D.R. boatbuilder thrives

Author:
Updated:
Original:

Want a job in paradise? Aventura Boats, successful against all odds, seeks a one-in-a-million plant manager.

American boatbuilders have suffered through seven years of bad luck. Their slump began even before the Great Recession, and many high-fliers closed shop long ago. Even many of those that had not mortgaged themselves to the hilt are now just shells of their former selves. Debt-free, they cling to life but have no orders.

That’s what makes the story of Luc Guessard so remarkable. Guessard is a friend of mine and the founder of Aventura Boats in the Dominican Republic. He builds sturdy, seaworthy and, as time goes by, increasingly handsome boats for the Caribbean tourism industry. Since 2008, when the new-order pipelines for U.S. builders went dry, Aventura has turned out 22 vessels from its tiny factory in the hills of the D.R.’s North Coast — six 42-footers, six 36s, eight 31s and two 30s. Except for one sailboat, all are outboard-driven power cats.

Resorts buy Aventura catamarans to take guests on excursions such as snorkeling, scuba diving or just taking in the scenery.

Resorts buy Aventura catamarans to take guests on excursions such as snorkeling, scuba diving or just taking in the scenery.

“We now have five boats under construction for delivery before the end of the year, two 42-footers for Punta Rucia (in the D.R.), one 42 for diving at a new Sandals Resort in Grenada. One 31 is going to Provo in the Turks & Caicos and one 42 is going to Punta Cana in the D.R. Three of the five are repeat business,” Guessard says. “Costs of the boats are approximately $90,000 for a 30-footer up to $220,000 for a 42-foot double-decker with engines and ready to go.”

Maybe some of you are saying, “Easy for him, building boats in a low-wage country,” but you would be wrong. Guessard may be in business in the D.R., but he’s not Dominican; he’s French. And the Dominican Republic is where foreign businessmen go to watch their egos die. “Wanna make a million bucks in the Dominican Republic?” begins the old joke. The punchline, “Start out with ten.”

For Guessard, 47, the triumph has been twofold. Start-up boatbuilding is a tough business anywhere in the world, no matter how good the product, but for a foreigner to succeed at bootstrapping any enterprise in the Dominican Republic is a truly remarkable achievement. The sheer number of entrepreneurs who have been bested by various combinations of employee lethargy, official corruption and imaginative skullduggery boggle the mind.

Nineteen years ago, Guessard and his brother Frank arrived in Luperon Harbor on the North Coast on a trimaran the two had built in Brazil and sailed northward, arriving (legend has it) with just a single sack of rice and a few dollars in their pockets. When the two twenty-somethings from Montpelier in southern France flew to Brazil and built Guara from strip planking and epoxy, they were living a childhood dream. Growing up, they had cheered for France’s elite multihull racers the way American boys follow the heroes of NASCAR. And Luc studied naval architecture in college.

Luc Guessard’s first boat was his own Guara, which resembles a bird of prey. Built more than 20 years ago, she continues to take tourists on fast rides.

Luc Guessard’s first boat was his own Guara, which resembles a bird of prey. Built more than 20 years ago, she continues to take tourists on fast rides.

These ocean-going Gallic Tarzans were befriended by the young manager of Puerto Blanco Marina in Luperon, who offered Luc a shady corner of his marina to build boats while Frank took hotel guests on trips aboard Guara. Eventually Frank moved on, but Luc Guessard put down roots, crafting a living one hull at a time. (Or should I say two? He has an innate prejudice against monohulls.) He developed a 30-foot catamaran that a major dive company said was perfect for ferrying 14 tourists and their gear to the dive sites. Guessard hired local teenagers to help with the building.

He made molds for the hulls and used fiber-reinforced polyester resin construction, just like builders back in France and in the States. He got better at reading in English so he could keep up on boatbuilding trends in the trade magazines. He tooled up for greater efficiency by building more and more molds for the smaller parts of his boats.

Guessard’s enterprise eventually outgrew the shady nook by the water. He reinvested his profits in the company and built a factory on a hillside 8 miles inland in the farming village of La Culebra, or in English, “The Snake.”

I was with Guessard in 2005 when he launched the first 42 built at the new facility. She was a little boxy-looking, compared with today’s svelte models, but only Guessard saw that. For his guys and the people of the region this was a day of immense pride. The teenagers who had apprenticed with him at the marina were now in their 20s and their ranks had grown to a dozen or so, all highly skilled tradesmen. They had created something hugely valuable by the standards of the Dominican countryside.

Getting this first boat to the water was a nerve-racking experience. She was hauled on a special trailer behind a tractor through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world. Several of his crew rode atop the vessel and used machetes to bushwhack a trail through the overhanging foliage and lifted electrical wires to achieve clearance. Villagers along the way crowded the street and cheered as if it were a Macy’s parade.

hills
Guessard’s first 42, built at his hill town factory, winds its way through the countryside to its launch In 2005. You can see in the other photo, in which the crew competes for roadway with a cattle drive, that the Aventura design has become more refined during the past eight years.

Guessard’s first 42, built at his hill town factory, winds its way through the countryside to its launch in 2005. You can see in the other photo, in which the crew competes for roadway with a cattle drive, that the Aventura design has become more refined during the past eight years.

At the beach, finally, the farmer backed the rig until the water was just below the tractor’s starter motor and Guessard’s cat found her buoyancy. “That was too easy,” I remember commenting. “Don’t ever say that it was too easy. It cannot be easy enough,” Guessard said, taking a swig from his Presidente beer.

Guessard then packed his workers aboard the boat for the 120-nautical mile — and typically snotty — passage to a resort at Samana, just so his farm boys could better appreciate why it was so important to adhere to his high construction standards.

Eight years later, Guessard faces a dilemma. His two daughters are in France with their mother because they must have a French education. “But of course,” Guessard would say, one of his favorite phrases. He is torn between a successful-against-all-odds boatbuilding business and love of family. Aventura cannot thrive without him, his girls must be French, and he cannot be on two continents at the same time.

Luc Guessard and his Brazilian wife, Andreza.

Luc Guessard and his Brazilian wife, Andreza.

Guessard needs help.

“My dream now is to find a partner or a manager with huge sense of responsibility, able to live in Luperon, with experience in boatbuilding, management, flexible to the local mentality, passionate and full of energy and smart thinking, speaking Spanish, able to run the biz, take care of issues, control production and construction quality — well … you know the type of alien I am speaking about,” Guessard says. “Because with the family in France and construction booming, I will have to clone myself to look after the boys here and take care of the girls in France at the same time.

“If you know an agency able to find for me this rare pearl, please tell me. I already have tried five persons that I chose because they were looking nice, but none had the commitment and professionalism for the job. And this cost me a lot because I had to pay them for very little results, and I am still alone.”

Is there anybody out there who fits the bill — a Spanish-speaking, boat-savvy plant manager who can lead a Caribbean work force? Aventura is Spanish for adventure, and anybody able to do this job would be in for the adventure of a lifetime. They say what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.