Holding Course - The small-boat builders of Chesapeake Bay

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Your destination is on the right, the automated voice confidently announces. It is my third circle in the rental car, and my destination is on the right only if I am planning to drive through a ditch, past a patch of vine-covered trees and across a cove. But I can see a fleet of masts above the treetops, so I power off the useless GPS and wing it.

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A minute later, I pull into a yard full of marine businesses and find my way to an open hangar. Someone is doing touch-up on a stars-and-stripes-blue 34-foot Down Easter emblazoned with Classy Lady in gold across her stern. Nearby, a second boat rests on jacks. A dog sleeps in a tight curl across the threshold, seemingly oblivious to the heat of the late afternoon, the bright sunshine and the whine of a saw from a nearby building.

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I am visiting Mast & Mallet Boatworks in Edgewater, Maryland, the first stop on a three-day tour of Chesapeake boatbuilders, and I’m excited. My own boat is on the hard (long, sad story), and I like nothing better than thinking about the next one. Mast & Mallet has been near the top of my wish list for a long time (www.mastandmallet.com). Its very handsome boats combine the best features of the local deadrise with classic lobster-boat lines.

The company’s best-known designs, those in the Thomas Point series, are by Mike Kaufman, of Kaufman Design in Annapolis, who drew them all with a sharp entry for cutting smoothly through the chop and a shallow vee aft to increase planing efficiency. A flared bow deflects spray, and a hard chine resists rolling.

Joe Reid, of Mast & Mallet, keeps the year afloat with repairs, small boats and about one larger build a year.

The hulls are two layers of cold-molded 1-inch-thick cedar, saturated with WEST System epoxy; 3/4-by-3-inch frames hold the planks. Hull exteriors are coated in epoxy and sheathed with two layers of 10-ounce fiberglass cloth for strength and resistance to abrasion. The interior surfaces are clean and finished-looking, thanks to an epoxy barrier coating, and all other exterior areas are sheathed in epoxy/fiberglass. The result is a strong, lightweight hull with many of the preferred qualities of wood but few of the maintenance issues.

Joe Reid, who founded the company with partners in the early 1980s, says most of the boats stay in the Chesapeake Bay area, although one well-known model did a yearlong cruise of the Great Loop. The build time to launch for a 31 is six to eight months, according to Reid, who says Mast & Mallet employs three full-time workers. They build one or two boats a year and depend on repair and maintenance jobs to remain busy. Thomas Point builds have been launched in 30-, 32-, 34-, 40- and 44-foot models. They offer a 36 but haven’t built one yet, and Reid says they’re now focusing on the smaller end of the range.

I’m invited to have a look at the 34 in the shop and climb aboard. Classy Lady is a 1998 Thomas Point that looks absolutely Bristol. I note great sightlines from the helm, with lots of light flooding in to show off classic mahogany trim. The owner, who is working on the boat, reports that twin 330-hp Cummins diesels let her spin on a dime and that fuel efficiency is good. He says Classy Lady cruises at 14 knots with a full load and can hit 19 or 20 at wide-open throttle. The boat is on her way to a lot of East Coast cruising, so he has decided to add a bow thruster and is doing some touch-up in anticipation of a busy summer.

Before I leave, Reid walks me outside and uncovers a lovely boat he has built from his own design. It’s a 22-foot cold-molded beauty based on a Smith Island-style workboat that used to drag nets for softshells. Reid’s version is smaller and features a well for an outboard. It’s beautiful — simple and clean, with handsome trim — and I can imagine the joy it would bring to see her bobbing on a mooring at sunset, awaiting the next day’s outing.

Pete Mathews seems like a happy man. At least, that’s my first impression. It’s the morning after my visit to Mast & Mallet, and I’m now in Denton, Maryland, to see what’s happening at Mathews Bros. (www.mathewsbrothers.com). The yard is prosperous-looking, spread across 5 acres on the Choptank River, with multiple storage sheds and an air of industry. When Mathews and I sit down in his office to talk about the business in more detail, it becomes clear that a whole lot of hustling is what kept the boatyard alive through some lean years.

Pete Mathews, of Mathews Bros., produces a range of boats and also offers slips, transport, repair and storage.

“In 2006 and 2007, we were building six to nine boats a year, “ Mathews says, “plus doing repair and refit. In 2008, we went through a partnership buyout, moved our facilities over from the other side of Denton and both my parents, who lived with us, died.” Then the economy tanked.

“At least Annie didn’t leave me that year,” Mathews jokes about his wife and business partner, who works at a desk across the room from us. He says they held on by their fingernails through 2008. “I beat the streets looking for any work. I told people, ‘I don’t care if it’s a $100 job or a $100,000 job. I’d like to give you an estimate.’ And I didn’t charge for estimates.”

They survived by diversifying, adding boat transport to their storage, maintenance, repair and refit businesses. Eventually they bought a parcel of land on the other side of the Choptank, now called Mathews Landing, and added slip rentals and moorings to their menu of services.

During the downturn, Mathews was most afraid of having to let people go, but they managed to hang on to all of their workers and have had the same crew for eight to 10 years. He gives special credit to Dave Iglehart, his general manager, who has been with him for 21 years. “He’s been a lifesaver.”

Thirty percent of the business is still new builds. Mathews Bros. offers a Classic Bay Cruiser 22, Blackwater 29, Patriot 29, Patriot 29 II and the Mathews 40, all in fiberglass. The Blackwater was the first of the 29-foot designs — all built on the same Cecil Robbins hull — and emphasizes comfortable cruising for two. The Patriot 29, though still suitable for cozy cruising, has a smaller galley and a larger cockpit, which make it ideal for picnic runs and dayboating. The Patriot II has a shallow draft (24 inches) and more speed. And the 40, a Robbins design favored by Bay watermen when Mathews adapted it, is the flagship of the fleet, featuring customizable accommodations for extended cruising in comfort.

“If I wound up building two boats a year, plus the repair business, I think I’d be happy. I’m not sure I’d want to go back to that madness,” Mathews says of the boom years with a wry smile. As I said, he’s a happy man.

Front and center at the Mathews yard on my visit is a half-completed 32-foot Eastport, the first one to emerge from the yard under a new arrangement that takes advantage of the Mathews Bros.’ skills and facilities to produce the Annapolis-based Eastport Yacht Co. brand. On my way back to the car, I stop and talk with Mick Price, who with Tom Weaver is a founder of the company. Price oversees design and construction, and Weaver handles marketing and sales. At the moment, Price is clearly engrossed in getting this new Eastport finished. He has the slightly haunted look of a guy who is running behind schedule.

A trio of Eastport 32s strut their stull off Annapolis, Maryland. Mathews Bros. now builds this model.

“Tom Weaver and I started Eastport in 2006. We had our first boat at the Annapolis show in 2007 — great timing,” he adds, with a facetious grin. Despite the economic downturn, Eastport got off to a strong start; Roger Brook of Brook Boatworks in Washington, North Carolina, built 14 boats for Eastport before he went out of business about a year ago.

“We had 10 investors who paid for the initial tooling, and they’re almost paid back,” Price says. “We have been struggling to build one or two boats a year, but four to six would be great.”

The concept behind the Eastport 32 was to create a modernized dayboat — open but well shaded by a long hardtop. It would have an almost Carolina-style underbody, twin engines with props in pockets. Quick and well suited to open water, easy to take care of, with little to varnish, it also would have fewer accommodations than a Down East cruiser. However, what most people cherish about the Eastport 32 is its distinctive drop-down, tailgate-style stern.

Eastport has designs for a 26 and a 43 on the boards that have yet to be built, but as hull No. 15 is finished up at Mathews and the economy is rebounding, they’re optimistic.(www.eastportyacht.com)

I ‘ve left several phone messages at Judge, another Denton, Maryland, builder and had no response, but I decide to swing by, anyway. Judge is known for well-respected fiberglass boats with a distinctive Chesapeake look and a hose-off-and-go aesthetic that fishermen love. There are several boats in the shop and a handful on jackstands in the yard. A loud, classic-rock radio station is playing, and a couple of young guys are working. They’re friendly and let us look around but say there’s no one to talk to; the rockfish are biting, and everyone has gone fishing.

Susan Campbell, Tom Campbell’s wife and partner in their marine operations, meets me on their Bachelor Point docks in Oxford, Maryland. As she shows me around and tells me the story of how they built their business, I hear echoes of Pete Mathews’ story. Both are family enterprises that are passionate about boatbuilding, but offer an array of services that have helped ease the strain in lean years. (www.campbellcustomyachts.com)

Campbell Yachts custom-builds on proven Duffy hulls.

Like Mathews Bros., the Campbell Yacht Co. has a busy repair and maintenance operation, as well as three dock locations in historic Oxford. They offer open and covered slips at Jack’s Point, a single pier with slips in the quiet and protected Town Point location and an 8-acre basin at Bachelor Point on the mouth of the Tred Avon River. There are 80 slips here that can accommodate boats to 100 feet, with as much as 10 feet of draft. Bachelor Point is also the heart of Campbell’s repair, maintenance and boatbuilding operations and it includes a 70-ton lift, an acre and a half of dry storage area and 6,000 square feet of workshops for maintenance, repowers and repairs. All three Campbell brothers are involved in the business — Doug is a Cummins tech, and P.J. is heading up their new brokerage services. There isn’t much you can’t get done at Campbell’s, and their reputation for quality work and excellent customer service has kept them in business since 1999. But Susan admits that it’s boatbuilding that has always been Tom’s real passion.

And, my, do they build a pretty yacht. Campbell apprenticed with Don Loweree, building cold-molded, double-carvel-planked one-offs, and he worked with designers Robb Ladd and Mike Kaufman in the ’80s. Today the Campbell Yacht Co. starts each build on a Maine-built Duffy hull, then customizes the interior to the customer’s specifications. The company offers a 31, 35, 37, 39 and 42, but the 37 has been the most popular.

Designed by Spencer Lincoln in 2002, the 37 combines traditional Down East lines with a semidisplacement hull. She is said to ride very level on her lines, providing good visibility from the helm and comfort on the hook. The 37 is offered as a sedan or flybridge cruiser with galley up, two staterooms and one head. Bulkheads are constructed of balsa-cored panels with laminate veneer. Trims and doors are cherry (or another choice of wood) with bright finish; the exterior is Awlgripped.

Campbell has built and sold five 37s and four 35s and multiple smaller boats. A 31-foot Bayboat, also built on a Duffy hull, is a dayboat that’s found fans, too. Campbell Yacht Co. builds about a boat a year — as Susan Campell puts it, “We always seem to have one boat under way.”

Dave Mason at Chesapeake Boat Co. hasn’t returned my messages, but I decide to drive down to Crisfeld, Maryland, anyway for a look around. It’s not a particularly pretty day — warm but gray and overcast. The blankness of the sky, combined with the unfamiliar scenery, creates an out-of-time feeling that’s slightly dreamy and I enjoy my drive south.

Wide, flat fields lie spread before farmhouses that are set back from the road. Despite their lack of architectural flourish, they seem to meet my gaze proudly, like plain girls that know their worth. Giant irrigation systems dot the landscape, and occasionally I pass a massive poultry producer, corporate operations that bear little resemblance to farms. Yet once in a while there is a lonely farm stand on the side of the road offering eggs, vegetables and flowers on the coffee-can honor system.

I drop in on Chesapeake Boats, giving it one last shot, but Mason is out, and only one worker is minding the shop. A large frame is in progress and the yard is dotted with molds. I leave my card and continue into town, where Crisfield Highway dead-ends at the water, and I get out to stretch my legs. Mail, groceries, appliances and funeral wreaths are loaded onto a ferry bound for Smith Island. I enjoy the sensation of being in a place I don’t know, and as I watch the passengers headed out to their island homes in the great Chesapeake, I grasp the affinity they feel for these waters and for the boats that bring them home.

September 2014 issue