SW Boatworks survived and now thrives on Maine boatbuilding scene

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Stewart Workman avoided the urge to hunker down when business got tough. Now that’s paying off.

Miss Maggie II, a Calvin Beal 38 built by SW Boatworks, is powered with a Cummins QS11 that lets her do 25 knots.

Tuna.com: A celebrity fish chaser goes big Capt. Dave Carraro’s Calvin Beal-designed boat — at 44 feet LOA and with a beam of 17.6 feet — is longer and wider than his previous, a Duffy 38. Carraro was looking for a stable platform with plenty of space on deck and in the wheelhouse for the safety and comfort of his charter guests and crew. Carraro is one of the stars of the National Geographic Channel’s show Wicked Tuna, which follows the work of Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishermen who use rod-and-reel to catch giant bluefin, which can fetch as much as $20,000 per fish. Carraro says producers contacted him as one of the fleet’s top fishermen. A cameraman/producer is with the crew 24/7 for 10 weeks. Each captain is portrayed as a “character,” reaching different audience demographics, says Carraro. “Tyler’s the young guy, for the younger generations,” he says. “Dave Marciano is the family man.” Carraro is positioned as “competitive” and “sneaky” on the Wicked Tuna website. “We’re at the top of our game, catching two to three times as many as all the other boats. The guy catching the fish is the one everybody’s going to hate, so I’m the villain.” When he decided to buy a new boat, he headed to Down East Maine. The Duffy was great, he says, but tended to rock. A beamier boat would offer better lateral stability, and he was ready to go a little larger. After considering other designs, he settled on the Beal 44. “This boat is very stable, and the cabin is a lot bigger,” says Carraro. “The cockpit is a lot roomier, and even though it is bigger than my old boat, the fuel efficiency is going to be comparable. It’s a nice superwide boat. It’s hard to find a boat that wide,” says Carraro, who has spent days at a time at Stewart Workman’s yard since December, working on the boat himself. Carraro caught his first bluefin, a 1,100-pounder, as a teen growing up in New Jersey. He’s been fishing commercially and running a bluefin charter business ever since. He and his crew are on the water five or six days at a time for back-to-back trips. They catch 40 to 60 fish a year, usually 800 to 1,000 pounds each. His charter business also has a packed schedule of clients who have become good friends. (Carraro is also a pilot for JetBlue Airways, flying 10 days a month.) There are far easier ways to make money than commercial fishing, says Carraro, but he enjoys the challenge. “It’s a passion,” he says. “I like the whole thing from beginning to end — the hunt, the battle, the kill and then the paycheck.” Tuna.com is a practical, commercial-grade boat that’s durable, reliable and cleans up easily, with up-to-date technology, comfortable accommodations, a hold for three big fish, a bait well, an 800-gallon fuel capacity and a 1,000-hp Caterpillar diesel. There is a galley and tackle station in the saloon, as well as a big settee that converts to a berth. There are more berths and lockers for the crew below and a spacious head with a shower. Tuna.com has plenty of lounging areas for clients and 360-degree visibility. “When you get out there, it’s nice to have more room, better sleeping quarters, better stability,” Carraro says. “More elbow room makes a big difference when you spend so many days out there.”

It was 2008, in the throes of the Great Recession. Boatbuilding had dried up. Crews were laid off. Longtime builders know these things are cyclical: Discretionary spending goes away when the economy goes south, but eventually business picks up again. You hunker down and wait.

That’s what Stewart Workman did. Workman is the owner of SW Boatworks in Lamoine, Maine — at the time, a small shop with several craftsmen who finished fiberglass hulls, produced by other yards, for boaters, as well as commercial and sport fishermen.

Many of the hulls that passed through Workman’s doors were designed and produced by Calvin Beal Jr., who lived farther east along the coast on Beals Island, named for his 18th century forebears and still home to many descendants. Beal began building boats, first wood and later fiberglass, in the early 1970s, and his was one of many boat shops in the community. His designs were hugely popular with lobstermen, and they were Workman’s favorite.

Over the years, the two men got to know each other. Workman knew, for example, that Beal was thinking about getting out of boatbuilding to concentrate on his other job, lobster fishing. In fact, Workman had approached Beal two or three times about laying up the Beal molds himself, to keep his own production line going at a steady clip. A year or two passed, the men playing cat-and-mouse.

When the recession steamrolled in, work orders and income dropped off at Workman’s shop. And that’s when Beal told Workman he’d had enough of the business. Did Workman want to buy the molds?

Workman had been around long enough to know that customers would eventually circle back for new boats. So despite the drop-off in business, he stretched himself and made the deal.

“I came home, and my knees were shaking some. I said, ‘Man! I just spent some money!’ ” he recalls, taking a break from a busy day at his yard. “The economy was going to pieces, and I realized that if we didn’t have our own line of boats when the economy came back, we’d be out of business. Either we were smart or we were lucky, but it was the right decision to make. Calvin Beal boats were popular as it was, even through the slow economy, and there was enough trickling through to keep the lights on until things picked up and we started to get crew back.”

Tuna.com is a Calvin Beal 44 with a 17-foot, 6-inch beam.

Workman grew up in Prospect Harbor, Maine, where his father was a lobster buyer, so he was more or less raised on boats. When he was 6 or 7, he scraped up scrap plywood along the shore, built a shelter on a derelict punt, painted it black and stuck on an old tailpipe he’d found on the road for a make-believe exhaust. “Of course, the thing leaked like a sieve,” he says. “I used to row it around and scoop out the water.”

The family moved to nearby Winter Harbor, and Workman started lobster fishing during high school. After graduation, he went to work for Young Brothers in Corea, Maine, building lobster boats. “I saw all these lobster boats getting built, and I liked lobstering, so I borrowed a great big sack of money — of course, now you can’t buy half a truck for what I borrowed — and bought a boat and went lobster fishing.” It was a struggle; in the early 1980s, the lobster resource was nowhere near today’s abundance.

In his 20s, Workman sold the boat and joined the Coast Guard, traveling, working his way up the ranks and earning certification in a number of specialties. “It was an experience. I’m glad I did it,” he says. When his enlistment period was up, he returned to Maine.

Through the 1990s, he worked in marine construction and boat restoration, fished, and bought and ran an offshore charter fishing boat. But boatbuilding beckoned. By then, Workman had property in Lamoine. He opened a shop in 1999 and went on to finish a number of lobster boats, passenger boats, sportfishermen and yachts. In 2008, the decision to buy the Beal molds changed everything. The designs were always popular. Beal had built more than 120 boats from 34 to 44 feet. His shallow-draft skeg hulls were some of the beamiest, for their length, in the area. They were known for stability, easy sailing, good looks and spaciousness.

This Young Brothers 38, Raven, is hull No. 5, circa 1973. Stewart Workman and Tuna.com project lead Will Duffy (in hat) take a break from the yard’s busy pace.

“Calvin was known for taking the narrower boats on Beals Island and widening them,” says Workman, who is good friends with Beal. “He took the tumblehome out of the boats and spread them out the other way, making a bigger deck area. At the time, a lot of other builders thought he was crazy. But fishermen fell in love with them because they could get more traps on.”

Once the economy picked up, there was no break in sales. Beals sell themselves, says Workman. There are so many on the water, they act as their own advertisement.

A year later, another iconic shop, Young Brothers Boats — where Workman first learned boatbuilding — was selling its molds for seven boats, ranging from 30 to 45 feet, and they were reasonably priced. Twin brothers Arvin and Arvid and their older brother Colby, over the course of 30 years in business, had produced about 550 built-down lobster boats, popular among commercial fishermen, boaters and sport anglers. Ernest “Nernie” Libby Jr. (Beal’s cousin) designed and built the plugs, which conformed to a traditional 3-to-1 length-to-beam ratio and had a reputation for being handsome, easy-sailing and fast — some of them top contenders on Maine’s lobster boat racing circuit. 

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Shortly after Libby’s death in 2012, Workman also bought the molds for a 34 and 38, which Libby had made for his own shop on Beals Island. With his wife, Alice, eventually coming on as business manager, Workman began expanding the market for the Beal designs, offering them to boaters and sport anglers in addition to commercial fishermen. Marketing the Young Brothers designs came more recently, after reconditioning the molds. Why choose one line or the other? “As I put it to fishermen,” Workman says, “some guys like blondes, some like brunettes.”

As demand picked up, Workman’s shop was inadequate. The couple had 23 acres across the street and were planning to build a house. Instead, they put up two sizable buildings, for layup and finish. Today, they’ve sold 30 to 40 Beal boats, including the newest Maine Marine Patrol boat and a research vessel for Stockton University in New Jersey, and seven Young Brothers boats. Booked into 2017, the shop produces 12 to 15 vessels annually.

Earlier this year, Workman was meeting with a Boothbay Harbor lobsterman who was ready to upsize from a 36 Beal to a 38 or 42. Numerous Beals were in production. His layup crew was about to pop a 38 and a 44 from their molds, both for repeat customers. “Just like popping out a baby,” jokes Workman.

Elsewhere, to the tune of rock ’n’ roll and power tools, employees were aligning an engine on a 38 and fairing the gelcoat on a 36. Outside sat the recently completed Black Pearl, a handsome, split-wheelhouse 36 painted glossy black.

In the finish shop, a 38 Beal named All Out was nearly ready to launch for lobstering. With a beam of 15 feet, it’s a modern powerhouse that has a wide, flat deck, twin steering stations and a spacious wheelhouse that looks palatial, compared with the narrow shelters of older lobster boats.

In the next bay over, employees were fairing the gelcoat on Tuna.com, commissioned by Capt. Dave Carraro, one of the stars of the National Geographic Channel reality television show Wicked Tuna (see accompanying story on facing page).

Workman is meticulous, even hyper-organized, about fulfilling customer requirements. He demands excellent workmanship, nothing thrown together. To ensure the company stays that course, he’s ready to let its precipitous expansion settle into a steady rhythm that will endure, able to weather any future ups and downs. He likens that approach to a traditional sensibility.

“I grew up in the fishing business,” he says. “Some of the old-timers said, ‘When the lights go out and you need to hang on, you need to know where to put your hand.’ ”

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue.