A sure sign of spring in the Northeast is the Maine Boatbuilders Show in Portland, which ran from Friday, March 20, through Sunday the 22nd. I spent two days at the show, and during the prime-time hours it was flannel-to-flannel in the many of the aisles.
Although exact figures weren’t available Monday morning, attendance Friday and Saturday will likely be up about 20 percent over last year, with Sunday’s numbers slightly lower, says Phin Sprague Jr., the show’s founder and owner. “We beat the trend,” Sprague says. “Everybody was so excited … solid boat talk. It really is a meeting of the clan.”
Sprague expects the final number for the three-day show to be in the neighborhood of about 10,000, including exhibitors. Weather (read: snow), which hurt attendance the last two years, was not a factor this time around. About 200 companies displayed boats, products and services, which is about the same as in the past, he notes.
The vast majority of exhibitors are small shops, both in terms of the number of workers and the volume of boats they build. Some also run small boatyards; most do a fair amount of service and repair work. Many are custom or semicustom builders; they don’t build without an order. As such, they seem to be weathering the current economic downturn better than their larger, more production-orientated brethren. The takeaway I got from numerous conversations was that they had work, but backlogs had shrunk.
“There is an undertone of concern,” Sprague says.
I spoke with a smiling Jean Beaulieu, the owner of the Classic Boat Shop on Mount Desert Island, who had taken a deposit on one of his Pisces 21 sloops. “We’ve been talking to him for about a year and a half,” says Beaulieu, who also runs a full-service yard. The builder says he currently has four boats under construction.
Although she is not a large boat by industry standards, the C.W. Paine-designed Pisces 21 is built to yacht quality. The base price of the fiberglass model is about $48,000; base price for the cold-molded hull is around $72,000.
There certainly is no shortage of wood, varnish and craftsmanship at the Maine Boatbuilders Show. Traditional designs and a preponderance of small craft help make this event unique. Having said that, there always is a crowd gathered around custom builder Lyman-Morse of Thomaston, a company at the forefront of high-technology boatbuilding in this country. Few can compare with Lyman-Morse when it comes to blending traditional and modern materials and construction techniques.
And I had to do a double-take when I walked past the Fortier 33 with Volvo IPS drives, the only pod drive boat I saw the show. “When it first came out, I said, ‘Wow, this is different,’ ” says Rod Fortier, who owns the Somerset, Mass.-based company that he and his father started more than 30 years ago.
The traditional New England builder is now working on his third 33 with IPS drives. To accommodate IPS, Fortier removed the keel but kept the hull’s forefoot the same. He told me the changes didn’t affect the way the boat handled or drifted in a rip. The company typically builds eight to 12 boats a year, depending on the mix of 26-, 30- or 33-footers it has orders for.
— Bill Sisson