The Sea Inside
CRAFT OF MAINE – July 2007
Photography Scott Dorrance
Like the ebb and flow of tides, Maine’s boat-building past may also be its future
In 1607, a full 13 years before the Mayflower would land at Plymouth Rock, a small group of English settlers launched a boat at the mouth of the Kennebec River. Not only was the 50-foot Virginia the first European boat built in Maine, it is widely considered to be the first ever constructed in all of North America. And ever since that day, four centuries ago, world-class vessels have been splashing into the cold Atlantic from boatyards up and down Maine’s rocky coast.
Though Maine’s boat building heyday—when hulking, multi-masted schooners could be seen rising up along the banks of tidal rivers—may have ended around the turn of the twentieth century, a new boat building belle époque is well underway in the state. Today, the coast is once again home to thriving boatyards that continue to produce some of the most sought-after vessels in the world. From immense, finely appointed luxury yachts to the utilitarian workboats of the fishing industry—and every sort of sailboat, motorboat, punt, skiff, dory, and peapod in between—Maine’s professional boat builders are consciously blending age-old traditions with cutting-edge technological advances in nautical design and construction. And the next generation of marine craftsmen is already being nurtured at venerable institutions such as the Landing School in Arundel and the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin.
In 2005, a group of passionate, boat building professionals formed the nonprofit organization Maine Built Boats (MBB) with a mission to unify and expand the state’s boat building industry. The Edgecomb-based MBB estimates that approximately 450 companies and 5,000 jobs—from shipwrights and sailmakers to designers, marketers, and software developers—are tied to Maine’s boat building industry, which is enjoying annual sales in excess of $650 million.
The Atlantic is undoubtedly one of Maine’s greatest natural resources, and just as the future of the state’s economy will rely on the vitality of its fishing trade, so too will it depend on the art and industry of boat building. With a wistful nod to the past, and a keen eye on the future, we celebrate one of Maine’s original crafts…
While the picturesque seaside village of Boothbay Harbor may draw tourists on warm summer days, just a few miles down the road, Hodgdon Yachts, in neighboring East Boothbay, is drawing some of the world’s most discerning yachtsmen all year long. A family-run company since it was founded nearly 200 years ago, the Hodgdon name has become synonymous with the term “world-class.”
Soon after the first schooner was launched from Hodgdon Shipbuilding in 1816, contracts from top yacht designers, such as John Alden and the Herreshoff Company, began flooding in. In 1921, the yard launched the exploration schooner Bowdoin in 1921, the boat that has crossed the Artic Circle 26 times and is still in service today at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. During both World Wars, Hodgdon took on a great deal of defense work, building large submarine chasers, mine sweepers, and troop transports. But by the 1960s, however, the boatyard’s staff and output had dwindled. “At one point,” says Tim Hodgdon, “I think it was just my father and a couple other guys.” Hodgdon took over the family business in 1983, becoming the not only the fifth generation to oversee the boatyard, but also the man who would take it to new heights.
“The yard was part of our everyday life,” Hodgdon says of the boat building tradition he was born into. “Even as a small boy, I was always down there making a nuisance of myself.” When the company was passed on to him, Hodgdon says he wanted to begin “taking advantage of modern construction techniques while still staying true to the traditional craftsmanship.” He began incorporating more composites into the building process and honing the cold-molded wood-epoxy technique used to create custom hulls. Since launching an 84-foot motor yacht in the late 1980s and beginning a close working relationship with noted designer Bruce King, Hodgdon’s niche has become, in his words, “large, high-end yachts that are world-class and state-of-the-art.”
The 155-foot ketch Scheherazade, launched in 2003, is a perfect example of what Hodgdon means. Designed by Bruce King and Andrew Winchand, the boat marries advanced technology to a classic style and features interior joinery work that is “built of fiddleback sycamore and has a unifying burled-walnut molding throughout, with a seemingly endless succession of individually hand-sculpted sea motifs.” Given the many elaborate projects underway, Hodgdon has seen his staff grow from an initial crew of six in 1983 to between 80 and 100 today.
While still focused on building pleasure crafts, Hodgdon Yachts continues to evolve and is currently working on their first military contract since the mid-1950s. The high-speed, special-operations boat currently under construction is a prototype for the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research and features Hodgdon’s first hull infused with carbon/Kevlar. “We like the word innovation around here,” Hodgdon says.
The summer of 2006 saw the company launch its 406th vessel—a 98-foot, cold-molded ketch that also happened to be the largest sailing yacht under construction in the United States at the time. It is also another example of how boat designers and owners are turning to Maine for some of the boldest boat-building projects in the country.
“We’re not known for how fast we build,” Hodgdon said after the 124-foot sloop Antonisa was launched in 1999. “Time is certainly important, but when it’s all done, we want quality.”
French & Webb
When a new boat building shop opens in a state with 400 years of seafaring heritage and 200-year-old shops still turning out boats, its owners need to have a niche—and tremendous talents—or they will likely sink into oblivion. For the Belfast-based French & Webb, which opened its doors in 1996, their niche has been a dedication to wooden boats and a fierce attention to detail.
“I feel really lucky to have our business in Maine,” says Todd French, “because of the tradition of quality here.” French says his passion for boat building had taken hold before he even graduated from high school, but he spent time working in boatyards across southern Maine and New Hampshire before tackling entire boats alone. “I started with dories,” he remembers, “and worked up to building a 24-foot cutter from scratch in a plastic shed on York Pond.”
At the tender age of 24, French was asked to teach at the Landing School in Arundel. “I think I was learning as much as my students,” he recalls with a laugh. It was in the school’s old cow-barns-turned-classrooms that French first met fellow teacher and boat builder, Peter Webb.
Webb, who grew up racing dinghies in northern New York with his father, took a less direct route to boat building than French. He first studied architecture and then worked in a firm for several years before changing careers. In 1978, he made a pilgrimage of sorts to Maine in order to become part of the Landing School’s first graduating class. Although Webb left Maine for a time to work on the 106-foot wooden sailing sloop Clearwater on the Hudson River in New York, his experience at the Landing School had such an impact on him that he soon returned to teach. “I just knew,” he says, “that if you want to work on wooden boats, you pretty much have to be in Maine.”
After four years of teaching and helping the school through its accreditation process, Webb decided to trade the classroom for the boat shop. Over the ensuing years, Webb and French met time and again, even working together in some of the same boatyards. When the two found themselves living in mid-coast Maine, with several boat building jobs lined up but no proper shop to work in, they both realized that it was time to join forces. “We like to problem-solve together,” Webb says of their professional collaboration, “and we each have different strengths that complement one another.”
Since opening shop in the autumn of 1996, French & Webb has grown to employ a full-time staff of 15. They have also expanded their shop over the past decade and now rent two buildings on the Belfast waterfront, as well as another 10,000-square-foot space.
In the early days of French & Webb, they did a great deal of subcontract work for larger, more established yards such as Hodgdon Yachts (they did extensive joinery work on Hodgdon’s 125-foot sloop Antonisa and the 155-foot ketch Scheherazade). But, as their reputation for precision-joinery work grew, clients began asking the team to oversee entire projects.
Aside from the odd restoration job, new constructions now fill the days at their shop. Among other projects, their 50-foot C.W. Paine-designed ketch Wings of Grace garnered rave reviews in the boating world, as did last year’s Erika, a cold-molded weekender sloop. But even as the company is completing a new 30-foot day-sailor and racer, French & Webb has been engrossed in their largest restoration project to date—bringing three legendary 47-foot sloops back to life.
Known as Buzzards Bay 30s, the three boats were built between 1902 and 1903 by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company of Bristol, Rhode Island, a boatyard of such historical significance that their work is practically deified by today’s boating enthusiasts. French & Webb is pulling out all the stops on the restoration project, and they are using original specifications to recast bronze hardware and rebuild the winches. Of the 14 Buzzards Bay 30s that were built, French says only six still exist today—and French & Webb have not three, but four, of them sitting in their yard (they are still looking for a buyer for the fourth sloop).
For French, the success of their young firm is largely due to how they interact with customers. “We spend a significant amount of time on the front end of every job, getting to know our clients on a very personal level,” he says. “And with custom yachts, that makes all the difference in the end.”
Even in the tradition-laden world of boat- construction and connoisseurship, changing techniques and tastes are inevitable. So in order to grow and thrive since opening more than 100 years ago, Lyman Morse Boatbuilding has remained committed to versatility and innovation. Today, the Thomaston-based yard builds sailing and motor yachts from an array of materials—including wood, aluminum, fiberglass, carbon fibers, and the most advanced composites—and it can handle every detail of the construction, from stem to stern.
In the early 1880s, Morse Boatbuilding made its reputation building several of the famed Malabar schooners designed by the great John Alden, as well as many Maine-designed Friendship Sloops. A century later, in 1978, Cabot Lyman bought the company—which was still being run by a Morse family member—and renamed it Lyman Morse. In the nearly 30 years since, the yard has grown in leaps and bounds.
A decade ago, Lyman Morse was a mid-sized shop with just 40 employees. Today, however, the company has exploded to 190 employees and 13 buildings, the newest of which measures 23,000 square feet. “We can handle pretty much anything you can throw at us,” says managing partner J.B. Turner. And unlike some yards, Lyman Morse is now able to handle everything in-house, from hull fabrication and engine work to finish carpentry and painting. Since 2004, they’ve been turning out aluminum hulls in their own 12,750-square-foot fabrication facility, and two years ago Lyman Morse added a new 110-ton Marine Travelift to their arsenal, a massive hydraulic boat-lift that allows them to move large boats with much greater ease. All of this growth and diversification has made boaters around the world take notice. “We’re competing in the global boat market now,” Turner says, citing the 62-foot catamaran they are currently building for a Venezuelan client. “I’m bidding against yards in New Zealand, Australia, China, and Europe.”
In the past few years alone, Lyman Morse has produced several unparalleled vessels. In 2006, for instance, the yard launched the state-of-the-art Baraka, a racer-cruiser with a unique carbon-fiber composite hull that utilized rigid Corecell foam infused with epoxy resin. The result is an extremely strong but incredibly lightweight boat. Last year, Lyman Morse launched its largest vessel to date—a 94-foot motor yacht named Elektra. As an example of how quickly the company’s building techniques have advanced, consider that the Elektra is 20,000 pounds lighter than the Tumblehome, a sister boat built by Lyman Morse ten years ago that is actually four feet smaller.
Advanced technology aside, Turner says that Lyman Morse’s reputation was built on their fine joinery work. Today, their yachts include more exquisite detail carpentry, exotic woods, and hand-carved embellishments than ever before. “When you have a shop with 50 carpenters on hand,” Turner says, “that adds a lot of depth to a yard.”
With seven custom boats currently under con-struction and business growth that shows no signs of slowing, Turner says he still works one-on-one with every customer. “Our customers often become really good friends,” he says. “They become part of this family.”
For many boating enthusiasts there is simply no substitute for the look, feel, and performance of a wooden boat. And the craftsmen who build those boats couldn’t agree more. Since Rockport Marine was founded in 1962, it has remained committed to constructing and restoring wooden boats.
Having worked at the boatyard since he was a teenager, Taylor Allen now heads up the company that his father, Luke Allen, began. Although Allen has maintained the yard’s dedication to traditional boat building, he has also incorporated modern wood-composite construction techniques. “The boat business is evolving,” he says, “and we’re taking advantage of all the changing technologies.”
When Taylor took the helm of Rockport Marine in 1980, the yard had a staff of only half a dozen. Today, the operation has grown to a team of 50. “This is not atypical of Maine boatyards over the past 25 years,” Allen insists. He says people are only getting half the story if they only look at the history of boat building in Maine. “Right now,” Allen says, “the boatyards in this state can compete with anyone internationally.”
Allen’s deep ties to Maine and the tradition of boat building even carry over into his personal life—he is married to writer and editor Martha White, the granddaughter of the revered author E.B. White. Even though his wife is descended from the author of Charlotte’s Web, she is more likely to be recognized, in the world of boat building, as the daughter of the renowned boat designer and builder, Joel White.
Rockport Marine’s business once consisted wholly of restoration work, but Allen says that many a newly built boat has been launched from the yard over the past ten years. “There’s no trend to it,” he admits, noting they’re currently working on several massive restoration jobs. Allen says he is energized by the challenges that restoration work presents, but in the end he enjoys building as much as rebuilding. “What we really like is diversity,” he says.
Perhaps because of their dedication to wooden boats, even some of Rockport Marine’s new constructions have a decidedly old flavor to them. Last spring, for instance, they launched the 74-foot Godspeed, a replica of one of the three vessels that carried English settlers to Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The hulking boat, which is now part of Jamestown’s living-history museum, was built using seventeenth-century construction techniques.