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Maine-built boats find a home with Japanese fishermen

I stood next to boatbuilder Stacey Raymond at the Maine Boatbuilders Show, talking about deadrise, Down East boats and a fleet of special 19-footers he recently built for some very special clients.
Raymond, the owner of General Marine Inc. of Biddeford, Maine, spent the winter building 20 composite boats for fishermen in Japan whose lives were turned upside down by the devastating tsunami of a year ago

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In March, Raymond was in Japan for the first time, working shoulder to shoulder in a cold wind for 10 to 12 hours a day with a small group of resilient fishermen to put the final touches on the boats and to take part in an emotional ceremony when they launched the new fleet.

We were standing on a concrete floor in Portland, but Raymond was still trying to find his proverbial sea legs after the whirlwind trip to Japan. It has all been something of a blur for the small builder, a feel-good story to be sure and, more important, an experience that changed lives on both sides of the world. “These people are up against it,” says Raymond, who was surprised by the extent of the devastation and the amount of debris that still remained in Kesennuma. “It hits you deeply when you see what’s going on. It’s just unbelievable.”
Soundings readers probably know Raymond best by his line of Down East-style boats. He builds a 20, 22, 26 and the Lincoln Spencer-?designed 36-foot Northern Bay cruiser. What did this builder of traditional Maine boats know about small panga-style Japanese fishing boats before this project? Not a whole lot, but, as he noted, “I learned quickly.”
The shape of the skiffs is pretty basic. The hulls are narrow (6-foot beam) and the bottoms pretty flat. “A pretty easy design,” Raymond says. “Simple is better.” The lightweight 19-foot fiberglass/composite boats are powered by 9.9-hp Yamaha 4-strokes, which push the little planing hulls surprisingly well.
Raymond worked through a contact in Japan to get advice from the fishermen who would be using the boats he was building in faraway Maine. “How can we improve the design?” he asked them. The builder used the feedback to modify in small ways the traditional Japanese panga so it reflected the changes that have occurred in the country’s seaweed, oyster and net fisheries. That meant adding a little more freeboard and altering the shape of the bottom slightly. “We didn’t try and reinvent the wheel,” Raymond says, “and they loved the boat because it better fits their fisheries now.”
The boats were contracted by Operation Blessing International, a non-profit humanitarian organization based in Virginia Beach, Va., and sponsored by the SAP Solidarity Fund. The arrangement turned out to be one of those nice win-wins. The fishermen in Japan received 20 strong, light outboard skiffs that are enabling them to once again work their inshore waters, and Raymond was able to hire back workers at his small shop in Maine.
Along the way, some lives are being altered for the better. “You gain a respect for their culture and they gain a respect for ours,” says Raymond, 53, a self-described Type-A “problem solver” and former motorcycle racer who turned out to be an unlikely but effective international ambassador.
Working with a subcontractor, General Marine was able to design the hull, build the tooling and produce the small-boat fleet in about two months. The contract didn’t call for Raymond to fly to Japan; he did that on his dime and his time. He was moved by the fishermen, who embraced him just before he left. “It’s not like we saved the world,” Raymond says, “but it was a mission that went right.”
True, he didn’t save the world, but these simple boats, built with a good bit of pride and Raymond’s presence at the water’s edge in Hikado, meant an awful lot to a group of fishermen who had lost so much.

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"Always we sailed with beauty; the form of the little world fhat held us was beautiful, and its name was grace."

- Alan Villiers

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.