Maine builders weathering the storm

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Jane Wellehan of Maine Built Boats calls it the “new good.”

It’s when the news isn’t all bad — when the market drops 10 points, rather than 110.

But this year’s Maine Boatbuilders Show, which took place March 20-22 at Portland Yachts Services in Portland, Maine, was a good one by any standard. Attendance was up, albeit slightly, from last year; the number of exhibitors was unchanged; and the mood of the show was upbeat.

“It’s obviously a tough economy, and expectations have been lowered,” says Wellehan. “But the show still went really well. Orders were taken, sales were made and everyone had the chance to reconnect and re-energize for the coming season.”

Nat Wilson, an East Boothbay sailmaker, has been to most of the shows, including the first one back in 1987. “I had a half-dozen inquiries and quotes, which is pretty normal, and some people were talking about projects down the road,” he says. “I go with no expectations of getting work, but to network, connect with old friends and see what’s going on in the industry.”

Ralph Johnson of Pert Lowell, the Newbury, Mass., builder of the Town Class sailboat, agreed.

“There were a lot of people looking for ideas and information,” he says. “They seemed to be saying, ‘This is the new reality, how do I fit in?’ He picked up six orders in the two days after the show. “People ... still seem to need an outlet, that’s what boats are for many of them.”

The inherent character of Maine’s boatbuilding industry – small shops, independently owned, relying less on the sales volume than the big production builders – works in its favor, builders say.

“We’re a small company, so we’ve been able to adapt fairly easily to the economy,” says Jean Beaulieu of the Classic Boat Shop in Bernard, Maine, which builds the Pisces 21 daysailer. “We’re not GM and Ford. We don’t stock our shelves with inventory.”

The Pert Lowell shop got through the winter with a couple of part-timers – and no layoffs. “We build a target boat [the Town Class sloop]. It’s a well-known class, and it’s been around since 1932 so there are still many of them out there,” said Ralph Johnson, owner. Maintaining the fleets and providing repairs and parts, are part of the business mix, too. “We’ve got two major rebuilds on Townies this spring.”

Boatbuilding is a niche market, in Maine, and it requires fewer people to sustain it, says sailmaker Wilson. “When you’re small, you may need just one boat to keep you and a couple of guys busy,” he says. “Pushing four boats a month out the door with a big crew is something different. In the late 1970s, there were a lot of production builders who didn’t make it into the ’80s, where many of the small shops did.”  

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the June 2009 issue.