On Sailboats - Two builders keeping dreams alive

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New owners hope to keep Pacific Seacraft and the Bristol Channel and Falmouth cutters sailing

New owners hope to keep Pacific Seacraft and the Bristol Channel and Falmouth cutters sailing

Concern for manufacturing quality and seaworthiness is a valuable asset for boatbuilders. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to save two struggling California builders from going out of business.

One, the Sam L. Morse Company, built the Lyle Hess-designed, Falmouth and Bristol Channel cutters, which heavily borrowed from the stout and swift workboats that plied the rough waters of England’s west coast during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The other was Pacific Seacraft, a builder that had a good run with boats drawn by W.I.B. Crealock featuring large overhangs (by today’s standards) and a signature canoe stern.

Both firms started during the 1970s boatbuilding boom in Southern California and bet the farm on traditional designs for serious cruising. Both remained small players, dodging the trend of consolidation while grappling with sharply increasing costs for labor, materials and doing business in California. Both changed hands frequently, often to individuals who were “enthusiastic, but not always best qualified to run a boatbuilding company,” as one observer commented. Combine that with high oil prices, a weak dollar, and a credit crunch, and you get a perfect storm.

A reputation for quality and legendary achievements — or making Fortune magazine’s “100 Products That America Makes Best,” as Pacific Seacraft twice did — helped build a mystique but couldn’t keep the lights on. However, there is good news — the assets of both companies were bought by different parties who pledged to revive these legendary brands.

The Woes of the Sam L. Morse Co.

“Lyle Hess emphasized strength without sacrificing speed,” says Roger Olson, who owned the Sam L. Morse Company from around 1994 until 2001, during a furlough from cruising. He now lives in Panama and works as a marine surveyor. The boats he’s referring to are the 28-foot Bristol Channel Cutter and the 22-foot Falmouth Cutter, which carried on the spirit of Renegade, a gaff cutter Hess drew for Hale Field in 1954, and the more modern Seraffyn, which Hess did 10 years later for Larry and Lin Pardey. The Pardeys eventually became the standard bearers for small-boat cruising.

“The design is timeless, [but] the traditional method of cruising without an engine, roller furling, electronics, etc., of the Pardey era is gone forever,” Olson says. “There will always be the few [diehards], but today’s boats have electronic capabilities for navigation and communication that were not affordable or available back then.”

Olson says modern production boats are built lighter and more economically than Sam L. Morse boats were. But for most cruisers, bulletproofness is less of an issue today than it was 30 or 40 years ago because they sail mostly in coastal waters, where shelter is close, and have instant access to accurate weather forecasts, which helps to avoid trouble. However, Olson’s experience as bluewater cruiser and marine surveyor has done nothing to change his preference for a “boat that’s built to get you home,” even if that means lying a-hull in 60-knot winds and 30-foot seas. Perhaps more cruisers would agree, but a price tag of nearly $400,000 for a 28-footer is more than a tad steep, considering that the same amount could buy a modern, tricked-out 43-foot performance cruiser built in the USA.

I visited the Sam L. Morse Company in the spring of 2001, right after it had changed hands from Olson to Sumio Oya, who had retired from Japan’s high-tech industry to live his dream. Oya told me then that he was “in the market for a boat but somehow ended up with a boatbuilding company.” To him, sailing was a form of stress relief, and he always had liked the Sam L. Morse boats, which he represented in Japan for a while.

Looking around the yard, I marveled at the padlocked company van; the assemblage of molds, unfinished hulls and components; and the open building shed decorated with posters of pin-up girls. “We’re the Rolls Royce of cruising boats; we sell quality, not huge numbers,” said Dick McComb, who was the foreman at the time. He was set to retire, so he had no interest in instigating big changes. But he remembered the good times, when the company built 12 boats a year, and the tough times, when he was laid off for nine months during a prolonged sales lull.

In contrast, across the street at MacGregor Yacht, on the north side of Placentia Avenue in Costa Mesa, dozens of new boats were lined up in military formation, ready for delivery. While MacGregor still cranks out boats, the Sam L. Morse Company folded this past spring. The assets were acquired by Cape George Marine Works in Port Townsend, Wash., another builder of traditional cruising cutters, and it plans to add the Bristol Channel and the Falmouth cutters to its line.

What is company owner Todd Uecker’s strategy for keeping the two boats alive? “Lowering the cost by taking advantage of production synergies without sacrificing quality,” he explains. To soften sticker shock, he also wants to offer them as kit boats to owners who are confident and capable enough to finish hulls that are delivered to their back yards with the deck installed. “It’s custom-built versus off-the-shelf. It’s a choice,” Uecker says, “but it’s not for everyone.”

The Woes behind Pacific Seacraft

Getting into boatbuilding was a conscious choice for Steve Brodie. As a marine archaeologist, he had spent considerable time on ships, hunting for sunken galleons and other treasures. After his first-born arrived, however, he decided to change tacks. He first worked as a manager in construction close to home. In September, fate intervened, leading him to acquire the assets of Pacific Seacraft in a bankruptcy auction for $85,000.

Under its previous owner and CEO, Allan Poole — formerly with CS, Tartan, Hinterhoeller and Saga — the company reportedly had accumulated $3.2 million in debt and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (reorganization) in May. But Pacific Seacraft ran out of cash, and the case was turned over to Chapter 7 (liquidation). James Joseph, an attorney at the Southern California bankruptcy law firm of Danning, Gill, Diamond & Kollitz, was appointed by the U.S. Trustees Office as the Chapter 7 trustee.

“The judge authorized the debtor in possession to enter into financing arrangements with Horizon Capital Management, which promised a loan of a substantial amount, but that loan was never made,” Joseph says. He declined to confirm the exact amount or explain why the loan offer was withdrawn, referring inquiries to Richard L. Stephens Jr. at Horizon Capital, who did not respond to an interview request.

Asked why he bought a defunct sailboat builder, Brodie admits that he, too, is living his dream, just like Oya when he took over the Sam L. Morse Company. “I love boats, the boating community and Bill Crealock’s designs,” says Brodie, noting that he isn’t an expert sailor or a sailboat owner but occasionally charters in the BVI and loves sailing with friends. “David Norwood at CarolinaWindYachtingCenter told me about the auction of Pacific Seacraft and it all fell into place.”

After the auction in Fullerton, Calif., Brodie had a few days to haul away what now was his. Everything, including the molds and several unfinished boats, was loaded on 21 tractor-trailer rigs and shipped to Washington, N.C., where he leases a mill building as production site. His first order of business, even before completing the boats — with the help of some former Pacific Seacraft employees — is “mending bridges that were burned with suppliers.”

In the end, Brodie explains, boats could no longer be built on time or in sequence, because of the limitations of a small production facility and because suppliers, waiting to be paid, cut off the delivery of needed parts. In 2008, Brodie hopes to start new construction of the 31-, 34-, 37-, 40- and 44-footers, plus the 38-foot trawler. Crealock and Seattle designer Robert Perry had new Pacific Seacraft models on their drawing boards, but after the bankruptcy proceedings their fate was up in the air.

In a parallel development, Canadian entrepreneur Terrance Gillespie — who owns JJ Taylor, Turner Yachts and Whitby Boat Works — bought the molds for the Saga 35, 409, 43 and 48, which were built by Pacific Seacraft when Poole was in charge. Gillespie says he wants to return to Saga’s original site in St. Catharines, Ontario, or a nearby location to restart production.

Cautious optimism for the future

Meanwhile, south of the border, Pacific Seacraft dealers were cautiously optimistic that Brodie can bring back the brand, even though the molds for the Dana 24, one of the most successful Pacific Seacraft models, were bought before the auction by Tom Cooper of Seacraft Yacht Sales in Seattle. Cooper says he’s continuing to build these small oceangoing vessels with small modifications.

“If [Brodie] doesn’t get too disillusioned, he can bring back the passion,” says Nancy Cann, president of Crusader Yachts in Annapolis, Md., a longtime Pacific Seacraft dealer. Cann was present at the auction and displayed three Pacific Seacraft models at the Annapolis sailboat show this past fall. “I’m happy to see someone take this tradition and trying to revive it,” she says.

Brodie says he appreciates the support and vows to stay the course, courting a “market segment that consists of customers who prefer seaworthiness to a queen-sized berth in the aft cabin.”

Can Uecker and Brodie defy industry trends and a difficult market to resuscitate two sailboat brands that catered to folks who loved boats of stout build and traditional appearance? It’s a $400,000 question that only time will be able to answer. One has to wish them well for their quest to make their dreams come true.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings. You can order a signed copy of his book, “The Folkboat Story” ($35, plus shipping) by sending an e-mail to scribe@thefluidpen.com (put “Folkboat Story” in the subject line).