New owner, location for Maine boatyard

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Son takes over Ralph W. Stanley Inc. at its new location in Southwest Harbor, bringing fresh ideas

Legendary boatbuilder Ralph Stanley watched in late August as the last boat was launched out of his shop on Clark Point Road in Southwest Harbor, Maine. It was a 40-foot Friendship sloop called Westwind originally built in 1902 and refurbished under the direction of Ralph’s son, Richard.

Richard Stanley, right, is stepping to the forefront as his father, Ralph, retires from boatbuilding. The older Stanley will spend his retirement crafting violins.

“Friendship sloops were always fun to build — a good, traditional workboat,” says Ralph. “It is too bad to see it go, to know there will be no more boats leaving that location.”

It was a bittersweet moment. Not only was Ralph W. Stanley Inc. moving, but as of this fall, Richard has taken over for his father.

The move became necessary because the taxes — which had gone up to $12,000 a year (from $500 annually when they started in 1973) — were making the waterfront property impossible to maintain, he says, and it was down to moving or disappearing altogether.

“The property has been in my family since 1800 and it’s kind of hard to let it go,” says Ralph, 80. “But … it was just too expensive.”

The new location for Ralph W. Stanley Inc., at 298 Seawall Road, Building 7, will be temporary as Richard looks to find cheaper property nearby. They currently have a 2-1/2-year lease on the property.

“We would like to get more storage customers and build smaller vessels,” says Richard Stanley, 47. “We’ve moved to a property we’ve been leasing for quite a few years that has two storage buildings and two work bays not too far away.”

Boats have been part of the older Stanley’s entire life since his childhood in Southwest Harbor. His father, Chester, was a master fisherman, building boats in the winter and sailing in the summer. In 1952 Ralph built his first vessel, a 28-foot lobster boat, in his father’s barn at age 23.

“I always liked every aspect of boatbuilding,” says Ralph. “But I especially enjoy planking up the boat, watching it growing and taking shape. It’s a lot different than just filling up a mold.”

Ralph started his company in 1973 and Richard was beside him the whole way, helping out with boat maintenance and storage. The younger Stanley graduated in 1982 from The Boat School in Eastport, Maine, and returned to his father’s business, becoming quarter-owner in 1986. Richard’s wife, Lorraine, who is now operations manager, came on board in 2000 painting and varnishing.

As of this fall, the business has been officially handed over.

“It was sad in some ways but good in others, making the move,” says Richard. “I’ve been on the old property my whole life and put a lot of my life into it, and to give it up was a challenge.”

Richard says the property did have its downside: there was no place to store lumber undercover, for instance.

“You’d be out there in January or February busting through 3 inches of ice just to get a plank of wood,” says Richard. “It’s a very romantic, very unique and very nice site, but it could be man-killing at times to build a boat there.”

Richard and Lorraine have plenty of ideas for the future of the company, including the production of a low-maintenance wooden boat.

“I’ve always heard how people love wooden boats and how seakindly they are, but the maintenance is tough,” says Lorraine, 36.”We’re taking the best traditional past building techniques and looking into modern materials.”

They are researching hull coats that would prevent the wood from splitting during the winter, saving owners the time and cost of recaulking the wooden planks.

“We want to get away from this mentality that you have to be older and have a lot of money to own a wooden boat because of the upkeep,” says Lorraine. “We want young people to enjoy them as well.”

Another low-maintenance feature they are looking into is installing electric motors, she says.

“One of the reasons why I don’t own a boat now is that handling fuel and engines is always stinky and noisy,” says Lorraine.

As for Ralph, he plans to spend his retirement relaxing and pursuing another hobby that involves his hands: crafting violins.

“I love playing fiddle music,” says Ralph, who has a passion for bluegrass. “I’m also doing a little historical research on the area, but I don’t think I’ll travel much.”

Richard believes that, between the boatbuilding and storage component at the new location, the company will continue to thrive.

“I’ve basically been learning the ropes for the last 20 years,” says Richard. “The draw is that our boats are unique and beautiful and one of a kind. We fit the boat to each individual … and that won’t change.”

For information, visit www.ralphstanleyboats.com

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the November 29=009 issue.