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Bay State builder reaches milestone

This spring, Fortier Boats of Somerset, Mass., will commission hull No. 400 of its Fortier 26.

This spring, Fortier Boats of Somerset, Mass., will commission hull No. 400 of its Fortier 26.

It has been 30 years since the family-run business built its first fiberglass model of the venerable New England-style bass boat. Roger Fortier Sr., and his son, Rod Fortier, built the plug and mold for an Eldredge-McInnis design with help from family friends in 1976.

The company now builds the 26, and a twin-screw 30 and 33. Rod Fortier, who is 48, is the vice president and not afraid to get his hands dirty building a boat.

His father, now 76, can be found either in the upstairs offices, or down on the shop floor supervising. Anne Louise, Rod’s mother, is usually upstairs answering the phone and greeting customers. Fortier says his father and mother come in daily.

“It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this for this long,” says Fortier. “He was my age when we started this business.”

The Fortiers built their first 26 out of wood in 1974 or 1975 while Rod was still in high school. His parents were sailors, and the powerboat was a good way for him to catch up to them when they sailed to Martha’s Vineyard.

Meanwhile, the Biddle family of South Dartmouth, Mass., was building various fiberglass products. They helped the Fortiers build a plug and mold for the 26 and the first fiberglass model was finished in June 1976.

Roger Fortier’s boatbuilding enterprise met with early skepticism.

“Everybody thought he was crazy, because he was a pretty well-known housing contractor around here,” says Fortier.

The elder Fortier felt he could get by if he built a house and a boat or two a year, his son says. In the mid-1970s the housing market fell on hard times. At the time, a large Massachusetts-based building supply company offered to provide materials if Roger would supply labor. When he turned down the offer, the owner of the building supply company laughed, his son says.

“ ‘What are you going to do, build boats?’ ” the supplier asked, incredulously. People need houses, not boats, he reasoned.

But the new business quickly thrived. Fortier Boats was incorporated in 1977 and sold 11 boats in its first year. By the time they hit the boat show in Boston in 1978 they were already sold out.

Fortier Boats attended its last boat show in the mid-1990s, Fortier says. The company receives the same number of orders each year and has no plans to expand. In some years the company built 20 to 24 boats, but it did not offer three different sizes in those days.

Today, the company is a low-key operation focused on turning out about 12 solidly built semi-custom boats per year. There are four employees in the shop and one office staff.

In addition to his parents, Fortier’s wife, Joan, and their four children often hang around the shop. “It’s a real family affair,” says Fortier.

Fortier Boats doesn’t go in for flashy advertising — the builder didn’t do anything special to commemorate hulls No. 200 or 300 of the 26 — and there is no luxury showroom.

Inside the shop

The boatbuilding takes place in three main rooms in an L-shaped building along the TauntonRiver in Somerset. Hulls and decks are laid up and fiberglassed together in “the glass shop” located on the northeast side of the building.

When all the work is done in the glass shop a boat is wheeled outside and down to the large finish shop that occupies the southwest wing of the building. Half the finish shop is dedicated to storage. In other words, half the finish shop is empty in the summer.

The glass shop and the finish shop sandwich a third room, where much of the carpentry work takes place.

Dan Costa, an employee of 18 years, usually works in the glass shop alone; however, Fortier will pull someone off another job to help out when necessary.

On a clear, sunny Tuesday in January, Fortier had two men working in the glass shop — one cutting and one cleaning — with an eye toward taking advantage of the weather to put the deck on a 33 that afternoon.

Fortier Boats lays up its hulls, for the most part, one at a time. On this day there was a 26 in the mold, in addition to the 33 ready to have the deck attached to the hull.

To accomplish that, first a lift truck was used to pull the hull of the 33, in its mold, to an open area between the building and the TauntonRiver. Then the deck, also in its mold, was brought outside where a crane and several lines and hooks were manipulated to flip the deck right side up. The crane lifted the deck and then the lift truck pushed the hull into position. Fortier was right there in the middle of the three-person job, jumping back and forth between the crane and the lift truck.

“You gotta check the liner bulkhead and be sure it lines up,” Fortier explained.

Costa and Fortier jumped into the boat to check the fit, then the vice president headed back to the crane. He lifted the deck up again, Costa ground off the fiberglass to get the right fit, while a third worker guided the hanging setup with a couple of lines.

“It’s easier to have too much than to add,” Fortier said of the extra fiberglass being ground off.

When the right fit was found and the crane unhooked, they bolted the hull and deck molds together. Then they moved the whole shooting match back into the glass shop, where an all-fiberglass hull-and-deck joint would be completed over the course of the next day or two.

Pride and workmanship

Fortier Boats uses no mechanical fasteners or sealers, Fortier says. Instead of an overlapping “coffee can” hull-and-deck joint covered by a rub rail that a production builder might make, Fortier Boats glasses the boat together to make one piece.

“It’s a little bit slower production-wise, but it’s a better product in the end,” says Fortier.

The boats are built with high-quality materials such as vinylester resins in lay-up, foam coring, and 1708 fiberglass on the hull-and-deck joint. But they’re not looking to save a lot of weight because they want a heavy, seaworthy boat, Fortier says.

The boats were originally built with Airex core construction, and in 1992 Fortier Boats was the first builder in the world to switch to Corecell coring, he says. They still had enough Airex for two to three years worth of boats, but ended up selling it to other builders.

“Foam core is really coming on now, but we’ve been using foam core for 30 years,” says Fortier.

Boats are wheeled into the finish shop for everything from woodwork to plumbing and electronics.

Typically, a 26 spends about two weeks in the glass shop, while 30s and 33s take between three and three-and-a-half weeks. Depending on the customer’s order, a boat will be in the finish shop for anywhere from five to 10 weeks.

Then whenever carpenter Mike LaChance is free, he’ll make teak windshields two or three at a time in the middle shop. Pride and workmanship keep the quality high, says Fortier.

“Anybody can buy the best materials,” he says.

Like Costa, LaChance is a longtime employee. He is celebrating 22 years with Fortier Boats in March. The long tenures are of benefit.

“They get to know all the customers and the customers get to know them,” says Fortier. “Customers feel good when they come back for their second or third boat knowing that the same guys are here, keeping up the same quality.”

Fortier Boats also has built long-term relationships with its vendors.

“Most of the vendors that we use, we’ve been with since we started,” says Fortier. This has led to a consistent boat throughout the years.

New England lineage

Fortier says he’s happy with the size of the factory, which the company moved into in 1985. The facility on the TauntonRiver, formerly the Somerset Boatyard, holds close ties for both the Fortier 26 and the Fortier family.

A wooden Brownell 33 — a relative to the designs built by Fortier Boats — was built here in 1959. Roger Fortier Sr. kept a 40-foot Matthews here, and built a 30-foot cabin cruiser here in 1957, the year of Rod’s birth. (Rod was involved in building a boat for the first time just 11 years later.)

Brownell Boat Works of Mattapoisett, Mass., first built the original Eldredge-McInnis open 26 design in the mid-1950s. Then Moss Marine, of Fall River, Mass., built a similar design with lapstrake construction and more beam aft, as the Sakonnet 26. Alan McInnis eventually modified it slightly for fiberglass construction.

“It’s basically a fiberglass Sakonnet 26,” Fortier says of the Fortier 26.

The boat measures 26 feet, 9 inches (LOA) with a 10-foot beam. It has a fuel capacity of 100 gallons, a displacement of 6,500 pounds, a draft of 2 feet, 6 inches, and a full molded keel and skeg for stability and running gear protection. Power comes from a single 225-hp diesel inboard. Other diesel options are available.

The open striper-fishing boat has a self-bailing cockpit, removable cockpit sole and a cushioned motor box. The cabin has a V-berth, a marine head with holding tank, a water system, and a stove. Price of a Fortier 26 is $110,000, and the boat is available with aft steering and controls.

Loyalty to boat and builder

Hull No. 400 of the 26 will go to a very loyal Fortier Boats owner, Sears Ingraham of Darien, Conn. Ingraham, who is 78, keeps a Fortier 26 at his home in Naples, Fla., and is downsizing from a Fortier 33 to a new 26 to keep in the Northeast. A lifelong boater, he has been a Fortier Boats owner since 1989.

He says he got the invoice price for his 33 when he sold it after 13 years. He says he maintained the boat well and Fortier kept up the varnish work.

The Fortiers have personally solved issues with refrigeration, batteries, and one pesky engine mount bolt for Ingraham. Before construction of a boat, the Fortiers will sit down with the owner-to-be and thoroughly go over the boat, its equipment, and special requests. Ingraham was moved to write a letter to a boating magazine that took the builder to task for not having a written guarantee.

“They have a marvelous guarantee that isn’t in writing,” says Ingraham, retired director of a Fortune 500 company, in a phone interview. “The Fortiers stick by everything.”

The 400th 26 will have a bow thruster and more teak — Ingraham says he has more money now — and will take advantage of new soundproofing technology. Fortier describes Ingraham’s new boat as “a little yacht, varnished to the nines.”

Other boats are flat-out fishing machines. In addition, Fortier Boats has built yacht club launches, harbormasters’ boats, and regatta committee boats.

Fortier Boats has built a regatta patrol boat and a harbormaster’s boat for Edgartown, Mass.

S. Bailey Norton was commodore of the Edgartown Yacht Club in the early 1990s. An Edgartown native, Norton lived on the mainland for years, working as an engineer in the manufacturing industry.

He retired in 1981, moved back to Edgartown, and bought a Fortier 33 in 1982. At the time, he says he thought he’d get another four or five years on the water. Now, at age 85, he’s coming up on his 25th boating season since retirement.

“The past 25 years has been a great experience working with the [Fortier] family,” says Norton, adding that both father and son can answer boat-related questions off the tops of their heads.

He describes the boats as extremely well built, available in any kind of finish, and based on a great design.

Norton owned one of two Fortier 40s ever built. The 40, another Eldredge-McInnis design, was originally built by Brownell and designed to compete with Merritt and Rybovich sportfishing boats in the 1960s. Fortier Boats also has built 19 30-footers and 70 33-footers.

The company built one waterjet boat in 1995 for a customer with shoal draft restrictions. That boat has made the trip back and forth to the Bahamas five times, Fortier says.

Eight years ago Norton got back into a 33. He sold his first two boats within a day of putting them on the market, he says, and has logged over 50,000 miles fishing and cruising aboard his three Fortiers.

“You couldn’t pick a better boat,” says Norton. “There’s not a lot of advertisement. It’s people who understand the water, and like to fish, they know this is a good boat.”

Fortier Boats, Somerset, Mass. Phone: (508) 673-5253.