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R.I. Builders turning out versatile boats

"We were young and dumb, and decided we would enjoy working for ourselves instead of somebody else." - Bristol Harbor Boats, Cory Wood

A little more than a year after deciding to go ahead and build it, the handsome navy blue center console was plying New England waters, ready for a full production run.

Its designers had envisioned a line of open boats with Down East looks, but riding modified-vee hulls. And the plan is coming together, as 19- and 21-foot center consoles have been built, with a 21-foot cuddy model in the works, and 25- and 27-footers on the drawing board for 2008 and 2009, respectively.

The line is called Bristol Harbor Boats, and the company behind it started out small. Three recent college grads from the Midwest founded the Bristol Harbor Design Group in Bristol, R.I., when their love of sailing drew them to the Ocean State in the early 1990s. Just as they’ve built their yacht design firm from the ground up, they hope to make Bristol Harbor Boats as sought after as their naval architecture services.

“We think we’re going to light the world on fire,” says Greg Beers, a professional engineer and one of the principals behind the Bristol Harbor Group Inc. He admits that most entrepreneurs probably believe that in the beginning. “But we feel pretty good,” he adds.

Early returns have been positive, as nearly a half dozen boats were sold before the first prototype hit the water.

A passion for boats

That lies in stark contrast to the design firm’s beginnings, as Cory Wood, another company founder, explains.

“We were young and dumb, and decided we would enjoy working for ourselves instead of somebody else,” says Wood, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in naval architecture and marine engineering from the University of Michigan, alongside Beers and Andrew Tyska, the third Bristol Harbor founder. “We did it because we love sailing. You get hooked on the ocean,” Wood says. “[But] we realized after about ten minutes that nobody was going to hire us to design a sailboat.”

The three undertook other jobs while working part-time nights and weekends on the fledgling Bristol Harbor Design Group. For instance, Tyska worked weekends at Bristol Harbor while serving an apprenticeship with the Ted Hood Design Group. They bootstrapped the company with a line of credit and no loans.

Bristol Harbor’s big break came in the form of a contract for a 65-foot power catamaran. Wood, who also worked with Hood’s design group at that time, was the first of the trio to come aboard full time at Bristol Harbor.

Work has grown steadily, Wood says, with commercial jobs filling in when yacht sales are down, and the company gradually has brought aboard more naval architects. The firm now employs six engineers/naval architects and an administrative assistant.

Clients on the recreational side include Camano Marine, Compton Marine, Krogen Express and Kadey-Krogen.

Playing to their strengths

“It’s been a long, steady climb,” says Wood, who was in the process of interviewing more naval architects this past summer, as he awaited the arrival of the first Bristol Harbor boat.

Beers, who holds a Master of Science in Engineering from UM’s naval architecture and marine engineering department, has handled much of the marketing and dealer interaction during Bristol Harbor Boats’ early stages, according to Wood. Wood, whom Beers describes as the “artiste” of the project, has handled a lot of the design because he has been free of other projects, he says.

Tyska’s role is slightly different, as in addition to his naval architecture work he runs the marina at which Bristol Harbor Group is based, and where the first boats are being rigged. He took over the marina eight years ago and keeps it separate from the Bristol Harbor Group.

Marina tenants include mechanics, painters, naval architects, fabric and upholstery shops, and yacht sales offices, not to mention friendly neighbors including other boatbuilders.

“We’re using as much of the area’s marine knowledge and base as we can,” says Wood.

After the first few boats, he says, final assembly will still be done in Bristol, but most likely at a different location.

Lamination work on the all-composite boats, meanwhile, is done in Guadalajara, Mexico. One of the Bristol Harbor founders visits Guadalajara every three or four weeks, Wood says, and they have been very happy with the quality of the lamination.

Having a hand in all facets of the design, construction and sale of the new boats was a priority, he says.

“We’ve seen so many projects that had the potential to be home runs that just fizzled,” says Wood. “What we wanted to do in this case is have control over everything, not just the design and engineering.” That includes putting together the sales and marketing team and assembling a knowledgeable dealer network.

Having complete control over the design presents a new frontier, even for an accomplished group of naval architects. Most of Bristol Harbor’s design work has been very specific, Wood says, such as new keels or new rudders. “We’ve done design work, but not a full design,” he says, “which is ironic, since that’s where we all come from.”

Designed for versatility

The first boat completed was a 21. The company had the plug built and shipped to Mexico in late summer of 2005, and the first fully-tooled prototype hit the water in Bristol early summer, 2006.

“The beauty of a 21 center console is it’s not a very complex boat, so it comes together quickly,” Wood says.

The boat has a high bow and a sweeping sheer line. Its sharp entry leads to 21 degrees of deadrise amidships and 17 degrees at the transom. Though many of Bristol Harbor Group’s marine engineering projects are for large ships, Tyska and Wood cut their teeth for planing hull design on Hood’s Little Harbor Whisperjet and Black Watch boats.

Length overall measures 21 feet, 3-5/8 inches, with a beam of 8 feet, 5 inches and a draft of 1 foot, 2 inches with the outboard trimmed up. Displacement without power is 2,575 pounds, and the 21CC has a fuel capacity of 90 gallons.

The boat is built with a molded structural grid, a molded liner and a molded, contoured center console, which contains a portable marine head. It also has a molded leaning post and molded transom seats, and in addition to stainless steel deck hardware, it has four stainless steel in-deck rod holders, four stainless steel leaning post rod holders, a stainless steel destroyer wheel and a windshield. Standard color choices include red, white, yellow and blue, and a T-top is available as an option.

Wood says the company envisioned a coastal boat that would be equally functional for fishing, pulling the kids on a tube all day, or island hopping. “It’s meant to be a sort of jack of all trades,” he says.

Up and running

The 19 is similar to the 21, but with 2 feet chopped off the transom, Wood explains. Equipment is pretty much the same; however there is no head in the console and a dodger is available as an option rather than a T-top.

A 21 center console, equipped with a 150-hp 4-stroke outboard, is priced at about $39,000, Beers says.

The first 21, equipped with an optional 200-hp outboard, hit a top speed of 37 knots fully loaded. Wood described the sea trial as exhilarating and says the speed number was higher than anticipated.

A 21-foot cuddy boat — currently called the 21A — is next in line after the 21 and 19 center consoles.

“Once we get production up and running, between these three models we’re looking for a through-put of about 50 models a year,” says Wood. “We’re not looking to be the big guys on the market, and we don’t want to be that.”

In the long term, the company plans to offer a 25 and a 27, but to keep them trailer-able, too. This way Bristol Harbor is not competing with its design clients, whose yachting sweet spot seems to be in the 38- to 52-foot range.

Though the company is booked up on the design side for 1-1/2 years — “Which is obscene,” says Wood — its founders appear to enjoy spending time getting their hands dirty as they assemble the smaller center console boats.

“It really is a labor of love for us, and it’s part of the creative process,” Wood says. “Usually, if we’re lucky, we get to visit a builder two or three times while putting the boat together, and then we go to the sea trial.”

Bristol Harbor Boats is a different experience for the trio, and the hope is to provide something different to boaters.

“If somebody doesn’t want to buy a Sea Ray or a Boston Whaler, if they’re looking for something more New England-y,” says Wood, “we think we’ve got [their boat] right here.”