Skip to main content

Better seamanship through bow thrusters

For Stephen Hughes of Worcester, Mass., a bow thruster is giving his 2002 Four Winns 248 Vista a second life.

"We have a summer home in Boothbay Harbor on the Damariscotta River," says Hughes, who is 56. "I bought this boat on a whim in 2002 because my wife and daughter wanted a cruiser."

Billy Joel's 57-foot commuter yacht Vendttta was one of the yachts recently serviced by New England Bow Thruster.

Hughes, who is a systems analyst, has been boating all his life but the strong currents and wind conditions on the Damariscotta River combined with the single-engine express cruiser's ample windage to give him fits at the dock, he says.

"No matter how good you are, you can't dock it by yourself," Hughes says of the express cruiser. The Four Winns fell out of use to the extent that he recently tried to sell it, but the economy did him no favors in that regard. "So I thought, 'What can I do to fix this boat?' "

Last fall he hired New England Bow Thruster to install a bow thruster as well as a windlass, a VHF radio and a GPS system. Owner Bill Jennings picked the boat up from his driveway and dropped it off two weeks later, with all the work complete and shrink-wrap reinstalled.

"The workmanship was phenomenal," says Hughes. "Trust me, I've been to a lot of marinas and this work was exceptional. He went above and beyond for me."

Stephen Hughes was nervous about having a big hole cut in the bow of his Four Winns; now he can't wait for spring.

Before the installation, he had some trepidation about cutting a big hole in the bow of his boat, he says.

"That was a concern of mine," says Hughes. "After my experience with a couple of these boatyards, I was skeptical. But I did a lot of research and New England Bow Thruster seemed like the place to go."

Now he can't wait for spring boating season to arrive.

"It'll be like having a new boat," he says.

More control

Boating success stories like this are the reason Bill Jennings founded New England Bow Thruster in the first place, he says. The three-person company based in West Mystic, Conn., is a mobile installer of bow thrusters and other control systems.

The goal is to give boaters - novice or experienced - more control over their vessels, which results in added confidence, ease, safety and enjoyment, says Jennings.

During installation the core is removed and repacked with high density filler.

"Better control of the vessel means better memories on the water," he says. "If you come back in and there's bloodshed at the dock, that's the last thing you're going to remember. You can ruin a great day on the water - and we can fix that."

His company installs bow thrusters on vessels - any size and type will work with the technology, he says - from the mid-Atlantic region to Maine and the Great Lakes.

From a bucket to bow thrusters

Jennings entered the marine industry on the ground floor: cleaning boats at the neighborhood marina like some teens mow lawns.

"I got into the industry when I was 13 years old with a borrowed bucket and a mop," says Jennings, who is now 39.

He grew up on Venetian Harbor in Groton, Conn.

"That's where we all learned to boat - our father taught us," says Jennings. "Nothing was safe in the harbor in those days."

When his parents split up, his mother kept the family's waterfront home - she lives there to this day - and rented out the end of the dock. That renter became young Jennings' first customer. He would clean the boat inside and out, eventually taking care of a variety of tasks for the owner.

"Pretty soon we were doing a whole bunch of boats in the harbor," says Jennings.

After working on boats through college and stints with Long Island-based Hustler Powerboats as well as area yacht clubs, Jennings says, he took a "leap of faith" and went to work for himself in yacht management.

The yacht management company was a one-man operation - he contracted with boatyards and did the work himself. As environmental regulations tightened and the burden of equipment and liability grew, though, Jennings says he realized it was no longer the field for him.

"I wanted to do good and creative work that people will really enjoy," he says. An opportunity arose to work closely with marine products manufacturer Lewmar in the bow thruster field. During the last four years he slowly phased out his yacht management clients - he still services one client - and opened up the mobile bow thruster installation business. Last year he was finally able to dedicate himself full time to New England Bow Thruster.

Taking out the learning curve

The birth of New England Bow Thruster meant lower capital expenditure and lower risk, says Jennings, and the business model had been proven by installers such as Merritt Island-based Florida Bow Thrusters, says Jennings. Bow thruster installation is a specialized field and there's plenty of work to go around, he says.

A small flare at the leading edge deflects water to keep the spray pattern down and the boat dry. Round edges mean optimum performance and less noise.

Few boatyards have the equipment and know-how to complete a bow thruster installation in a cost-effective manner. "It isn't something that comes along very often for the yard," says Jennings. "Thrusters don't get their full due for being a complicated system because once they're in they work so simply."

In addition to bow thrusters, the company installs windlasses, dinghy lifts, underwater lights and vessel stabilization gyroscopes.

"I consider my company a control company - what are the things that are going to make the boat easier to run?" says Jennings. These systems are important to today's boaters who don't get enough time on the water to become expert boat handlers. "It's just embracing a little technology to take out that learning curve."

Boaters can control a bow thruster by joystick, which is mounted at the helm, or by remote control, which is included as standard equipment.

A safety item

When Marianne Urbanski purchased her Elan Impression 434 in 2007 she knew that docking would be an issue. Her previous boat, a Catalina 40, didn't have a bow thruster and her (now) ex-husband handled the docking.

Marianne Urbanski says the bow thruster on her Elan Impression 434 is a necessary safety feature.

"I knew that was my weakness buying a boat," says Urbanski, who sails out of Noank, Conn., where she backs into her slip with the aid of her bow thruster. "And the confidence I've got from it is incredible."

The true test of the bow thruster came in the middle of one night while Urbanski and her kids were nestled in their berths aboard her 43-foot sailboat. The 43-footer was tied up at a Block Island, R.I., marina, and Urbanski woke to the sound of her boat slamming into the face dock.

"Foolishly, I didn't have a fender board out and the fender had slipped out between my boat and the dock," says Urbanski, a 49-year-old periodontist from Cheshire, Conn. "I was beside myself because there was no one around, it was really pouring out and I was alone with my kids."

To complicate matters, another boat was rafted up to the other side of the Elan. She tried pushing the boats off the dock but to no avail. Then she remembered the bow thruster.

"There's no way I would have been able to push my boat and the rafted boat out to get the fender back in without the thruster," says the 110-pound Urbanski. She used the remote to thrust the bow off the dock and was able to get the fender in again.

"I don't think it's a luxury at all - I think it's a safety item," she says.

See related article:

- Inside a bow thruster installation

This article originally appeared in the Connecticut and New York and New England Home Waters Sections of the April 2010 issue.