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


 
The interior of Brooklin Boat Yard’s new 90-foot sailboat (above) is a study  in woodworking and systems engineering.  The interior of Brooklin Boat Yard’s new 90-foot sailboat is a study in woodworking and systems engineering.

John M. Williams Boat Co. was a going concern, though it would be a decade before Williams realized his ambition to build fiberglass yachts—not workboats—with a classic look.

Williams builds seven models from 26 to 44 feet, with prices ranging from $225,000 to $1 million, and has launched around 300 hulls. All are custom built to owners’ specifications. With the exception of a few custom orders, most have been built to stock plans. “I did achieve my goal,” Williams said. “We took the workboats and we made them properly. Then we shifted to pleasure boats—we really wanted to build something that represented traditional workmanship.”

White’s career choice may have been more predictable. His father, Joel White, a renowned yacht designer and the son of writer E.B. White, took over Brooklin Boat Yard in 1960, a few years after its founding. Still, Steve White’s future as a world leader in custom wooden-yacht construction was anything but certain when he graduated from Colby with a degree in environmental studies. Fiberglass, by then, had all but eclipsed wood as a boatbuilding material, and a craftsman would have been ill-advised to stake his future on wooden sailboats.

Three decades later, White has never looked back—and has rarely built the same boat twice.

Most Brooklin Boat Yard customers want a one-of-a-kind boat. The process begins with an idea and progresses to the company’s in-house design office. Wooden boats were traditionally built of heavy, solid wood, screwed or nailed rather than glued. These new high-tech wooden boats are built using a method called cold molding—hulls are composed of several layers of thin, pliable wood glued together. The cold in cold molding comes from the fact that the epoxy glue used to hold the boats together cures at room temperature (earlier hot-molded construction required baking in a giant oven). The result, when well-built and expertly painted, is a surface that rivals or exceeds the mirror-finish of fiberglass. Brooklin Boat Yard’s hulls are very well built and long lasting.

. With an in-house design office  just steps from the shop floor, the yard’s crew has access to drawings for the smallest details. With an in-house design office just steps from the shop floor, the yard’s crew has access to drawings for the smallest details.

Whites’ first sizable boat was a racing sloop called Vortex. “I built it knowing that I might not be able to sell it, so I thought it had better be something I like.” Despite several offers, he still owns it. Vortex showcased Brooklin Boat Yard’s potential, and orders followed. Since the yard started keeping records in 1997, 46 boats have been built there—many of them multiyear projects consuming tens of thousands of man hours. And the in-house design office recently incorporated as a separate entity—Stephens Waring White Yacht Design—offering its services to other boatbuilders.

Over the past three decades the yard’s workforce has expanded with new projects. In 1978 there were four full-time people on the payroll. White thought there was a lot of potential at the yard and sought to grow it. By 1986 there were 10 employees, and by 1998, when the yard launched its biggest boat to date—a 76-foot sloop, Wild Horses, designed by Joel White—there were 25. The workforce has more than doubled since.

While the 90-foot sailboat currently under construction is Brooklin Boat Yard’s largest project ever, there have been recent inquiries for similar-sized and larger boats, despite the global economic turndown. (In June White was discussing building of a 120-foot sailboat with a European client.) White is amazed at his company’s growth from a small, traditional boatyard to a world leader in technologically advanced boatbuilding. And, like Williams, he feels fortunate to have found success doing what he loves.

As Williams put it, “I could not have anticipated the pleasure of being so immersed in boats.”

Matthew Murphy ’87 is editor of WoodenBoat magazine.

 
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