May 28, 2020
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Puffin Boats builds more than dinghies at Hampden marina

HAMPDEN, Maine — Hamlin’s Marine General Manager Dan Higgins was looking to hire a salesman late last year when a friend introduced him to a man whose family was in the boat building business.

Higgins wound up not only hiring Josh Cottrell, he also formed a new company and bought the rights, molds and tooling for the Puffin dinghies that Cottrell’s father, Dale Cottrell, designed and began making in the mid-1980s.

“It was designed as a tender for sailboats,” Josh Cottrell said of the Puffins, which were Frankfort Boat Works’ trademark fiberglass dinghies. Although primarily still used as tenders, or small boats used to transport passengers of larger boats to and from shore, dinghies are being used more and more on lakes and ponds, he noted.

The new company, called Puffin Boats LLC, has been building the small boats out of a workshop at the Hamlin’s Marine facility on the Penobscot River in Hampden since February.

“They used to sell about up to 300 units a year at peak production,” Higgins said of the Cottrell family business’s output, estimating that there are roughly 3,000 Puffins around the globe. About 45 Puffins were manufactured during the fledgling Hampden operation’s first four months.

“We’re just beginning. We’re going to be ramping up production,” he said.

Puffins come in two versions, the Utility Series and the Conservation Series, the latter of which is a special edition sailboat and rowing line, according to the company’s website.

The Utility Series boats come in 7½-, 8½- and 10½-foot lengths and can be rigged with oars, a small outboard motor or a sail package. Those models ranged in cost from $999 for a basic 7½-foot dinghy to $3,301 for a 10½-foot sailboat setup, according to prices listed by Hamilton Marine, part of the company’s small but growing network of retailers.

The Conservation Series, which come in the 10½-foot size, have upgrades that include varnished oak rails and breastplates, puffin-themed orange, black and white argyle vinyl wrap and a contrasting gray interior gelcoat finish.

The special edition sail models, listed at $4,299 on Hamilton Marine’s website, feature a custom black sail with orange stitching. For each Conservation Series boat sold, Puffin Boats adopts a puffin on the buyer’s behalf through Project Puffin.

In a recent interview at the company’s facilities on U.S. Route 1A, known as Main Road North in Hampden, Higgins said the latest addition to the family business could be part of the solution to the seasonal peaks and valleys inherent to the boat sales and servicing business.

“We’ve grown rapidly as a boat dealership with sales but our challenge is the fact that we sell boats, which means there is a very small window [of opportunity for sales and service],” Higgins said. “The challenge is when you have year round employees, you have times where you could use twice as many employees and times where you need half the employees, so it’s about balancing and diversifying.

“The reason that we took on this new opportunity was to create some diversity and to try to take out that seasonal curve, to keep better people and employ more skilled workers, pay better wages,” he said. “Really it’s just trying to make the business less seasonal for our employees and having our employees productive throughout the whole year so that we can keep better employees and have quality jobs. And hopefully make a profitable business some day.”

Hamlin’s Marine acquired the marina on the Penobscot River in Hampden in 2006 and the first several years were lean, he said. Business, however, really took off in 2011, when the company opened its showroom on busy U.S. Route 1A. Since then, the company’s workforce has tripled to 15, he said.

“We have two people dedicated to building the boats now and we anticipate that we will grow in the future,” Higgins said.

“One of the big things is that this spring, we partnered with [Bangor YMCA Wilderness Center at] Camp Jordan. We built them three new puffin sailing trainers and donated an Achilles, which is [serving as] an instructor boat and a lifeboat. We anticipate that we will do more building for summer camps and sailing instruction,” Higgins said.

Director Emerald Russell said Camp Jordan was thrilled to receive the boats, which replaced a fleet of six sailboats of varying size, age and quality — some too small to hold instructors and students. Ninety campers underwent sailing instruction over the course of this summer, she said.

“The Puffins are perfect,” she said. “They’re the perfect size and now everyone gets to learn on the same [style of] boats. It made a huge impact on our sailing program. We’re able to teach many more kids to sail. [Hamlin’s Marine is] just the definition of community.”

Puffins, however, might be just the beginning of a new chapter of the business Higgins’ wife Katie’s parents, Dave and Chris Hamlin, founded in 1984. He now is working to take diversification a step farther with plans to use Puffins as the basis for a new niche product: cottage furniture.

“My daughter is 3 and she needs a new bed,” Higgins said when asked how he came up with the concept. “She’s outgrown her crib and I looked at the 8½ foot boat and said, ‘That could be a bed.’ And I said ‘Would you like to have this as a bed and she got so excited. She started saying we need to make a canopy for the boat and we need to put lights on the boat and we need a reading light.” He said Cottrell, who is a carpenter, drew up some patterns.

“We found very quickly that this is a viable piece of furniture for a toddler bed,” he said.

“We went to McLaughlin’s [at the Marina] and saw they had a wine rack but it wasn’t a nice looking wine rack,” Higgins continued. “We said it would be really nice to have a Puffin wine rack and they agreed, so they’re going to have us build a Puffin wine rack to store their wine.

“I did some research and there are companies that just sell furniture for Maine cottages and camps with a nautical theme. So it was very easy to quickly look at the same boat and see it converted into a shelf or a TV stand or even a coffee table,” he said. “So we’re going to begin with the toddler bed, the wine rack, the shelf and the TV stand. They’re fairly simple.”

“Now that we’ve gotten through the bulk of our orders, we’re going to continue to build up our stock and then we’re going to build this furniture as sort of a test market. We’ll sell those direct, either on our website or in our stores, initially, to see if there is a market, “ Higgins said.

“We want to continue to manufacture fiberglass boats,” Higgins said. “Puffin’s the first step. If there are other companies in the area who want to outsource [fiberglass boat work], we are interested.

“For our own needs, I think once you get into it it’s hard to stop. I think there are some boats we’ve got in the back of our minds that we want to look at doing. Once you have the process down, it’s not too difficult to think larger because the process is what’s important — and getting the right people in place,” Higgins said.

Justin Hess of Orland and Justin Sass of Hampden are the right people, Higgins said.

Hess, who grew up in northern Vermont, summered in Bar Harbor as a child.

“I always knew I was going to come back to Maine and that’s what I did — I came back, got married and bought a home,” Hess said last month. After living in Alaska and several years working as a chef, he landed a job making Puffins.

“I’m building boats now, thank God. This was a savior. I was really lucky to fall into this. They weren’t advertising this. It was a friend of a friend who knew [Higgins]. I had never met him. I heard that they needed help and I came in. I was real fortunate.”

Sass said he worked for a large boat company early on in his career and dabbled in his own work for awhile before he was hired by Higgins.

“Once the process is [perfected], we should be able to produce a boat a day,” Sass said. “So our plan this winter is to stock them, to start warehousing … It’s what we need, some more diversity. And then to start making these into furniture and head in that direction, you know, this is going to be a very nice thing for everybody.”

After seven years on Hampden’s waterfront, Higgins likes what he’s seeing.

“Over the last two years, the waterfront has become sort of a community center and it’s pretty neat to watch because I always knew that it would be,” he said. “It took time for everybody to realize it was there and how nice the river’s become.”

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