Only In New York

Other boat builders have left Long Island, but Steiger Craft has no plans to relocate, only a desire to stay put in the Empire State and craft each boat by hand
Author:
Publish date:
Al Steiger at Steiger Craft in Bellport, New York.

Al Steiger at Steiger Craft in Bellport, New York.

The pungent tang of fiberglass resin fills the air at Steiger Craft, a four-acre complex of sheds in Bellport, New York, where a wholesale bakery once stood. Alan Steiger, the 66-year-old grandson of that baker, runs Steiger Craft today—and in doing so is keeping one of Long Island’s only boatbuilding shipyards alive.

With the Scopinich family having recently announced that, after five generations, they’re planning to cease boatbuilding operations at Hampton Shipyard in East Quogue, Long Island now has far more yards offering maintenance, dockage and storage than actually building boats. While dozens of yards built boats here from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, a steady influx of condominium developers, along with changing tastes among boat buyers, has left Steiger Craft as one of the only yards that is turning out locally styled hulls today.

Hustler Powerboats in Calverton and Super Boat International Productions in Lindenhurst are still operating, but they make only a dozen or fewer powerboats annually. By contrast, the 45 full-time employees at Steiger Craft (many of them 30- or 40-year veterans of the company) are building 120 to 150 boats a year, offering about 15 models but focusing on a handful: 21, 23, 25, 28 and 31 feet. The 25 is the most popular, selling for about $120,000. Steiger Craft’s top-of-the-line boat starts at $225,000. The brand has six regional dealers around the country who own multiple locations for a total of 16 shops. Annual sales are $8 million to $9 million, with projections for $10 million to $11 million next year.

“We build three boats a week,” Steiger says. “Many years ago, when we were building 16-foot boats, we could build about 10 a day.”

Like the rest of the boatbuilding industry, Steiger Craft saw its sales plummet during and after the Great Recession in 2008. Orders sank from 120 a year in 2007 to 25 in 2009. Steiger diversified to survive, doing contract work for the U.S. Navy until the recreational business picked up again.Ironically, while Steiger has held on longer than most of the other boatbuilders in the area, he had no interest in working for the family business when he was a kid. He preferred to be out on the water instead of inside a building.

DSC_0692

“When the bakery was going on and I was growing up, I was a commercial fisherman on the bay: clamming, crabbing, scalloping,” he says. “Once I got into high school, I started designing boats, and I had a little woodshop in the back of the property where we built commercial fishing things.”

When he wasn’t fishing commercially, he was wetting hooks for fun. But by 1972, Steiger gave up the commercial work “because I couldn’t make enough money.” He began selling supplies to other clammers and constructing wooden boats when he had time, before transitioning into being a full-time boatbuilder.

At first, he built only in wood, but by 1975, he had switched to handlaid fiberglass construction. And that has not changed. Today, the only significant part of his boats that contain wood are the transoms. No robots or machines are used to assemble the boats because Steiger is convinced that doing everything by hand provides sufficient quality.

Although Steiger Craft boats originally were designed for the shallow waters of Long Island’s Great South Bay, in the mid-1990s, Steiger developed deep-V hulls for ocean recreational fishing. Almost everything that goes into a Steiger Craft boat is made on-site. That includes the molds used to create the hulls, as well as components. “We buy the motors from Yamaha, Suzuki and Evinrude, and we buy the stainless steel cleats and things, but anything that’s wood or fiberglass, we make,” he says.

He’s still noodling with designs today, sometimes using an erasable board set up behind his elaborate desk that one of the company carpenters made years ago.

“We’re making changes every year to all of our boats,” he says. “We recently changed the freeboard on the 21, 23 and 25, and now we’re changing the freeboard on the 28 and 31.” He’s also rearranging the interior and deck layout on the 31-footer. And on the 28-footer, air conditioning and heat will now be an option, while the cabin is being enlarged to add features.

Hulls are handlaid with fiberglass. 

Hulls are handlaid with fiberglass. 

Most of Steiger Craft’s customers are fishermen who sometimes take their families to the beach or out to Fire Island. His most famous customer was singer-songwriter Billy Joel, a Long Island resident who has owned more than 20 boats over the years.

“Billy Joel had the only Steiger Craft inboard that we ever built, and used it to commute back and forth to the city,” Steiger says, referencing Manhattan.

Even Steiger’s wife, Erin, is a former customer. Their relationship began when she bought her second Steiger Craft from him, and she sometimes works at the shipyard today. Stepson Connor Brogan, who is 34, lives next door and serves as night watchman when not working full-time in law enforcement.

While Steiger calls construction “a pretty simple process,” it takes four weeks and about 400 to 500 worker hours to produce a single Steiger Craft boat.

First, wooden molds are handmade, and then used once to make a fiberglass mirror-image version. The fiberglass molds, which cost about $1 million to create, can be used indefinitely until a model is redesigned. Colorful, unused molds are scattered in the tall grass in a rear corner of the property, like a sculpture park.

With the fiberglass mold ready, Steiger says, “the first thing we do is to wax the mold, and then we spray it” with colored gelcoat pigment. The gelcoat will be the outermost layer of the finished boat. Then, about 20 layers of fiberglass cloth and resin are applied over the gelcoat.

Steiger Craft boats were originally built for the waters of the Great South Bay. 

Steiger Craft boats were originally built for the waters of the Great South Bay. 

Next, employees install a set of fiberglass stringers and inject them with foam to help keep the components in place, make the boat quieter and prevent it from sinking if it fills with water. The fiberglass stringer system that Steiger invented, he says, makes each Steiger Craft a very strong boat.

Hatches and other components are made out of StarBoard, a popular marine-grade polymer material. The fabrication is done with a computer-controlled router for speed, and to ensure interchangeability of parts. Employees then use power tools to attach rails, cleats and other fixtures to the deck.

This is the way things have been done at Steiger Craft for many years, and despite the exodus of other Long Island builders from the region and the industry, Steiger has no plans to relocate or change his business model. He’s seen plenty of colleagues move their operations to places outside of New York, where cheaper labor can be found, but he’s staying put in the Empire State with his fellow Long Islanders.

“There’s no place like Long Island,” he says. “The average New Yorker works three or four times smarter [and] harder than a guy living somewhere else. Even though I pay more, I get more.” 

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.