is another New England tradition: innovation, whether it be in terms of finding better ways of doing what you’re already doing or creating a whole new type of boat. Case in point, Dave Clark of Bristol, Rhode Island’s, Fulcrum Speedworks, builder of the full-foiling, 110lb UFO multihull. Dave and his father, Steve Clark, designed and developed the lightweight 9-footer in 2015-16, and Dave went into full production in 2017. The company now has six employees, builds over 100 UFOs a year and does around $1 million each year in business.
“I was born into it. My father owned Vanguard while actively campaigning C-Class catamarans, so growing up in that environment and being a part of the adventure gave me my start. My own circumstances have helped me a great deal, as well as where I live in Rhode Island. There are so many engaged and caring people in this business,” Dave says.
Another builder pushing the limits with an eye toward “getting butts in boats” is Zim Sailing. Ten years ago, Zim co-owner Bob Adams was building sailing dinghies after he and Steve Perry bought the Club 420 and FJ when Vanguard Sailing was sold. They now build approximately 700 boats a year in a 40,000ft facility down the road from Fulcrum Speedworks in Bristol and are the largest manufacturer and distributor of 420s, 29ers, RS sailboats, Flying Juniors and Optimist prams in North America.
“Right now the fastest-growing segment of our sport is high school sailing, with a huge number of those folks moving on to some level of college sailing as well,” Adams says. He adds, though that this is hardly the entirety of his company’s market, with its products appealing to sailors ranging “from eight to 80” as he puts it.
“The demographic is very good. There are solid people in sailing,” Adams says. “We feel that what we have done in the past 10 years to rescue the small boat business is unheard of. The thing that people are missing is the freedom that sailing gives you.”
Farther north, yet another example of a company breaking new ground is Maine Cat Catamarans, builder of the award-winning Maine Cat 38. Aesthetically the boat is about as far from, say, an old Friendship sloop as you can imagine. But in terms of build quality, the boat is as “Down East” as it gets. As evidence, look no further than the boat’s innovative design—which includes the option of a sheltered helm station a la the latest from Gunboat—and the fact the company employs an infrared oven to thermo-form the closed-cell foam cores used in its hulls and decks to create structures as light and strong as the best of them.
“We need to keep tending to the ongoing shrinkage in the boatbuilding business,” Dave Clark says, summing up his own forward-thinking way of doing business. “The great thing is this can be fixed. I feel that it is a misalignment that can be solved.”
This is not to say the people building those more “traditional” boats are just resting on their laurels. Take a closer look at some of those more aesthetically conservative designs coming out of New England and more often than not you’ll find a true wolf in sheep’s clothing. The C.W. Hood 32, for example, may be one of the most elegant sloops ever created with its teak decks and generous overhangs. But below the waterline there is also a high-aspect fin keel and powerful semi-balanced spade rudder bearing a suspicious resemblance to the latest generation of cutting-edge racers.
Also very much falling into the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” category is the aforementioned Morris Yachts’ X series, including the M36X, which in addition to a wide-open cockpit comes equipped with a high-aspect fin keel and turbocharged carbon rig for performance under sail. Similarly, there’s Eastman’s recently introduced Alerion XL 13ft, what he describes as a “gentleman’s singlehander” and the new, prototype Alerion 15 Daysailer—the latter, he says, having been inspired by an urge to develop a boat you’d take one look at and want to take sailing.
“We find that, as people have less recreational time, a boat should be easy to use and pretty,” Eastman says, pointing to the 15’s self-tacking jib, self-bailing cockpit and modern rudder. “I believe that Alerion is in a position to do this well.”
In other words, don’t count these folks out, not by a long shot. New Englanders have long been known for their tenacity, and the region’s boatbuilders are clearly no exception. Whether it’s a traditional-looking daysailer or a foiling catamaran, expect great looking and great sailing little boats to continuing coming from this part of the world for decades to come.
Arey’s Pond Boat Yard
Beetle Boat Shop
Ballentine’s Boat Shop
Cape Cod Shipbuilding
Classic Boat Shop