Jean and Margaret Beaulieu were awaiting the birth of their son, Sean, in 1996 when Jean came home from his job at a boatyard on Mount Desert Island, Maine, and said, "Honey, I quit my job."
They went into business on their own, putting everything - including their house - on the line to make it happen. That's what you call commitment.
Together they have grown Classic Boat Shop from a two-person operation offering storage and maintenance for small boats to a full-service boatyard that caters to owners of what they call "smaller yachts." Today, the company provides repairs and refits, restorations, brokerage, and custom building of the Chuck Paine-designed Pisces 21 daysailer.
Their location in the small town of Bernard, Maine, is only a minute from Bass Harbor, which is still a working waterfront and one of the most picturesque (if lesser-known) towns on the island that is home to Acadia National Park.
This area of Maine offers some of the most interesting boating in the world, either around the Cranberry Isles and up Somes Sound or with a trip "outside" to the open ocean accessible through the Eastern or Western Way.
Under sail the Pisces 21 has the feel of a bigger boat, thanks to its deep and roomy cockpit and the inherent comfort of riding in a sturdy, steady-going displacement boat. Yet it is simply rigged and easy to control, and it responds nicely to even a light wind. Inspired as a boatbuilder by Herreshoff, Jean Beaulieu has a clear focus: specializing in one boat design and building it well. It's not surprising that the inspiration for a contemporary take on Nathaniel Herreshoff's Fish Class boats came from Beaulieu's own experience sailing Doughdish and Bull's Eye 12-1/2s.
While the fundamental concept remains the same - build an excellent daysailer with only the best materials - what has changed since Capt. Nat's day is the nature of those materials, the method of construction and the equipment.
"It was in 1997 that my wife and I started looking into it," Beaulieu recalls. "Then we hired Chuck Paine to create the design. It took almost a year of preparation, of planning, getting the money together and getting the plans to really get started on the first one-off boat."
Beaulieu had come to know Paine from Morris Yachts, where Beaulieu had worked for seven years. (Paine designed the double-ended Frances 26 model that Tom Morris first became known for and he subsequently created many designs for the Morris Ocean Series bluewater sailboats.) "It was good working with him," Beaulieu says of his collaboration with Paine. "He's very down to earth. I think we share a lot of the same values and even today his most favorite boat is a Herreshoff 12-1/2. That's a boat he's owned for over 30 years now and he just loves day-sailing it. This project, the Pisces 21, gets him just as fired up as it does me."
Updating the design
One thing Beaulieu had noticed in sailing the original Herreshoff boats was a bit of weather helm. "It was not horrible, but once you had the boat heeled over with a good press of wind, you have to pull pretty good. You would get tired. So that was one of the design things that I had Chuck Paine work on, to see how we could address that and make it a better boat. What he did really changed things around. It's much nicer now to steer."
Also, as mentioned on the Classic Boat Shop Web site (www.classicboatshop.com), he and Paine made a few adjustments "in the interest of easier boat handling and stability." For one, Beaulieu wanted to keep the rig simple to make it easy for owners to get under way in minutes. Other changes included spreading the ballast out over a greater length and girth (thus lowering its center of gravity), reducing the draft by 2 inches, and widening the water plane by a small amount. In the designer's comments section of Beaulieu's site, Paine notes of his 1999 design: "In combination, these minor tweaks give the hull just enough more righting moment to stand up to the stronger and less porous sailcloth materials used today."
At just under 21 feet overall (20 feet, 9 inches), the Pisces has a waterline length of 16 feet, 4 inches and a beam of 7 feet, 2 inches. Even with an external lead keel weighing 1,600 pounds (just under half of her total displacement), she draws only 2 feet, 11 inches.
What they have created is an outstanding example of "the new wooden boat" - one that uses wood as a primary structural material, yet is fastened with epoxy, employs modern hull and sail design and modern finishes, and can carry either lightweight carbon spars or traditional wooden ones.
The first sale
The first Pisces 21 was built with cold-molded wood epoxy construction, but Beaulieu and Margaret hadn't even completed the first one yet when two people came by on a trip Down East to look for a Herreshoff-style boat. They just happened to drive by as Beaulieu was pulling a 12-1/2 he was working on. "They just stumbled on this project," Beaulieu recalls.
Though that boat wasn't for sale, the potential buyers had a look around the shop and got interested in the hull Beaulieu was working on.
"I had the Pisces mold completed and a hull on top of it upside down with the keel glued in placed. They said 'Oh, wow. What is this boat?' and I started telling them about it and they said they had actually heard about the Pisces 21 through Chuck Paine, because it was already on the advertising he was doing for this project."
The visitors bought the first Pisces 21 even after Beaulieu cautioned them he couldn't deliver it until fall. "They named the boat 'Serendipity' because that was the way they basically stumbled on the boat. We delivered the first boat in the fall of '98 at the Annapolis boat show, and then we drove her on a trailer to San Francisco."
A love for smaller boats
Beaulieu grew up in Québec City, but his boating and water experience was really in Maine where his family would summer. "My first sailing experience was with a Sunfish, actually, in southern Maine at Old Orchard Beach. ... It's when I got a little bit older that I got involved with sailing the Herreshoff 12-1/2 in my early 20s and really fell in love with something that was more traditional in looks." In 1979 he went to The Landing School in Arundel and really started to learn about boatbuilding and design. Beaulieu met his future wife, Margaret, who was from Massachusetts. He worked at odd jobs, including house construction, boatbuilding and boat repairs, and eventually ended up on Mount Desert Island working for Morris Yachts.
"At that time Tom only had 15 or 16 boats in storage. It was a pretty small operation; there were 13 of us there. We did everything because the crew was so small." Beaulieu recalls that when he decided to leave Morris Yachts, the shop was expanding as was the size of the boats.
"I've always liked the smaller boats and he seemed to be moving away from that a little bit," says Beaulieu.
He saw an opportunity with a piece of land in West Tremont, and started with a 24-foot-by-40-foot building, which eventually grew to a 50-foot-by-104-foot building.
"Once we had that building up it started to change things for us as far as our capabilities for taking care of slightly larger boats and having a heated workshop."
Focus on service
From the outset, service has been an integral part of the Beaulieus' business strategy. They offer seasonal hauling and commissioning, structural and mechanical repairs, professional varnishing and finishing, and systems upgrades.
Having a second revenue stream has helped through the years and is especially beneficial in today's economy. As Beaulieu says, "I wanted to build boats, but I realized that to be able to build boats I needed to service them, for financial reasons."
Classic Boat Shop's storage and maintenance facilities have grown substantially through the years and their inside facilities currently include 7,700 square feet of heated storage and work space, and 8,900 square feet of unheated storage. "We have up to 80 boats this year that we take care of. Thirteen years ago it was three boats," Beaulieu says.
The unheated space is preferable for work on classic wooden yachts because the wood dries out less, while the heated space allows the crew to work year-round on annual maintenance and service or major restorations.
In the early days, the staff consisted of just Jean and Margaret Beaulieu, and then one employee. As the company has grown and added facilities, services, and staff (about 10 people, depending on the time of year), they have found the need to address larger business management issues. That led to more defined roles for Beaulieu as general manager and Margaret as business manager. A CPA by trade, Margaret is now the shop's main bookkeeper, marketing manager and business partner.
The company's growth also led to the hiring of Dave Gillespie at the end of summer 2007 to run the service and brokerage operations. Like Beaulieu, he had worked at Morris and spent time there as service manager. Now Beaulieu can focus on promoting the business and on new boat construction.
A number of the boats that Classic Boat Shop stores and maintains are original Herreshoffs, and as legendary local sailor and historian Sturgis Haskins has commented, being entrusted with these boats by their owners is a compliment in itself.
Wood to fiberglass
In 2004 Beaulieu and Margaret made the decision to build in fiberglass as well as wood, allowing Classic Boat Shop to offer the Pisces 21 at a lower price point and expand their market.
"From a distance you can't tell the difference. We can make a fiberglass boat look just as beautiful as a wood boat, and performance-wise you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference," says Beaulieu. Originally, the Pisces 21 was designed with a Marconi rig, inboard shrouds, and swept back spreaders. But a request from The Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club on Long Island Sound for a way to add to their fleet of original Herreshoff Fish Class boats led to developing a gaff-rigged version as well.
Owners who prefer a more traditional boat can also opt for classic hardware made by J.M. Reineck & Son of Hull, Mass., along with wooden spars. "But lately," Beaulieu comments, "most folks like to go with the carbon spars and the maintenance is minimal." They paint them with Awlgrip paint to give the appearance of wooden spars, but with less maintenance.
Base price for a fiberglass model is about $48,000, while the wood boats start at about $72,000; a suit of sails (for either model) with spinnaker will add another $3,000. A galvanized trailer is also available.
Owners also have the option of installing an inboard auxiliary or an inboard electric drive system. So far, Classic Boat Shop has used two different types of the electric drives: a 36-volt version made by Elco of Athens, N.Y., and a 24-volt system from Beckmann Boatshop of North Kingstown, R.I.
Chuck Paine made the necessary design adjustments to the ballast pocket to allow for battery storage directly above the lead keel and, with the price of the batteries and the installation, "it's about the same price as a diesel option - about $10,000," Beaulieu says.
As Classic Boat Shop approaches its 15th anniversary, the owners are also celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Pisces 21, which coincides with more than 25 being built. Typically they produce from four to five boats a year, but during 2009 they actually launched six.
The company's first international sales took place in spring 2009 with one boat to Bermuda and another to Japan.
But it was the delivery of Loon in late November to new owners at Lake Joseph, Ontario, that prompted Beaulieu to write about that event in the company newsletter. "It was a great experience to be driving across the Maine border delivering a Pisces to Canada for the first time," he says.
Looking ahead, Beaulieu is optimistic about the health of boating and boatbuilding over the long run and has been able to keep the shop fairly busy despite the downturn in the economy last year. "Spring still comes and boats still get launched," he says. "That's not going to change. I think for a lot of people, being on the water and having a boat is like having a car or having a home. It's part of their life."
Craig S. Milner is a writer, photographer and speaker who specializes in boats, boatbuilding and other marine topics.
This article originally appeared in the New England and Connecticut/New York Home Waters Sections of the May 2010 issue.