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Morris Yachts no longer under the radar

As the Maine builder celebrates 35 years, it’s meeting the needs of a changing client base that wants more sophistication and performance in their boats

As the Maine builder celebrates 35 years, it’s meeting the needs of a changing client base that wants more sophistication and performance in their boats

Cuyler Morris has a fairly straightforward goal for the boatbuilding company his father started 35 years ago, though it’s not as simple as it might sound.

“My major job is to make sure that Morris Yachts is no longer the best-kept secret in the boatbuilding industry,” says Morris, the 41-year-old president of the semicustom boatbuilder Tom Morris founded in 1972 on the southern tip of Maine’s Mount Desert Island. And the success of the company’s M-Series daysailers has helped make his job easier. Morris Yachts introduced the M-36 in 2003, first in the Sparkman & Stevens-designed series of luxury daysailers for “people who want to get out there fast and sail fast.”

“Americans still want to sail, but they don’t have time — or don’t think they do,” says Morris, who was involved in the 1995 America’s Cup Challenge with the Young America syndicate and competed in the ’96 and 2000 Star Class Olympic trials. These “spirit of tradition” daysailers combine sleek, classic lines with modern underbodies, carbon fiber spars and high-performance rigs. A non-overlapping, self-tacking jib, control lines led below deck to the helm and pushbutton sail-raising simplify operation. While the M-36 is a true daysailer, the newer M-42 and M-52 have more headroom, roomier accommodations and additional amenities. Clients customize their yachts from a list of options.

Morris, who joined his father’s company in 1995, says the M-Series complements its Ocean Series sailboats, proven bluewater cruisers designed by naval architect Chuck Paine of Camden, Maine. Those 34- to 70-footers are known for their robust construction, excellent performance and exceptional woodwork. Though the designs obviously have evolved since 1973, says Morris, “Our new yachts can do everything the older ones did, and they weigh 20 percent less.” The Morris 45 is equally capable of competing in PHRF and IMS classes or cruising to the Bahamas. Again, clients customize the interior and rig, making each boat an owner’s original.

Morris Yachts also builds two express cruisers, the Liberty 36 and 44, as highly engineered and crafted as the sailboats. Both powerboats feature traditional styling, fuel-efficient diesels and modified-vee hulls with chines carried forward for a dry, comfortable ride and performance in a seaway.

For more than a decade, yachting writers and others have consistently ranked Morris sailboats among the best cruisers, though they may have more varnish to keep bright and higher prices than their competitors. “Sailing is all about getting there, not about being there,” says Morris, who like his father began sailing the family’s 1911 Northeast Harbor A Boat — that era’s J/24 — during childhood summers on Mount Desert Island. “The joy of sailing is foremost in designing our yachts. As other American companies moved into powerboats, they left a niche market — people who want a fine hand-built sailboat.

“Our client base is changing, as is the market,” he says. “People are more performance-oriented, demand higher quality, want more sophisticated electronics, and are comfortable using modern technology to handle larger boats. What hasn’t changed are the skills needed to build a really fine yacht.”

Morris believes all but one of the 275 Morris yachts built to date are still sailing, several regularly winning prestigious races, others cruising worldwide. A Morris 51, Homefree, sailed around Cape Horn in January 2007, the first Morris yacht to do so. Tom Morris and his wife, Tina, made their first trans-Atlantic voyage aboard a Morris 46, cruising to Scotland, the Mediterranean, West Indies and back to Maine in 2004.

Cuyler Morris sailed a Morris 45, Firefly, to the West Indies and back last winter with his wife, Cindy, and their three young children. En route they placed first in class and third in fleet at Antigua Race Week, “proving that a beautiful cruising boat can be comfortable and race well, too,” he says. The once-in-a-lifetime family experience also created opportunities for employees. Will Ratcliff, an employee for 18 years, became general manager, and others moved up in the chain of command.

From 1995 to 2001, as Tom Morris eased out of the business, father and son meshed well. “Dad likes cruising comfortably; I like things that make a boat go easily and fast,” says Morris. “I’m concerned with the outside of the boat, Dad with the inside. Now he’s cruising as our ambassador-at-large. It’s what he’s dreamed of all his life.”

Recently diagnosed with cancer, the elder Morris is taking delivery of an M-42 in February, the first boat he’s ever built for himself. “The new boat is his way of focusing on the future,” says Cuyler Morris.

As Morris Yachts’ offerings and reputation for integrity and quality increased, the company expanded and now employs 120 people in three facilities: BassHarbor, NortheastHarbor and Trenton, each with its own function and management. Since 1999 BassHarbor has been the administrative headquarters, brokerage and major service yard, with transient dockage and moorings, a 35-ton Travelift, storage buildings for 100 boats to 65 feet, two Awlgrip paint bays, several shops, and two outdoor storage yards.

Morris Yachts was one of the first on the Maine coast to offer indoor heated storage, which Morris says is “easier on yachts’ fine fabrics and finishes, provides a nice environment for workers, and distributes our workload and costs throughout the winter. Without heated buildings, spring would be chaos,” he says.

The NortheastHarbor service yard, purchased in 2005, is the “storefront for our company in that major yachting destination,” says Morris, who as a boy hung around that waterfront. In addition to service and storage, the yard offers bareboat charters, transient slips and moorings.

In 2000 the company purchased the former Able Marine facility in nearby Trenton on the mainland. Moving production has simplified deliveries and life for the 95 percent of employees who live off- island. A two-year, $1 million renovation and expansion provided office space, a composite bay and five production bays. Morris now believes that the company can comfortably produce “really nice boats to 80 feet.” Boats too large to trailer to BassHarbor are launched from the adjacent former World War II seaplane ramp.

For most yachts, interior mockups aren’t necessary since the client can view a similar existing boat. After details are finalized, production begins first on the interior units and cabinetry. Almost 60 percent of the building time involves woodwork, so employees begin molding the hulls so they are finished when the interior units are complete.

“Everything in a boat is a compromise — speed versus safety, heavy construction versus performance, accommodations versus weight, state-of-the-art materials versus price, and so on,” he says. “Boat materials are continually evolving, and many great things are coming out of racing that make cruising boats better and safer. I love being a semicustom builder. We can, and do, build custom yachts, but our focus is giving clients a fine unique boat, without the risk of cost overruns that can occur in custom building.”

Hulls are constructed of vacuum-bagged composite: hand-laid fiberglass and vinylester resin over Core-Cell closed cell foam core. Thickness and laminates vary with boat model. “We preassemble as much as possible, for it’s much easier to build and varnish in the shops,” says Morris. Before the deck and hull are laminated together, interior units, joinerwork, wiring and other systems are installed in the hull, and fittings and woodwork are installed on deck. The final finish work is the last step.

The company has the capacity to build six to eight Ocean Series yachts and 20-plus M-Series sailboats each year, which evens out the financials, time and workload, Morris says. Extensive sea trials before delivery ensure that each boat and its components work perfectly. Customers receive a detailed owner’s manual (40 to 60 pages plus a digital version) and orientation until he or she feels comfortable with the new yacht. Morris notes the growing importance of after-sales customer care. “Buying a boat is a monumental task, but maintaining one of this quality is equally important,” he says. Most owners return for service, “because they know we can do more than plug in new electronics.”

With customers from Japan and Hong Kong, Europe and the United States, Morris realizes the importance of global marketing. “We are proactive in spreading the aura of Maine-built boats,” he says. “New Englanders know about Maine’s high quality and incredible craftsmanship, but most people [elsewhere] are surprised at how good they are.

“Maine’s third-highest industry is boatbuilding, worth $700 million a year and increasing,” he says. “Artisans and craftsmen will find great jobs here. We have 13 builders and service yards in Southwest Harbor alone — 38 within 30 miles of Mount Desert Island.”

Unfortunately, U.S. labor costs can’t compete with some countries’ boatbuilding subsidies and low hourly wages, even using half the labor, says Morris. “To make sure boats are built in America, we must make production more efficient and do a better job faster,” he says.

That’s what Morris Yachts has done for 35 years and continues doing — right down to each perfectly executed, perfectly beautiful detail. “Our Bass Harbor headquarters isn’t the end of the road but the beginning,” says Morris, gazing across the harbor to the Atlantic.