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This Black Lab deserves pat on the head

Aluminum-boat company finds the right niche with heavy-duty design made for rocky coastlines

Aluminum-boat company finds the right niche with heavy-duty design made for rocky coastlines

While living in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1990s, Jay Perrotta saw something that would change his mind about aluminum boats and start him on a new career path.

The native New Englander was a sales manager working out of the West Coast offices of National Fisherman and WorkBoat magazines in 1995.

That year he met Dan King, founder of Pacific Skiffs Inc. of Marysville, Wash., a builder of heavy-duty plate aluminum flat-bottomed commercial workboats.

“When I moved back to Maine from Seattle, Dan and I had become friends,” says Perrotta, who is 41. “And I had the same reaction as many people back here about welded aluminum boats: Why don’t we have these? We have rocky coasts. We have heavy-duty users.”

Soon after, Perrotta started Black Lab Marine Inc., selling PSI plate alloy boats specially designed for the East Coast market.

Growing up, Perrotta says he was familiar with light-duty, riveted sheet metal boats. Heavy plate, thicker than 3/16-inch, was rare.

“A big portion of the labor building aluminum boats … was you had to sit there with a circular saw and cut out all the plates,” says Perrotta. The work was time-consuming and inaccurate.

“But what Dan did — Dan was a custom builder before — Dan’s innovation was standardizing design and standardizing construction techniques,” he says. PSI uses CAD/CAM technology and a plasma cutter to precisely knock out the pieces for 10 boats at a time from a roll of plate alloy.

Perrotta brought a flat-bottom skiff back to Maine with him, and the next step was to design and build a vee-bottom boat. The first one was a 19-foot model with 14 degrees of deadrise. It had a small center console, no electronics and no lights.

The boats have come a long way in a short time.

“Every boat that comes out is a little better than the last one, and changed a little bit, and it’s probably 99-percent customer driven,” says Perrotta. “It sounds trite, but the design is driven by East Coast customers, put into hard copy by Black Lab, and executed by PSI.”

Yarmouth-based Black Lab has worked with a couple of boat designers to make rough sketches computer-ready, but for the most part all design, sales and marketing are done in-house.

Perrotta often compares the company to sailboat outfit J/Boats. Each of them only has a handful of employees, and an outside builder — TPI Composites Inc. for J/Boats, PSI for Black Lab — builds the boats. Perrotta is working to emulate J/Boats’ successful model.

Black Lab had just sold its 312th boat as of press time. It currently is making uniform the branding of the boats (they will now be under the brand name “Black Lab Plate Alloy Boats” instead of “Pacific”).

Stewart Hunt has been on board as general manager at Black Lab for the past year. “He’s making sure it runs as a company,” says Perrotta, who meanwhile spends his time reading books and talking to customers in an effort to make better boats.

Black Lab has tried a couple of methods, including modular building — the customer picks a hull and matches it with different pieces — and stocking boats. Now the boats are built to order and hauled east by tractor-trailer three or four at a time.

PSI produces two boats per week with (on average) 1-1/2 of them for Black Lab. It usually takes eight to 12 weeks, from deposit to delivery, to get one of the boats.

Black Lab, in business since 1996, offers four different lengths and three different configurations. Center console, hardtop, walkaround and extended-cabin walkaround models are available. They range in length from 19 to 26 feet. The 19- and 20-foot models have 14 degrees of deadrise at the transom, and the 23- and 26-foot boats have 18 degrees.

Prices range from $19,100 to $43,400, without power.

Perrotta thought the company was just going to build boats for commercial use. The original boats did not have rod holders, rocket launchers or other fishing and recreational accessories.

“The first time somebody said ‘rocket launchers,’ I thought they literally meant military rockets,” he says.

Now 60 percent of Black Lab’s sales are to recreational boaters. The boats are most popular around Massachusetts’s South Shore, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, as well as Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake.

The customers have formed a strong community, Perrotta says. “They’re really tight with the company, and they’ve become friends,” he says.

The company is attracting more “normal” buyers these days, Perrotta says, as its reputation spreads, again thanks to hardcore boat owners.

“They use their boats a lot,” says Hunt, adding that prospective buyers like to talk to other customers anyway.

Perrotta agrees.

“Every time I go out with a customer and a prospective customer, they just talk to each other and basically ignore me,” he says.

Boats are sold directly to customers, though customer representatives are available to give demo rides. The first two are Hank Garvey and Capt. Chris Gatley. Garvey, of Newburyport, Mass., will cover the area from Portsmouth, N.H. to Boston.

Gatley, of Medfield, N.J., is available for the New York-New Jersey area. The professional fishing guide and writer recently held a “demo day” for an estimated six or eight potential owners.

Perrotta, who lives in Freeport with his wife, Lynn, takes his children — Meg, 4, and Allie, 2 — boating all the time. Going camping on Birch Island in Casco Bay aboard their Black Lab V23 is a favorite family activity.

Perrotta took us out on Long Island Sound in late September, aboard a 23-foot hardtop model.

The V23HT was equipped with a 225-hp Honda 4-stroke outboard and reached speeds higher than 50 mph on that fairly calm day. It had very aggressive non-skid and wide gunwales, and drew some attention on the Connecticut River.

The boat backed straight and when the deck was flooded it drained itself, even with the engine in neutral. Soundings technical consultant Erik Klockars was impressed by the boat’s predictability in a number of aggressive maneuvers, such as breaking free of a large boat’s wake.

“It’s a safe boat,” said Klockars. “It doesn’t do anything you won’t expect.”

The boat provided a pretty dry ride, and Klockars suggested simply adding an extra spray rail forward — after taking a bonzai run through a sportfisherman’s wake.

“People sometimes look at our boats and say it must be wet because there’s no convex Carolina flare,” Perrotta says. “But convex flare in small planing boats tends to be a design borrowed from the large sportfishing boat market, where it is indispensable. Conversely, when a planing boat is on plane the flare is doing nothing and when you are plunging the bow of a center console you better have protection — with or without flare — because a quartering breeze in any open boat will bring the spray towards you.” Black Lab boats don’t have bow flare because plate alloy can only be bent in two dimensions without getting prohibitively expensive, he explains. People don’t realize that many popular center consoles have no flare or negative flare, he adds.

The boat is injected with foam flotation, which makes the boat “unsinkable,” provides for upright flotation, and also quieted the big aluminum boat during the sea trial. Although there was no booming, you could tell the boat was metal when an anchor chain managed to free itself and make some noise.