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Talkin’ boats with Randy Borges President USwatercraft LLC

The dirtier Randy Borges is at the end of the workday, the happier he usually is. Borges has been building and fixing sail- and powerboats since he was a teenager working in upstate New York. That passion ultimately led him to Newport, R.I., and the opportunity to work on and build America’s Cup 12 Meters.

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Today he runs USWatercraft LLC, a Rhode Island boatbuilding company that contract-manufactures J/Boats and Farr-designed sailboats. USW recently acquired True North and North Rip powerboats and Alerion sailboats from the Pearson Marine Group. Borges’ other business, Waterline Systems LLC, is a service, repair and refit operation for one design, cruising and racing sailboats and powerboats.

Borges, 51, certainly has a full plate, but he enjoys working hard and describes himself as a “just-do-it kind of guy,” a trait acquired from a number of his industry mentors, as well as his engineer father, Tim. He took to sailing at an early age, competing out of the Youngstown (N.Y.) Yacht Club on Lake Ontario. He also worked at the RCR Yachts boatyard as a youth and often joined its crew in sailraces. Borges went on to become a champion sailor, racing J/Boats, and he crewed in the 1987 12 Meter World Championship and America’s Cup.

Here, he talks about what it was like working on world-class Cup yachts, the sailboat he compares to a Ferrari, his three new brands and the building techniques his crews use to construct high-end boats. Borges lives with his wife, Beth, and five children, ages 6 to 16, in Portsmouth, R.I. They own a J/24 and a J/29, and his children love to sail. His wife prefers powerboats.

USWatercraft has acquired the Alerion, North Rip and True North brands (TN38 pictured).

Q: What do you want readers to know about you?

A: I am in this because I really enjoy it. I am passionate about it. For me, it’s fun to go to work every day and build or fix boats. I have a lot of good people behind me who believe in me and what we are doing. It has been tough economically the last few years, but we as a team have gotten through it and are looking forward to the future.

Q: How did you discover this passion?

A: I started working in a boatyard when I was a kid, painting bottoms, driving a launch and working with some good people who gave me a desire and love for sailing, for boats and for working on boats. I got an opportunity to go to Newport when the America’s Cup was still here and got a job working at Newport Offshore. This was right after I graduated high school. A lot of America’s Cup boats were hosted out of that facility, and they were building America’s Cup 12 Meters. So I was like a kid in a candy store in the heyday of the America’s Cup. I went to Australia for the 1987 Cup and met many people deeply rooted in the sailing community, boatbuilding and design.

Q: You were a lover of sailing prior to the Newport move. How did that come about?

A: I grew up sailing out of the Youngstown Yacht Club, and I worked for this boatyard, RCR Yachts, in Youngstown, N.Y. They always had a factory boat that I got to race on and take care of and deliver at various events. So RCR gave me the opportunities to compete at high-level events.

Q: Was your competitive side a driving force in your participation in sailing?

A: I would say that was part of what drove me. I have always been very competitive. I do enjoy sailing. There was a time when I sort of burned out a bit, but that was after sailing competitively for many years.

Q: The other big part of your life is building boats. What is the attraction there?

A: I grew up across Lake Ontario from C&C and Hinterhoeller, who were major manufacturers of sailboats. I loved the different aspects of a boat and how they are built, and I have always been a hands-on guy. My dad somehow did a good job instilling in me a hard-work ethic. So I am a roll-up-my-sleeves, get-in-there-and-figure-it-out and just-do-it kind of guy. In Newport after hours, I would hang out in the boatbuilding sheds and work for nothing and help to build these 12 Meters that were competing and representing our country. A big part of wanting to build boats back then was national pride. We’d work all hours of the day to get these boats ready. I eventually worked my way into becoming a boatbuilder — and getting paid to be one.

Q: How has boatbuilding changed since then?

The Farr 40 is one of the boats USWatercraft builds.

A: Technology has made a big difference. I tell my kids we used to have to get off the couch to change the TV station and that we had no cell phones. They look at me like I have three heads. You have better materials and processes, like resin infusion. Certainly the impact of the computer on design has been great. Things like 3-D modeling make the builder’s job a whole lot easier. When I started boatbuilding, we literally lofted on the floor full size every boat that we were building. When building a 12 Meter, you have 60 to 70 feet of floor covered with line drawings. We took battens and drew the lines point to point to fair them. In this day and age, full-scale lofting is unheard of.

Q: What is the next big step in boatbuilding technology-wise?

A: I would say the further development of using fabrics more effectively and efficiently. I’m interested to see what may happen with technology laying individual strands into a mold like the North Sails 3DI process. Certain prepreg fabrics already have been a major step, as well, with added strength-to-weight gains. They are cleaner and easier to work with. There is a lot of technology in the aircraft world that should trickle down to boatbuilding. Same goes for high-tech methods used in America’s Cup boats.

Q: Has boatbuilding been slow to catch on to new technology?

A: We are limited to what we spend on high-tech research and development. Unlike other industries, we typically have limited production runs, which equates to limited return on your investment. You have to spend hundreds of thousands in some cases to incorporate new technology or bring a new product to market. So we need to balance time and money to the potential return. We have looked at more environmentally friendly methods, like using recycled materials in construction. As a boatbuilder, one of the biggest hurdles we face is the used boats sitting around that don’t go away very easily. Let’s figure out a way to get rid of them and reuse them in new construction.

Q: What in boatbuilding or design makes you roll your eyes?

A: There are fundamental struggles in boatbuilding when taking a designer’s concept and applying it to production boatbuilding. Even with 3-D modeling, the builder will argue there is an easier way to accomplish what the designer suggests. So it boils down to finding that balance between design technology and the most practical way to build the boat you want — or the customer wants. We’ve always associated ourselves with premium brands and try to do things a certain way. We realize that we have price points we have to meet. We build premium boats — J/Boats, Alerion, True North, Farr. They are all top brands that people are willing to pay more for because they know they are better products.

The finish work on the Alerion, True North and J/Boats is second to none. People come to us because they know we are building one boat at a time and that we put everything we have into each individual boat. Each one has an owner’s name attached to it, so we know that there is a face at the end of the build that we want to see a smile on.

Q: How does your company build boats?

North Rip boats are built with resin infusion using the SCRIMP process.

A: Various models are built somewhat differently. The True North, North Rip, Alerion and some of the J/Boats are all resin-infused using the SCRIMP system, which basically calls for laying in all the laminate dry and sucking the resin into the laminate. The business we recently acquired, Pearson Marine Group, pioneered this technology. We’re still doing it today, and we’re pretty darn good at it.

The one-design boats for J/Boats are still hand laid-up and built basically the same way they were when they were designed 20-plus years ago. That’s because the boats are one-design boats and need to be equal in design, construction and weight. So we really can’t incorporate much in the way of major technological improvements in the construction of these boats. Some of the other boats we have built, like the Farr 30 and Farr 40, are epoxy, which we wet layup and run through a resin impregnator; the materials are laid into the hull, vacuum-bagged and then post-cured. The bottom line is we have a crew well versed in all the technologies of boatbuilding.

Q: What is your favorite boat you have built?

A: A few years ago we built a boat called the Ker 11.5, designed by Jason Ker, which was a super-high-tech racing sailboat. It was pretty cool. It had a flush deck with a minimal interior — just a flat-out raceboat. It was a custom one-off called “Peacemaker.” It was like building a Ferrari instead of a Chevy. A lot of the boats we build are racer/cruisers. But Peacemaker, it was built to go as fast as possible around the racecourse.

Building aluminum America’s Cup boats for the New York Yacht Club was pretty damn cool at the time. Plus, we built a bunch of Farr 40s. I really get a kick out of every boat that goes out the door, and that’s why I do this.

Q: What about favorite boats other than what you’ve built — a powerboat and a sailboat?

A: Growing up across the water from C&C Yachts gave me a real appreciation for those boats. They built production boats but also custom boats for events such as the Canada’s Cup and some of the high-end racing events. C&C was “the boat” for me as a kid. There are a number of companies I admire. Right down the road from us there is Hunt Yachts. Peter Van Lancker and his crew build a really nice product and fill a niche with their boats. I am not an offshore fishing guy, but I do know that Peter Truslow and EdgeWater do a great job with center consoles. On the sailboat side, Carroll Marine built some nice stuff. Barry Carroll did a great job building racer/cruisers that were high-tech but not so much they scared customers away with higher pricing.

Q: What was your family’s first boat?

A: It was a Laser sailboat. My brother Gordon sails competitively, as well, and there is a debate about who is the most successful sailor of the family.

Q: You mentioned that your dad instilled in you a good work ethic. What did he do for a living?

A: He was an engineer who ran a large manufacturing company in upstate New York. He always had projects going on around the house, and I ended up helping him out a lot. He was always staying busy and working hard. A good part of the quality time I spent with my dad was working with him doing projects. I remember some nasty jobs, like insulating crawl spaces in the attic. I remember coming down from the attic itching from the fiberglass. Little did I know that I would be spending a lot of time around fiberglass. At one time we had a fairly long driveway, and he decided we should line it with railroad ties. That was a major project. We also had a boathouse down by the river. I remember replacing all the stairs and applying creosote. There were probably 150 steps down to the water. I guess that is where it began.

Q: What are boaters looking for in a boat today?

A: The consumer is more educated than ever and knows what they want as far as options and features. Price is a concern for boaters, of course, and there are plenty of used boats out there. Quality and customer service are most important for customers looking for new boats. Our customers also come to us because of the resale value of our products.

Q: What’s a typical workday like?

A: I know it’s a lot easier than my wife’s day spent with our five kids. Really, I enjoy all aspects of the business.

Q: Are you actually in there building and fixing boats?

A: Very much so. I am out on the floor, working on service jobs, like fairing keels and painting boats. My spray guns are sitting here in my office. I would rather spend more of my time on the floor and in the shop than in the office, for sure. Having a small but growing business, I also focus on sales, customer service, operations and administration.

Q: Tell us about your family life.

A: I have a wife of 19 years, Beth, and our five children are ages 6 to 16. We have four girls and one boy. My wife is the glue that holds us together and really encouraged me throughout the tough times. Even before we were married she came to my aid and helped bail out the business and get it back on its feet. Shortly after we started in 1988 we got in financial trouble, and she actually took some credit card advances and tapped out her savings account to help get us through that. Her brother thought she was crazy. She did it, though, and we survived, and here we are 20-something years later. It was a big act of faith, and we have been blessed in many ways since then.

March 2013 issue