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Perfecting the 'gentleman’s dayboat'

Matthew Sledge returns to his roots to build hull No. 1 of the cold-molded Samoset 30

Maine boatbuilder Matthew Sledge worked for a dozen years with high-tech composites to build some of the finest racing sailboats around.

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Sledge built and repaired more than 65 vessels as part of the team at Goetz Custom Boats in Bristol, R.I., including America’s Cup and Whitbread/Volvo Ocean Race boats.

Over the years, though, he tired of building composite boats. Another material was calling his name. “I got sick of Kevlar and carbon fiber,” Sledge says. “What I’ve learned is even with all the exotics and high-tech materials, it’s still pretty tough to beat wood.”

Clearly a firm believer in the wooden boat, he’s set up shop as Samoset Boatworks in Boothbay, Maine. His first boat is a cold-molded beauty called the Samoset 30.

Describing the diesel 30-footer, Sledge extols the virtues of a wooden boat. “Wood handles the sea better than fiberglass,” says Sledge, who is 41. “A wooden boat, she’s unbelievably quiet at full speed. There’s no vibration because the wood absorbs it all, and it absorbs the noise, too.”

The Samoset 30 project was four or five years in the making, according to Sledge. “I saw a boat that was built up here by one of Timmy Hodgdon’s relatives,” he says of a 24-foot dayboat that inspired the Samoset. “I liked the boat — there was nothing else like it on the water — but I wanted it a little bit bigger.”

Sledge approached naval architect Doug Zurn. “I told Doug I wanted a dry-riding boat, that no matter how snotty it was coming back from Monhegan [Island], you’d stay dry,” says Sledge. The hull is stable at rest and stable under way, he says, and he has experienced wind-over-wave conditions that proved to him how dry it is.

“She’s got a bit of a Down East hull shape as far as the sheer goes, with just a hint of Carolina flare at the bow to keep her dry,” he says.

In the end, several design and construction characteristics mark the difference between the Samoset 30 and the 24-foot launch that inspired it. The skinny 24-footer was built of traditional plank-on-frame construction, with a round bilge and a gas inboard. The cold-molded wood-epoxy Samoset 30 has more beam, hard chines, a modified-vee hull shape, and diesel propulsion. However, the timelessness of Down East good looks connects the boats.

A boy and his boats

Sledge spent 12 years building high-tech boats with exotic materials.

Though Sledge builds his boats in Maine and calls the Pine Tree State home, he hails from Marblehead, Mass., where he was raised on and around the water. “My father’s always had sailboats, so I always went boating with him,” he says. “I grew up sailing with Dad.” In fact, Sledge says his love for his current home state came from cruising the Maine coast with his family in his youth.

In addition to sailing experience, Sledge got his first taste of working with wood, including building a small boat, while at his father’s side. “He is a very good woodworker in his own right,” says Sledge, whose father retired as chief of orthopedics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “I spent a lot of time in the basement workshop building things with him — I have the scars to prove it — as a young boy.”

Early in life, he dreamed of designing boats. “Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be a naval architect,” he says. After graduating from Tabor Academy in Marion, Mass., he attended The Landing School in Arundel, Maine, where at one point he stayed on at the end of the semester for a hands-on boatbuilding course. That decision to hang around proved fateful.

Sledge describes succinctly what’s so satisfying about building a boat: “Taking a two-dimensional drawing and making a three-dimensional object from a pile of materials.” He was hired by Eric Goetz as a Landing School graduate in 1989 and hasn’t stopped building boats since. However, Sledge never planned to make a career out of building composite boats. “I thought it would be fun to go down and build custom composite boats for a few years,” he says. “And I finally left them in August 2001.”

While the building materials and technology used at Samoset Boatworks are obviously different from those at Goetz, the lessons from a dozen years building custom boats certainly apply. “All the boats that I built at Goetz have helped me in what I’m doing now,” he says. “I didn’t build the same boat again and again and again. With new boats come new challenges.”

Today, boatbuilding is once again a family affair for Sledge. In addition to the guidance of his father, Sledge’s girlfriend keeps the company checkbook, and her father, who used to run a small boatyard in East Boothbay, occasionally works in the shop. Sledge’s young son and daughter are often under foot, too.

‘A work of art’

Cold-molded construction results in a wooden boat encapsulated in epoxy, which is then sheathed in fiberglass cloth. The first Samoset 30 took 18 months to build. Sledge worked alone for the first nine or 10 months, he says, but finished the boat with a crew of three, who are still part of the operation.

“With cold molding you can get a nice stiff, light hull,” he says. With full fuel tanks and water tanks, the Samoset 30 weighs in at less than 8,000 pounds. The boat’s efficient, too.

“At a 20-knot cruise you’re burning a little more than 4 gallons per hour, which is remarkable for a boat this size,” he says. “Compare that to a fiberglass boat with twin 250-hp outboards that’s burning 12 gallons per hour at that speed.”

“It’s a proven design on our part — very easily driven through the water and fuel-efficient, dry and soft,” says designer Zurn.

From a builder’s perspective, Sledge says, cold molding is cost-effective for limited-production boats because it doesn’t require a lot of expensive tooling. He says he invested a fraction of the price of a hull mold on his building jig. Fit and finish, however, set the Samoset 30 apart.

“The boat’s just incredible, what he’s done,” says Zurn. “It’s just a work of art. It’s something that’s going to be handed down from generation to generation.”

Zurn describes a boat with Awlgripped bilges and the underside of the deck finished. “Places you wouldn’t usually see are perfect,” he says.

Sledge built the first boat on spec to get his company started. He describes hull No. 1 as a “gentleman’s dayboat.” While it has a couple of rod holders, it’s fitted out with plenty of teak and brightwork, and it has an enclosed head compartment in the center console, with a VacuFlush marine head and a stainless-steel sink. The price tag on hull No. 1 is $425,000.

“Basically I set it up as a showpiece to say, ‘This is what I can do,’ ” says Sledge.

The boat has stainless steel deck hardware and grab rails, Awlgripped deck and hull, and a varnished teak deck coaming, toe rail and flagstaff. “Less varnish is less money,” Sledge quips.

He has already received interest in building a 30 as a pure fishing boat, with outriggers and bait wells. He also could move the forward bulkhead aft and install a V-berth. “You can have the boat set up any way you like,” he says.

And it won’t just be Samoset 30s coming out of the Boothbay shop. Sledge and his crew are up for most any boatbuilding challenge. “With the envelope I have in my shop, I can probably build up to a 45-foot boat,” he says. “I’d love it if somebody walked up to me today and said, ‘Build this boat.’ ”


LOA: 31 feet, 11 inches

BEAM: 9 feet, 8 inches

DRAFT: 3 feet, 5 inches

DISPLACEMENT: 6,360 pounds

HULL TYPE: modified-vee


POWER: 440-hp diesel (prop or waterjet)

SPEED: 49 mph top, 29 mph cruise

PRICE: $425,000

CONTACT: Samoset Boatworks, Boothbay, Maine.

PHONE: (207) 633-8350


This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.