Tale of seaway boats has a happy ending

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Seaway Boats of Oxford, Maine, turns out salty Down East boats

The first thing we did after moving to coastal Maine was have a mooring installed in the back river, about 200 yards from our house. There were too many ledges and too little water to safely moor our 28-foot cruiser there, but it was a perfect place for the smaller boat we planned to add to the fleet in the future.

Why a second boat? For anyone from “away” who aspires to be a Mainer, having a salty little boat for picnics or to cruise the harbor after dinner is a first, tiny step toward credibility. Inboard-powered launches are the choice of the well-to-do, but a center console with a spray dodger is an acceptable alternative as long as it has classic lines.

My dream boat was a little Seaway center console that was kept on a neighboring island, but it was obviously cherished and well-cared-for by its present owner and wasn’t for sale, so I kept looking, hoping to find a sister ship.

Meanwhile, my continuing interest in Seaway led me to schedule a visit to the factory where they are made. Three days before I was to make the trip, I was astonished to see my dream boat, not in its usual place, but sitting on a trailer on a local dealer’s lot. With one unhesitating stroke of the pen in my checkbook, my Seaway really was mine at last.

Mention Seaway boats to most New Englanders — especially Mainers — and they’ll nod their heads in recognition of a line of sturdy, no-nonsense, seaworthy boats with classic, Down East lines. But if you press them for details, they might shake their heads and shrug helplessly because more information just isn’t there. That’s not an uncommon reaction. Seaway has had a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t presence in the market since the name first appeared in the early 1970s. But since 2000 it has come back into view with new energy, updated models and the commitment of the founding Farmer family to continue doing what they love to do: build boats.

Patriarch Harry Farmer began his career in boatbuilding right after graduation from the BoothbayRegionHigh School, when he went to work for the legendary Goudy & Stevens boatyard in East Boothbay, Maine. After several years of learning the ropes, he decided in 1970 to launch his own business, Coastal Plastics, which introduced a line of Scottie dinghies while being supported by sub-contract work from his former employer. With the subsequent introduction of 19- and 23-foot models, now called Seaway, and based on a proven lobster boat hull design, business took off and grew steadily until tragedy struck. The East Boothbay shop was completely destroyed by fire in 1979.

Discouraged from rebuilding in the Boothbay area by environmental concerns and the high cost of coastal real estate, Farmer moved to Winthrop, Maine, in 1980 and started over. There, with the help of sons Greg and Scott, he rebuilt the business, changed the name from Coastal Plastics to Seaway Boats, and was soon producing 19- and 23-foot boats again, along with open and center console 17-foot boats from molds purchased from Oldtown Boats.

Commercial users appreciated the Seaways’ economy, sturdy construction and seaworthiness. Pleasure boaters recognized the same features, but also liked their salty, Down East lines and the fact that they could essentially order the boat built to their own liking.

They kept at it until 1989, when they closed the business and sold the molds.

Farmer packed up his family and moved south, where he spent the 1990s in production management positions with several boat manufacturers in the Southeast.

Seaway was still in Farmer’s blood, though, and he found time to build six boats under that name while in Florida, shipping them all back to New England customers. When the urge to build boats of his own became too strong to resist, he once again gathered his family and in 2000 headed back north to Oxford, Maine, where he found a small shop. There he began the long process of setting up a boatbuilding operation and rebuilding Seaway again.

Seaway’s target in the pleasure boat marketplace is the niche between boats that are too basic to enjoy and the high-end boats whose fancy features put them out of the price range of average buyers. Their aim is to build boats that are strong, well finished, comfortable, easy to maintain and a pleasure to use. But as Greg Farmer is quick to point out, they are still a semi-custom boatbuilder and will make yours as plain or luxurious as you’d like, no questions asked. Their present line includes 13-, 16- and 18-foot skiffs, 18-foot open and center console models and a 21-foot hull that is offered in open, commercial, center console, lobster boat and bass boat styles.

The center console 18 and the 21-foot series have recently been redesigned to include a completely molded inner liner with copious non-skid surfaces and lots of storage. Their new 24-foot line was introduced in 2006 and was an instant hit at the United States Powerboat Show in Annapolis, where 12 boats were ordered on the spot. A 27-foot line is also planned.

All Seaway hulls start with a generous layer of gelcoat, followed by layers of mat to ensure the integrity of the finish and heavy woven cloth for strength. The hulls are solid fiberglass from the keel to the rubrail. Non-hull structures are cored with either foam or a plastic honeycomb material that provides strength without adding weight.

Up until now all of the fiberglass components, including the hull, have been hand-laid in the classic, labor-intensive manner. But that is about to change. This year, the Farmers will begin switching over to a resin infusion process in a transition that is expected to take a year or so to complete. The result, they say, will be lighter, stronger structures that are manufactured in a more environmentally friendly process. Their entire production operation, including woodworking and joinery, electrical installations and even mold building is kept in-house where they can control it.

The 18-, 21- and 24-foot hulls feature a pleasing, classic sheer line and share the same underbody design, with hard chines and a deep forefoot that leads to a shallow vee aft. Spray rails fore and aft keep the ride dry in all but the worst conditions. The result is a hull that rides smoothly in the rough stuff and reaches reasonable speeds without requiring gobs of power. Dealers can offer the boats with the customers’ choice of outboard power, but boats that are powered at the factory are fitted with Suzuki 4-strokes.

Since setting up in Oxford in 2000, the business has returned to its original prosperity and Seaway boats are now sold through a growing dealer network. The original shop was quickly outgrown, forcing a move to a larger plant in 2006. The new facility, in the shadow of the Oxford Plains Speedway, has more than 11,000 square feet of manufacturing space, plus offices and storage and will allow Seaway to continue its growth. About 45 boats of all types were manufactured in 2006. The Farmers project that the expansion, added staff and increasing demand will result in nearly double that annual output for 2007 and beyond.

Through it all, Seaway is still a family business. Harry oversees the business end, while his wife, Jackie, manages the front office and Greg runs the production operations and manages their cadre of employees. A visit to the shop reveals their enjoyment in what they’re doing; their pride in the results are obvious and contagious. They recently celebrated the delivery of the 100th hull in the 21-foot series, so the now-you-see-it aspect of Seaway appears to be here to stay and the now-you-don’t part is a thing of the past.