Tell Tales: Endangered Species

A search for the last real boatbuilder ends in Maine.

A wise design client of mine once explained how he’d chosen a particular yard to build a custom boat: “Coyle, I never sign a new construction contract with a builder that has a nicer desk than I do.” This was long before the International Superyacht Society convinced yacht builders that they were stars competing for the Academy Awards. At the time, those who had desks didn’t spend much time behind them and had no interest in walking the red carpet.

My first encounter with a real boatbuilder was in Maine. I’d been sent there to figure out the obvious: Why was a custom boat project late and over budget? This particular builder had been born with an adz in hand and had been chopping wooden boats since Noah’s ark launched. The rub was that the project was fiberglass, a material he disliked almost as much as yacht designers.

Real boatbuilders have little use for designers, for it’s not in the builder’s nature to follow drawings or direction. He told me as much while gnawing on his pipe and sharing memories of a who’s who of my late yacht-design mentors. “Ah, yup … they was all drunks … every last one of ’em.” While I had a diploma in yacht design, I had quickly learned not to burden real boatbuilders with technical banter. I remember once trying to explain the particulars of high-speed rudder design to a builder by the name of Turk, a first and last, as I recall.

Turk was an intimidating lug with gorilla-like forearms and hands like hams. A permanent grimace fixed on his maw was just wide enough to reveal the absence of his left central incisor. As I sketched a rudder on the dirt floor of his metal shop, he stood above me with a sour look. Finally he said, “Sonny, you ever built anything like that?” “Ahhh, nope,” I responded lamely. “Thought so,” he grumbled as he walked away.

One real builder I remember fondly kept his disdain for “pencil-pushing college boys” under his cap until he reached a full boil. As he warmed, his rosy shade of pink would darken until his head appeared like an overripe tomato. He’d then steam into the engineering department and explode — there were never survivors. Most yard veterans with a desk had been fired a half-dozen times.

Anyone with a pocket protector got the same advice: “If ya wanna learn something, get out on the shop floor, keep your head down, and saw wood.” It was some consolation that he considered clients’ attorneys beneath designers in terms of evolution, and if a contract got too wordy he proposed a simple compromise: “If your legal boy’s so smart, have him build the boat.”

Even dealing with builders by phone had its risks. As a young designer working with Tom Fexas, I learned to avoid picking up the phone at the time of day when overseas builders tended to call. The problem was, Tom did the same. German and Italian builders did as they pleased and, when confronted, simply forgot they spoke English. Asian builders would follow plans only to prove a point. “Passageway no good … bump head,” insisted one builder.

He took pleasure in demonstrating my shortcomings as a designer. (I forgot that pop-up TVs also pop down.) Not long ago, I searched the seaside looking to rekindle these fond memories. I finally found what I was looking for in Maine. An old fellow in a blue boiler suit with a pipe was carving a wooden boat from a pile of lumber. There was no desk and the designer’s plans were rolled up in a darkened corner of the shop. A real boatbuilder. I hope he’s not the last!