A new power boat, built by an American boat builder in the People’s Republic of China and distributed through Flanders Bay Boats in Sullivan, has broken into the market in a big way, winning an award at the Newport International Boat Show in Rhode Island last week.
Tom and Sharon St. Clair are the owners of Flanders Bay Boats, the East Coast distributor for the HL27C, a 27-foot fiberglass cuddy cruiser that won the Best New Powerboat Under 30 Feet award at the show.
The award was part of the boat show’s Newport For New Products program sponsored by Cruising World, Sailing World and MotorBoating magazines. The program recognizes the best boats and best product being introduced at the show for the coming model year. Judging was done by an independent panel of boating experts provided by the magazines, and awards were based on innovation, value to the consumer and aesthetics.
The HL27C is a 27-foot motor yacht built on a launch platform. The judges said it “is a fun boat with socializing space well suited to its purpose.” They considered it a “design with innovations that almost create a new boating category.”
The St. Clairs have been working with Red Dragon-Paramount Yacht Building Co. of Xiamen, China, for four years, importing the company’s 21- and 27-foot launch models. They used the new boat design for their first foray outside of Maine.
“This was a step into the big time for us,” said Tom St. Clair. “It was a little intimidating, but it was a great show and they have great people who run it.”
Although Red Dragon has built about 50 of the 27-foot launches, the new boat, which added a cuddy cabin with a V-berth built onto the launch hull, is just the second one built.
“The first one was built for a buyer in China,” Tom St. Clair said. “This is the only one in the U.S.”
The boat drew a lot of attention at the boat show, he said, partly for the space it offers and partly for its clean, classic looks. The design is based on an old Dutch lifeboat.
“It’s a classic design,” St. Clair said. “It was good 100 years ago and it is still relevant today. And people will still love it for its lines 100 years from now.”
The boat sacrifices speed for style, St. Clair said. With a 54-horsepower Yanmar engine, it will cruise at between 8 and 10 knots, using an estimated one gallon per hour or less. It performs well in a chop, he said, and tends to punch through rough water. The bow design and the lapstrake design push the water to the side so it doesn’t come over the deck.
The St. Clairs have sold three of the launches, all to saltwater owners, including one boatyard that uses the launch to tend its moorings. But Sharon St. Clair said the new boat is also ideal for the lake boating market.
“It’s not for people who want to go fast,” she said. “It’s for people who want comfort, safety, reliability, economy and style. You get it all.”
Although both Tom and Sharon St. Clair have a boating background, neither of the other two businesses they run have much to do with boats. They’ve owned Coastal Crane and Construction, which builds steel-frame buildings, for 20 years. And for almost a decade, they’ve run Sullivan Plastic Products, which builds welded polyethylene products mainly for the lobster and aquaculture industries.
When they built their own steel building to house the plastics operation several years ago, they decided to include a panel of large display windows along the front facing U.S. Route 1.
“This was a place to show people our buildings and we decided to invest in the storefront windows,” Tom St. Clair said. “We didn’t have anything to put in them. But we thought maybe something would come along.”
It turned out to be, literally, a window of opportunity for them and the new, blue-hulled 27-footer, which sits in the window visible to motorists heading to and from Down East.
The opportunity came through a friend who does business in granite in China. By chance, Tom St. Clair met David Winter, an American who had worked building production boats in the U.S. and had moved with his wife to her homeland after their marriage. There Winter and his wife started Red Dragon. The offer for the distributorship came through the granite dealer.
“It was an opportunity,” Tom St. Clair said. “And we had the windows.”
Despite some early problems with shipping, doing business in China has gone relatively smoothly, mainly because many of the importing details are handled by Winter at Red Dragon. The boats arrive in Boston in a container after a 28-day ocean voyage from China. Tom St. Clair goes over each boat carefully before it goes out to the public.
The early problems stemmed from not getting the containers off the dock in a timely manner. St. Clair said he had to pay a substantial fine on the first shipment because the container was on the dock in Boston too long.
“We discovered the key was to have the right broker,” he said. “And a good trucking company.”
The St. Clairs have dropped their original broker and now work with Oceanair Inc. through their office in Portland and Ideal Trucking, a trucking firm from outside of Boston.
“The two women we’re dealing with have really stepped up and helped us out,” Tom St. Clair said. “We’re learning as we go.”
The St. Clairs said they have mixed feelings about importing Chinese-built boats into Maine, where the boat building industry has been hit hard. But Tom St. Clair argued that the boats fit into a niche market that is unique.
“We’re not really competing with anybody,” he said.
He noted that Dragon produces several other models, including a sailboat, that Winter has kept out of the U.S. because “the need in that market is already being met.”
For now, the two launch models and the new cuddy cruiser — along with the two other businesses they run — are enough to keep them busy.
“We do not plan to expand, but things sometime take a direction on their own,” Tom St. Clair said.