May 23, 2018
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Uncovering Maine’s hidden boat industry

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — There’s an old saying that nobody wants to see how sausage is made.

But the folks at Maine Built Boats, the nonprofit organization created to promote Maine’s boat building industry, think there will be a lot of interest in seeing how boats are made.

Maine Built Boats will sponsor its first Open Boatyard Days in August as a way to let Maine people and summer visitors see up close how one of Maine’s top manufacturing industries works. The event is scheduled for Aug. 16-17 and will include boatyards throughout the state working both with traditional wooden boat techniques as well as the most modern composite techniques.

“We need people to understand our industry,” said Jane Wellehan, president of Maine Built Boats. “We’re the third-largest manufacturing industry in Maine, but we’re often the hidden industry in a way.”

People rarely have the chance to see how things are done inside a boatyard, she said.

“There is a tremendous amount of talent, passion and craftsmanship in Maine,” Wellehan said. “If we can bring people into the shops, they’ll develop an appreciation for the industry. We can foster a sense of pride in what we do here.”

If they can sell a few boats, that wouldn’t hurt either, she said.

The open boatyard days is a great way to showcase Maine boat builders, according to Marnie Read, marketing and public relations director for Morris Yachts, which has facilities in Northeast Harbor, Bass Harbor and Trenton.

“Most of the boats built in Maine are semi-custom boats,” Read said. “If we can get them through the door of the shop, there’s always an ‘aha’ moment when they understand the man-hours behind the boats. If they can feel the sawdust and smell the varnish, they begin to appreciate what goes into the beautiful boats Morris builds and are built by many other boatyards in Maine.”

Like most industries, boat builders were hit hard by the nationwide economic downturn. Maine boat builders may have weathered the storm better than most for a number of reasons, Wellehan said, including the fact that most of them are owned independently.

“They can make long-term decisions; they’ve all worked with their local banks for a long time,” she said. “And they saw this coming early and were able to back off a little. They’ve been through it before.”

Many of the boatyards diversified, just so they could keep their crews working during the downturn. For example, Morris Yachts, which specializes in semi-custom recreational vessels, took on a contract to build training boats for the U.S. Coast Guard.

“It’s been a tough couple of years,” Wellehan said. “But things are definitely getting better. The phones are starting to ring again. It could be better; but it could be worse.”

Open Boatyard Days is designed to bring people into the boatyards, she said. Tours will be available at the participating businesses each hour between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. The event will last two days so that people will have a chance to visit boatyards in different regions and see different styles and techniques of boat building.

The dates of the event follow on the heels of a popular boat show, the Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Show, which will run in Rockland the weekend before Open Boatyard Days.

“They bring a lot of people to the state,” Wellehan said.

And those people are the ones who are interested in boats. Holding the two events consecutively may attract more people to both events, she said. People might decide to make a special trip to Maine to attend the boat show and then stick around to visit the boatyards.

“We see an influx of people after the show anyway,” Read said. “So it’s a natural. We’re open to giving people a look. That’s why we’re here.”

Boat builders liked the idea, including some who will have boats at the Rockland show. Twenty-five yards signed up right off to participate, and Wellehan expects to add more to the list before the two-day event.

“Boatyards are pretty open places,” she said. “When people stop and ask if they can look around, the builders will usually say ‘sure, come on in.’ They’re open to this. It’s something they do anyway.”

The companies already signed up to participate are, by region:

• Kittery to Portland: Clint Chase Boatbuilder, Kittery Point Yacht Yard and Portland Yacht Services.

• Sebago Lake Region: Sabre Yachts.

• Portland to Brunswick: Six River Marine, North Yarmouth.

• Boothbay Region: Samoset Boatworks.

• Midcoast: Artisan Boatworks, Back Cove Yachts, Johanson Boatworks, Lyman Morse Boatbuilding and Rockport Marine.

• Belfast: French & Webb.

• Brooklin Peninsula: Brooklin Boatyard, Hewes & Co. LLC and WoodenBoat School.

• Mount Desert Island: Classic Boat Shop, Ellis Boat Co., The Hinckley Co. (Trenton location), John Williams Boat Co., Morris Yachts, Nautilus Marine, Ralph W. Stanley Inc. and Wilbur Yachts.

• Down East: The Boat School, Husson University, in Eastport, and West Bay Boats in Steuben.

Updates to those participating will be added to the Maine Built Boats website,

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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