Steve White is president of Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine, a full-service facility on Eggemoggin Reach between Blue Hill and Penobscot bays that specializes in wooden boat design, construction and repair. White’s father, designer Joel White, became sole proprietor of the business in 1960. White learned the business as a boy at his father’s knee. Today, he directs a world-class crew of craftsmen who produce some of the most interesting boats plying waters around the globe.
Tell us about the custom work at Brooklin Boat Yard. We’ve always been a custom builder. We’ve never done a production boat of any type. We’ve produced over 120 custom boats since the company was founded, and we launch two to three boats per year.
Do you build more sailboats? We’ve never catered to one or the other. Back in the early days, when dad ran the yard, most of the work was powerboats up through the late 1970s. Then it turned around. Since then, we’ve been building primarily sailboats, although this year, three of the four new boats we will launch are power. They include a 28-foot varnished mahogany speedboat for Lake Winnipesaukee that’s very high-end in terms of execution.
Why do boaters come to you for custom builds? I suppose the decision is based on our reputation. There aren’t a lot of custom boatbuilders left in the U.S., and we’ve been doing it for 60 years. We have a big backlog of successful projects and a major part of that success is we have been able to develop boats on time and on budget. That’s common in our business. We go through an intensive process before signing the contract where we do good estimates on material and labor costs.
Why are there fewer custom yards in the U.S. today? There are more choices in production boats and the manufacturers are building better boats than they used to. And custom work is not particularly profitable. We make less on custom than we do on our storage and repair business, but we do it because it keeps the very best people working with us. The best people want to be challenged and interested. Because we have custom boats under construction each year, we get great employees who tend to stay with us.
Do you enjoy the creativity that comes with the custom process? It’s so rewarding. Imagine an empty shop floor, and nine months later there’s a 50-foot sailboat ready to launch. It’s also satisfying to look back at the boats we’ve built over the years. Many have gone around the world. Once in a while I will bump into a boat we built decades ago. It’s rewarding to learn where it’s been.
Has the custom customer changed over the years? It wasn’t uncommon to order a custom boat 30 years ago. It’s more uncommon now. Today, custom boats are for those who can’t find exactly what they want in the production market. They have specific ideas about what they want to express in a boat. We haven’t executed a lot of really radical ideas, but there have been a few.
What’s the most outrageous design to come from the yard? The sloop Foggy was exciting. That was Frank Gehry’s boat. German Frers was the naval architect. It was fun to work with the two of them. Frank would say, ‘You need to make sure I don’t do anything really stupid or ridiculous.’ The concepts and ideas were his own, but he usually left us to figure out how to actually build it. That was the challenge for us. For example, the boat had elaborate windows in the hull and deck. Frank left it to us to figure out how to make the windows strong enough for the boat to do what it needed to do. There was also the clear windshield. Frank wanted it to keep passsengers in the cockpit comfortable, but not take away from the boat’s aesthetics. So, it was designed to disappear. We had to build it strong enough to take a wave, but we couldn’t add big pillars to hold it in place. Foggy was an unusual boat that presented us with many challenges. Some yards would have no interest in taking on that type of project because there is the possibility of failing.
What was your favorite project? I have a lot of favorites. A 55-foot IMS racing boat designed by Bill Tripp was one of them. It was big for us at the time and Tripp had a very aggressive build schedule. We met at the New York Yacht Club one August and looked at sketches that were not much more than notes on a napkin. He said, ‘I’m willing to give you a bonus if you deliver it in early April next year.’ We managed to do it, and then I went on to sail aboard the boat in a number of high-level races, including the Pineapple Cup and the Gold Cup Trans-Atlantic Race from New York to Southampton, England. It was so rewarding to build and then participate in that type of racing. I met a lot of great people through the experience.
Are there other favorite boats? Wild Horses, [a 76-foot Spirit of Tradition racing sloop], because it was my father’s last design. He didn’t get to see it launched, but he saw the hull complete. And of course, my own boat, Vortex [a racing/cruising sloop launched in 1990]. At that time, I was concerned that traditional wooden boats might disappear, so we built Vortex with the cold-molded construction process that was relatively new then. It was a turning point for the yard. I thought it could be a good advertisement for us, so I built it on spec and hoped to sell it in a year. The smartest thing I ever did was build a boat that I actually wanted to own. I never sold it. And cold-molded construction has turned out to be terrific for us.
Which projects would your father have liked? I think he’d be interested in most of the work we have done, although I don’t think he would have liked Foggy particularly. In his opinion, it might have been too much excess and just too different for the sake of being different.
Did you grow up in Maine? Yes, and I worked at the boatyard as a kid. When I was 15, I had had enough of Brooklin. It wasn’t the end of the world, but I felt like I could see it from there. I wanted to get out, so I went to prep school in Massachusetts. I then attended Cornell, where my father and grandfather [writer E.B. White] went, but dropped out after six weeks. After a winter in Colorado, I went back to college at American in Switzerland and then Colby, but left to work on tugboats in Louisiana. After those experiences, Brooklin looked more attractive. I came back at the age of 25.
Have you been boating since you were young? I’ve always been interested in sailing. My father bought me a Beetle Cat to push me off. I sailed in Maine every summer. I’ve owned a lot of boats over the years. At one time, I had more boats than fingers and toes.
How does a love of boats make you a better builder? The experiences I’ve had sailing and racing the boats we’ve built have allowed me to appreciate the value of the details; you realize how important they are when you actually use the boats. The sailboat Aurora taught me the most about building boats. We raced it all over the world. Its purpose was very defined, with performance the focus. By using it, I could observe whether it could hold up to the rigors of racing.
The yard launched the Wheeler 38 late last year, a reinterpretation of Hemingway’s Pilar. What’s your impression of the boat? It was a great project and Wes Wheeler was so into it. He’s very proud of his family heritage; his great-grandfather started the Wheeler Yacht Company. But when it came to designing the boat, he didn’t want a reproduction of the 38 from the 1930s. He wanted it to be up to date in technology and performance. It has the Can Bus system, electronic switching through a computer and all the conveniences that Hemingway never had, including air conditioning and Seakeeper. Last September, I joined the boat’s owner for a run south to Annapolis. It was fun to use the boat in the manner it was designed for, which is coastal cruising. The plan is to produce more of these boats from our yard, as we are the official builder for the Wheeler Yacht Company. A 46 may be coming soon.
What other boats are coming in the near future? I mentioned that 28-foot mahogany speedboat, which should be done in July or August. It’s our first project with Michael Peters, who did the design. We have wanted to work together for years. I just love his aesthetic. It’s very much like mine. He is influenced by classic design and shape, but he loves to add a modern touch. His minimalist styling reminds me of Spirit of Tradition. We do a lot of that in sailboats. He’s doing it in powerboats.
Knowing what you know about running a successful yard today, what advice would you have benefited from as a younger man? Persevere and stay with it. And just keep doing what you love doing, because it won’t feel like work that way.
This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue.