The Boatbuilders

The Boatbuilders

Steve White '77 and Jock Williams '62 have built international reputations for their classically inspired yachts

By Matthew P. Murphy '87


 

“I never expected it,” said the yard’s proprietor, Steve White ’77, of the size of his talented workforce and the scale and quality of his projects. “In the late seventies it was really pretty grim for wooden boat building.”

As a young builder back then, however, he would tap a new technology and over the next 30 years would launch a fleet of classically styled boats that perform like modern thoroughbreds. And he isn’t alone.

Jock Williams ’62 founded the John M. Williams Boat Co. in the early 1970s. While his boats are built of fiberglass, they are based on classic wooden Maine lobster boats, and their cabins and furniture are of teak and mahogany. Williams is shown here aboard his own Stanley 36.Jock Williams ’62 founded the John M. Williams Boat Co. in the early 1970s. While his boats are built of fiberglass, they are based on classic wooden Maine lobster boats, and their cabins and furniture are of teak and mahogany. Williams is shown here aboard his own Stanley 36.
A short sail up the coast—at Somes Sound, the stunning fjord that slices through Mount Desert Island (home of Acadia National Park)—is John Williams Boat Co., owned by Jock Williams ’62. Working in fiberglass, rather than wood, Williams has done for powerboats what White has done for sail, taking traditional form and converting it for modern function. With one foot planted firmly in the heritage of Maine’s iconic lobster boats, Williams took a big step forward technologically and aesthetically and built an illustrious reputation.

Williams’s career in boats began when he was 14 years old and went to work in a shipyard on Martha’s Vineyard. In those early years, he said, “I was working in the boatyard and I was sailing.” In the process he was getting a classic education in the marine industry, and he was rubbing elbows with New England yachtsmen—his future clientele, though he didn’t know it at the time.

He graduated from Colby with a degree in history. “I never intended to make a career of boats,” he said.

With the Cuban missile crisis in mind, Williams decided that, rather than be drafted, he’d enlist. In three months Williams was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. After doing survey work off the coast of Vietnam (“a lousy assignment”) he was appointed sailing officer at the Naval Academy. “That’s where I really got into the marine trades.”

As his four-year obligation to the Navy was coming to an end, Williams skippered the U.S. Navy’s entry in the 1966 trans-Atlantic race, a 44-foot yawl, to Copenhagen. In Denmark he met Paul Molich, a boatbuilder whose wooden sailboats were popular with American sailors. “I was there for a little over a year. I was paid thirty-five dollars a week. It was just fascinating. I saw every phase of boatbuilding.”

Wooden Boat Construction

Upon his return to the United States, Williams took a job with the Henry R. Hinckley Co. in Southwest Harbor, Maine, a world-renowned yacht builder, where he was put in charge of the fiberglass shop. Until that time his experience had been with wooden boats, but he “was fascinated with the possibilities presented by fiberglass. It was adaptable to various shapes. It was durable.” A well-built boat of fiberglass came out of its mold with a mirror-smooth finish and required none of the annual sanding and painting demanded by its wooden forebears. Over the next few years, Williams managed the Hinckley shop’s growth and increasing sophistication and in the process deepened his own understanding of fiberglass. Around the time he decided to leave Hinckley, a man came to him with a wooden dinghy he wanted replicated in fiberglass. “That,” said Williams of this first boatbuilding commission, “was the start.”

Armed with a boatload of optimism, Williams brought one of these dinghies (he ultimately built 20) to the inaugural Newport Sailboat Show in 1971—and “didn’t sell a damn thing.” He returned to Maine dejected, but within days a buyer called wanting to purchase the boat he’d seen in Newport. “That was enough to keep me from giving up,” Williams said.

Soon Williams had moved into production of a fiberglass version of a classic wooden lobster boat designed by Maine boat legend Lyford Stanley. The first boat sold quickly, and “practically on the same day, I sold the second.”

“Then,” Williams said, “it just took off.”

 
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