A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

Open eyes, hopeful hearts

Weatherwise, it was not a perfect day for the water — gray, layered clouds and a light wind out of the east. But my 15-year-old daughter had a day off from the horse barn where she works and asked, “Dad, can we go out on the boat?” I don’t hear that every day, so I happily rolled down I-95, headed for the marina.

During the ride we talked about horses and the kinds of things fathers and daughters talk about when college is on the horizon. Possible schools — and horses. Possible majors — and horses. Possible career paths — more horses.

“Do you know how to make a million dollars in the boating industry?” I asked Carly.

“Start with $2 million,” she answered, surprising me.

“Do you know how to make a small fortune in the horse business, Dad?” she asked.

“Start with a large one,” I answered.

We smiled.

Tired clichés notwithstanding, you want your kids to go into their chosen field with their eyes wide open. And I’ve always felt you were fortunate if you had a passion to follow.

“You know what people say, Dad,” she added, “if you want to own horses, don’t work in the horse business.” But at this point that’s the course she is following. Headlong, into the wind.

“The Sailor cannot see the North,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “but knows the Needle can.”

*    *    *

A couple of days later, I was editing a story on the boatbuilders of the Chesapeake that will appear in the next issue of Soundings magazine, written by deputy editor Mary South. Their stories reminded me of the struggles and sacrifices we all went through as we downsized and slogged through the recession.

The marine industry is on the mend and growing again, but it’s still not a walk in the park for everyone, especially the small regional guys. What I read about in the Chesapeake is no different from the conversations I’ve had with small-shop owners in New England. It’s been a slow climb back. Whether you’re talking about the media business, boats or horses, size and scale matter more today, I think, than ever.

Boatbuilding on a small scale has never been easy, but I wonder whether there has been a time, say, in the last 50 years when it’s been more difficult. Do the small builders have the marketing, capital and new product to attain escape velocity, to reach that point where the wind is finally at their backs, rather than in their faces all the time? Given the challenges, will their children be compelled to follow in their footsteps?

As an industry we are a collection of small businesses. And the small builders turn out boats at a very modest pace that are unique for their regional characteristics and diversity, for their ties to the past and, in some cases, for their old-school craftsmanship and innovation. What’s not to admire about their entrepreneurial spirit and their distinctive boats? Beating to weather in unsettled seas, they follow their dreams as they have for decades.

Look for an in-depth story on small boatbuilders in an upcoming issue of Soundings Trade Only.

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