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Built to Order

After years on the water, ecperienced skippers wno know exactly what they want turn to custom or semicustom builders for their perfect toy.

It was a busy spring at New England Boatworks. The 300-plus-slip marina had come to life, and three Travelifts worked non-stop, 12 hours a day to put boats in the water. And there was a big push to ready sailboats for the June 16 start of the 100th-anniversary Newport Bermuda Race.

I was visiting the sprawling Portsmouth, R.I., complex in the midst of all this activity to check out the boatbuilding operation and get a feel for how custom boat projects come together. Everywhere I went, it seemed a large curtain or sliding door was pulled shut behind me as I walked from one work bay to another — no time to waste getting to that next coat of paint.

But all appeared quiet and calm around a custom Sparkman & Stephens 65-foot powerboat under construction in a large shed it shared with a couple of refit projects. Plastic sheets covered the Sparkman & Stephens design, and stepping through the sheath revealed a world of activity, as a dozen or so workers fashioned the boat’s interior. Spotlights were hung throughout, plans were taped to bulkheads, project managers consulted in an open area that soon would be the impressive cruiser’s galley.

The shared goal? Building the client’s ideal boat. In this case — and for this article — that means a custom or semicustom boat.

Why go custom? For some the answer is simple: the perfect boat simply does not exist in a dealer showroom. Having refined what they want in a boat based on many years on the water, custom boat clients are looking for an alternative to what’s available on the production market. They might have special requirements. Or they could simply want something that better reflects their personal tastes.

“For the most part it’s their last boat,” says J.B. Turner, manager of Lyman-Morse of Thomaston, Maine, a full-service yard that builds custom and semicustom yachts ( ). “They’ve had a lot of boats, they’ve seen the various parts of the boats that they’ve liked, and they’re trying to pull it all together and create their dream boat.”

The production market has become more and more homogenous, says Ross Gannon, vice president and treasurer of Vineyard Haven, Mass., custom wooden-boat builder Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway ( “Somebody who wants something unique, and not mass-produced,” Gannon says, “that’s how they end up at our shop.”

And it’s not a stretch to say custom builders are as unique as the boats they craft. They range from high-tech facilities like New England Boatworks (, where you might go for a composite yacht, to a small two-man shop that builds charming little wooden boats. In between there are dozens of semicustom builders who will finish-off a proven hull to suit your tastes.

When done properly, the custom boat process allows you — the owner — to see your boat come together first-hand. You’re able to roll up your sleeves and get involved to a degree that isn’t possible with most production boatbuilders. (There are exceptions, particularly among the high-end production builders). The level of involvement varies with the owner and the complexity of the project, but it encompass everything from coming up with the initial concept to choosing the designer, builder, layout, equipment and power.

“It’s getting a boat that’s exactly the way you want it,” says Dave Martin, yard manager at Padebco Custom Yachts in Round Pond, Maine, which builds four models of its own from 21 to 32 feet as well as custom finishes other builders’ hulls ( ). “You have more of a hand in the layout of the boat, down to the cleats and anything else you want to put on it.” Those owners who get immersed in the process, Martine notes, really get to know their boats.

“The whole goal here is to give the owner what he wants,” says John Telfeyan, part owner of Goetz Custom Boats in Bristol, R.I. ( ). “It’s a pretty simple statement, but it takes some time to get there.”

Longtime sailor Burt Keenan has owned about a dozen boats, including a custom 49-foot cat-ketch built by Lyman-Morse. When Keenan finally decided it was time to “bite the bullet” and build a powerboat, he didn’t hesitate to return to Lyman-Morse for a custom 84-footer.

Keenan, 67, says he thoroughly enjoys the process of building a custom boat, finding it both engaging and satisfying. While his Ward Setzer-designed twin-engine motoryacht Acadia was being built, he says he talked to the builder nearly every day and visited the Maine yard about once a month. Keenan, who worked for years in the offshore oil service industry along the GulfCoast, had plenty of input into the design and construction of Acadia, which is powered by 1,480-hp MAN diesels, has a range of 1,000 nautical miles and reaches speeds approaching 35 mph. (The flybridge cockpit motor-yacht was launched in July 2003.)

“We made some changes, but we tried to think of everything ahead of time,” says Keenan, who recently moved to Hilton Head, S.C. “I had a good idea of what I wanted. A sailor is pretty particular, and you learn a lot from a sailboat.”

Custom or semicustom?

If the distinction between custom and semicustom boatbuilding confuses you, you’re probably not alone. “In my opinion the custom-built boat is truly a one-off,” says Lyman-Morse manager Turner. After the boat is finished the mold is thrown in the dumpster, he says. “Semicustom versus production is harder to define.” The difference is something of a gray area, he notes, because semicustom boats use the same hull and often the same deck as the production models.

John Kachmar, owner of Wilbur Yachts in Southwest Harbor, Maine, ( ), defines a semicustom boat project as one where the builder works off an existing hull. Wilbur, which builds both semicustom and custom boats, might finish off an existing Duffy 38 hull, for example, or design an entirely new hull in-house. In the latter case, the company sends the design to a naval architect for its blessing, Kachmar says, and then has an outside firm fashion a plug. A temporary mold can be built, or the company can turn around and invest in permanent tooling.

Semantics aside, the goal of both custom and semicustom builders is to produce a boat uniquely suited to each client.

“Generally the reason a customer might come to me as opposed to a production boat is because they can’t find exactly what they need on the market,” says Kachmar. “Most of our customers are experienced, savvy boaters, and they know what they want.”

Dianne and Jerry Lynch recently had Wilbur Yachts finish a Duffy 38 hull manufactured by Atlantic Boat Company of Brooklin, Maine ( ). This is the fifth boat the Lynches have had Wilbur build for them (two Wilbur 34s, two Wilbur/Duffy 38s and a 36-foot workboat).

Unlike the first 38, the new boat does not have a flybridge. The Lynches are planning on cruising to Florida and say they will worry less about bridge clearances with the new boat. The 38-footer has custom cabinetry and noise-dampening, as well a custom interior layout that places a single stateroom with a centerline berth forward, and separate head and shower compartments to starboard and port, respectively.

“We wanted that [layout] so that when we get somewhere I can shave and use the head on one side and Dianne can shower on the other,” says Lynch, 69, who operates a contracting firm in Falmouth, Mass.

A custom boat obviously gives the owner, designer and builder the most latitude. It is the proverbial blank sheet of paper.

“The owner specs it all out,” says Roger Brooks, co-owner of Brooks Boatworks Inc. of Washington, N.C. ( ), which builds custom sportfishing boats as well as tooling for other builders. “You go to the builder and say, ‘This is what I want.’ ” The company currently is building a one-off 38-footer using cold-molded and vacuum-bagging construction techniques, but with Airex and Airlite core material in lieu of wood.

With a semicustom boat, the owner also gets involved in the laying out and outfitting, but avoids the costs associated with developing, designing and building a unique hull or deck.

Mabry Yachts of Denton, Md. ( ), offers three custom-finished boats — 32, 40 and 46 feet — in the traditional Chesapeake Bay deadrise style. Customers can choose more cockpit space or more cabin space and end up with something different than what is already out there, says company owner Dennis Mabry.

“They pretty much tell us what they like, and we build it,” says Mabry. “If it’s not right, we’ll tweak it.”

The first step for Mabry is to find out how many friends a client wants to cruise with. He’ll show them three or four boats that his four-man shop has available and work from there.

In addition to cost, another advantage of a proven semicustom hull verses a custom one-off is the confidence factor it provides the customer. In other words, it should be a safer bet.

Custom builder Hugh Saint of Cape Coral, Fla. ( ) and designer Charlie Jannace of Delmar, Md., are working on an updated version of the Jannace-designed Blackfin 29. The semicustom boat will have a molded fiberglass, Airex-cored hull with a custom wood interior.

“You can take an Airex 29-foot hull and do whatever you want with it,” says Jannace. “You don’t put all the effort into the hull, and you don’t have to convince the customer that it runs well because there are 25 of them running around out there already.”

Chicken or egg

If you’ve decided on a custom boat, should you start by finding a designer or a builder first? There’s really no right or wrong answer. Lyman-Morse’s Turner says about half his customers come to the yard first, the others start with a designer.

If the customer begins the process with a naval architect or designer, the designer will typically send out bids to four or five boatyards, Turner says.

Whom they wind up choosing depends on a host of factors, including the size and type of boat being considered, the materials and construction methods, the builder’s location, schedule and backlog, costs, compatibility and more.

“If it gets to be a big boat with a lot of weight involved and a lot of amenities involved, I’d recommend an owner hire a naval architect to design the boat,” says Brooks, who describes custom boatbuilding as a compromise among designer, builder and owner.

“We can build just about anything, and the only requirement I have is that it be designed by a highly qualified designer,” says Florida builder Saint, who recently built a 65-foot commuter for a client who needed the aft cabin to retract to fit under Canadian overpasses. “I don’t care how good your craftsmanship is, if the design isn’t good it doesn’t mean anything.”

Getting started

For those considering a custom or semicustom boat, Wilbur’s Kachmar suggests talking to people who have had boats built by those yards or shops you’re interested in. Repeat customers, of course, are a good sign. Look for a reputable builder with longevity and someone whom you feel you can get along with, he says.

Do your homework. “What I do — and I do it for everybody — I just tell them to check around and make sure I’m the right boatbuilder for you,” says Mabry. “I’m not worried about losing a sale.”

Gannon, the Martha’s Vineyard builder, says both the client and builder should be looking for people with whom they can work over an extended period of time. “It takes a while to build these relationships,” says Gannon. “The people that we build wooden boats for, we become friends for life.”

Gannon also encourages prospective custom boat owners to know as much as possible about the process and what they want in a boat before giving the green light to a project. “There are so many decisions along the line, and so many of those are going to affect the cost,” he says.

Compatibility is a key since the process is long and communication is both frequent and critical. Turner says he might talk with a customer three or four times a day throughout the course of a project. “Some of them I talk with on the phone literally every day for a couple years,” he says. Add to that the owner’s regular visits to the yard and it becomes clear why chemistry and rapport are important in choosing the right builder.

“I went up as often as I could,” says Keenan, who commissioned the Lyman-Morse 84. “I talked to [Turner] every day, and I went up there at least once a month.”

Lynch, the Duffy 38 owner, estimates he and his wife visited the Wilbur yard seven or eight times over the course of the eight-month project. “Those trips are always enjoyable,” says Lynch. “It’s kind of an excuse to see the boat and see the people that are building the boat. You become part of the process — and that’s fun — and then the end result is something that you specifically wanted.”

And thanks to digital photography and e-mail, builders and owners now are more connected than ever. Gannon says he can share updates with digital pictures, and decisions on interiors, for example, usually can be made over e-mail, he says.

“It’s a tool we’re using all the time, and as recently as eight years ago we didn’t have a computer in the shop,” says Gannon.

While some people can visualize a boat from plans or a computer model, others best appreciate a boat’s layout through a mockup. Goetz Custom Boats offers to build mockups to help customers see what they’re going to get. “Everybody has their ideas, but maybe they don’t know how to express them,” says Goetz’s Telfeyan.

Lyman-Morse makes a full-scale mockup of a boat’s entire interior out of cardboard and plywood, then gives the client a magic marker and turns them loose. “I think every mockup we’ve done has paid for itself in changes that would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Turner. “[Instead] it’s literally hundreds of dollars to change.” The builder has even changed the overall length of boats during this cardboard and plywood stage.

Custom clientele

Due to the complexities of custom and semicustom boatbuilding, the clients typically are quite experienced. Just think of the number of decisions the owner needs to make.

“They need to have an understanding of what they want the boat to do,” says Kachmar of Wilbur. “We ask a lot of questions. Are you more interested in seakeeping or speed? Do you have shallow draft requirements? There are times when the customer doesn’t know what they need. It depends on where they’re going to use the boat and how they’re going to use the boat.”

North Carolina builder Brooks says custom boat owners are experienced, but need some guidance. “Usually the kinds of things the builder will help with are the dynamics of the hull itself,” he says.

Eric Short, project manager for Whiticar Custom Boats in Stuart, Fla., says his clients are experienced boaters who come to the builder for its custom cold-molded sportfishing boats (the company currently has a 77-footer as well as a 30-foot cold-molded mahogany center console in the works).

“We toss around ideas and refine those wants and desires, but they have a pretty good idea what they want coming in,” says Short. A potential owner might approach Whiticar for a 60-foot open sportfishing boat with three staterooms. From there a set of preliminary drawings is made up. After that, client and builder will “erase and draw and erase and draw,” Short says. It’s all part of the process. Whiticar ( ) has been in business since the 1940s and handles design work in-house.

All-star team

Not all custom projects have happy endings. Success depends on assembling a strong team — a properly capitalized owner, a good designer and a competent builder. A weak team can turn a custom project into a “complete disaster of epic proportions,” says Turner.

“I think the worst boats out there are the custom boats built by the wrong guy,” says John Deknatel, president and co-founder of Boston-based design firm C. Raymond Hunt Associates ( ).

Goetz’s Telfeyan suggests having clearly defined goals and parameters for your boat, so the team won’t have to go back and redo work it has already done. “It’s like a mission statement for your boat,” he says. “Have a mission in mind and stick to it.”

There are so many decisions to be made while the boat is being built that a client often hires his own project manager to serve as a liaison with the yard’s project manager. That’s the case with the Sparkman & Stephens 65 Fast Cruiser being built at New England Boatworks, says Bob Sharkey, who is a project manager for the builder. Sharkey meets once a week with the owner’s representative to discuss progress and changes on the 65-footer.

“Boatyards don’t like to hear about changes, but in a custom boatyard we have to accept that it’s part of the process,” Sharkey says.

As Florida builder Saint observes, “Building custom boats is not the easiest thing in the world. But I enjoy the challenge, and it makes life interesting. If it was something real easy then everybody would be doing it.”

Construction begins

The full gamut of construction methods are used in custom and semicustom boatbuilding, from high-tech composites to cold-molded wood to plank-on-frame. Again, the materials and building techniques used will depend on a number of factors, including cost, the owner’s preferences, the builder’s capabilities and the type, size and performance envelope of the boat being constructed.

The 65 Fast Cruiser at New England Boatworks, for instance, is a one-off, with vacuum-bagged Core-Cell foam coring, bidirectional E-glass fabric and epoxy resin. Sharkey says the lightweight composite construction was for fuel savings and improved performance.

Gannon & Benjamin, on the other hand, builds everything from dinghies to 65-foot schooners using plank-on-frame construction.

Gannon & Benjamin recently completed a 38-foot sloop designed by Nat Benjamin and built for Michael Naumann, publisher of German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Named Here & Now, the sloop’s frames are steam-bent oak, the planks wana, the cabin trunk and coamings mahogany, and the deck Dynel-covered marine plywood. The mast and boom are Sitka spruce.

“We wanted a wooden boat because we think most plastic boats are ugly and impersonal,” says Naumann in an e-mail. “There are some pretty ones, of course — so-called ‘classic’ replica designs — but they stem from boatyards on the East Coast, which have a good history in building wooden boats. So why not go for the original?”

Naumann, who is 64 and was a minister of culture under German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, became familiar with Gannon & Benjamin when he had the yard survey a wooden boat he was considering buying. He says he had input on some aspects of the rigging, interior design and electronics, and some comfort add-ons. He and his wife, a doctor from Boston, visited the boatyard about four times as the boat was built, which took a little more than one year. They keep a daysailer in Hamburg, Germany, and plan to cruise Maine aboard Here & Now.

Hold your horses

Designer Jannace warns owners about being overly ambitious and trying to fit too much into a custom or semicustom boat. He’s not a fan of the mantra “use all available spaces” because too much weight can lead to poor performance. Jannace remembers an owner who put three icemakers on a 50-footer and then wondered why it was slower than expected. He also has been asked to put a fake smokestack on a sportfishing boat (he refused), and incorporate a sewing cabin into a 63-footer (which he did).

“The fact that a custom boat gives the owner what he wants is probably a bad thing,” says Jannace. His advice? “Pick a designer that’s got a decent reputation for the kind of boat you want, and trust him.”

There also is valid concern about the resale value of custom boats, since they’re built to someone else’s needs and tastes and don’t always have broad appeal.

“You’re buying a custom boat because you want a boat for yourself,” says Wilbur’s Kachmar. “It’s partially my responsibility to make sure they don’t go over their heads. While I’m very adamant that this boat is for you, I also have to rein them in: ‘Before you put that pink davit on, let’s think about it.’ ”

Time and money

How much more does a custom or semicustom boat cost than a production boat? There’s no easy answer to that question other than “it depends.”

One established design firm estimated that a custom boat on average costs about 25 percent more than a production boat in the same size range.

But the price of materials alone can really push up the cost of a custom boat versus a production boat if the most expensive fabrics, resins and techniques are used, says Sharkey of New England Boatworks.

Size also matters. A custom small boat — something under 25 feet, for instance — is probably going to be prohibitively expensive compared to production boats of the same size, Jannace says. “You could go out and get two or three production boats for the price of one 25-foot custom boat,” he says.

C. Raymond Hunt’s Deknatel says he has seen smaller custom boats disappear as more production alternatives become available. And the popularity of custom and semicustom boats in the 38-foot range has spawned quality production boats like the Eastbay 38 and other Down East-style offerings, he says.

“There’s no point in buying a custom boat if there’s something out there that will satisfy [you],” says Deknatel. “They really need to look first.”

Clearly there are no hard-and-fast rules. Jannace estimates that midsize custom boats in the 30- to 40-foot range are about double the cost of a comparably sized production boat. However, Jannace recently designed a new custom 36-foot wood sportfishing boat that came in cheaper than some production 36-footers.

Another example: A semicustom Wilbur 34 costs between $375,000 and $550,000, while similar production boats might range from $300,000 to $450,000, Kachmar says.

But as the size of boat increases, the price disparity between custom and production narrows, says Don Watson, head of the composites division at New England Boatworks. He notes that a 65-foot powerboat from the company he works for might not cost any more than a 65-foot production boat.

Lyman-Morse generally has four boats in the works. A 40-footer takes anywhere from 10 months to a year to build, a 60-footer might take 18 months and a 90-footer, a little more than two years. Prices range from about $400,000 for a 30-footer to $9 million for a 90-footer.

Base prices for a turnkey Hugh Saint wooden boat range from $175,000 for a runabout to more than $2.5 million for a 65-footer. A 28-foot launch ideally suited to Long Island Sound costs somewhere in the $230,000 range. Typically, a runabout takes about a year to build while the larger boats can take 1-1/2 to 2 years.

“Anybody that wants to build a boat, better be ready to wait for it,” cautions Saint.

Gannon & Benjamin builds between one and four boats per year, and a project can take anywhere from several months to two years. “It really depends on what the project is, how complicated it is,” says Gannon. “And a lot of times it depends on the customer’s personal schedule.

“You start out with one concept, and as the project moves along it’s going to change,” says Gannon. “You can give them a timeline, but every time a change is made, and you have to wait for a certain plumbing or other gizmo here or there, it adds time.” The company builds both sail- and powerboats ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million.

For many custom boat owners, getting involved in the construction project and seeing it to fruition is a pleasure in itself. “A lot of guys like the process,” says Watson, of New England Boatworks. “They like the process more than they like the boat.”

Go figure.

The ABCs of custom boats

Bruce Johnson, chief designer of the venerable Sparkman & Stephens design firm in New York City, answers some questions about the custom boatbuilding process.

Whom does a prospective custom boat buyer typically approach first — designer, builder, broker?

Generally the client approaches us as the designer first. Most of our projects go out to bid to a handful of shipyards, so it is more difficult to select a yard first and then be assured of a fair price [without other bids]. We have had instances where a client came with a shipyard already selected. This is usually when a client has already built a boat with a particular shipyard and a long-term relationship is already in place.

How long does the “typical” custom project take?

It depends on the size of the vessel. In the case of, say, a 50-foot yacht it might take two months to generate a preliminary set of drawings [defining the yacht], then three months to create a bid package [fully developed yacht with structure drawn, equipment selected]. Then once a contract is signed it might take 12 months to build the boat. Obviously a much larger yacht will take considerably longer. We are currently designing a 170-foot sailing yacht, and this project will take 24 months to complete.

What should customers know getting into a custom project?

It’s important to remember that “capturing” the vision of what a client is seeking in a custom yacht is going to take some exploration, some back-and-forth between designer and client. This is a creative process and a rewarding one, as once the vision has been achieved it makes that decision to do a custom yacht worth it.

Can you give some examples of what clients look for in a custom boat?

We might have a client who has special needs. For example, three young children, and they need a bathtub in one head for the kids, plus a small office where the kids can do homework, and Pullman berths in the kids’ cabin for friends to stay over.

We might have another client who has owned a production yacht from a reputable company and wants to move up to a larger boat, but it is not available from the company he has always bought from. So he will commission a custom yacht with similar motoring characteristics.

At the extreme end of the spectrum we might have a client who is looking to do a very large yacht, and there is really nothing available in that size range. These clients are usually very experienced yachtspeople and know exactly what they need or want in their custom project.

Is there a typical client?

We have all kinds, from all over the world. Most are experienced yachtspeople; that is a common thread. They know what they want in their next yacht. Many are repeat clients. We have been in business for over 75 years, so that happens. We have a reputation for seaworthy, seakindly and well-engineered boats, so we do have people who want these traits first and foremost. That’s also important to remember: We are not just stylists and interior layout people; we engineer the entire yacht. We spend a great deal of time integrating the various systems that must all work together: structure, propulsion, HVAC, electrical, hydraulics and so on. All while working to deliver a beautiful yacht.

What are some of the pros and cons of custom boats?

Pros include getting exactly what you are seeking in your yacht, and having something unique, something that stands out and above other standardized yachts.

A negative might be that being custom, the general yacht market might not appreciate someone’s vision, and resale value might be less than a production yacht, on a percentage basis. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that there is no benchmark from which to judge. In the case of a production yacht there might be 10 examples of a particular yacht, either on the market or recently sold, so there is a clear track record of value. In the case of a custom one-off yacht it can be hard to place the appropriate value.

People define “custom” and “semicustom” differently. How do you make the distinction?

Custom is a yacht built from scratch — a one-off. Semicustom would be the instance where a hull mold exists, yet a client is free to create a custom layout and deckhouse with the designer or builder. This is the case with the Seguin series sailboats we do with Lyman-Morse.

For more information contact Sparkman & Stephens at (212) 661-1240 or visit