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Traditional Maine Boatbuilders Face Challenges of New Technology, Uncertain Economy


In the northeastern U.S. state of Maine, the tradition of boat building dates back hundreds of years. Today, boat yards employ about five percent of the state's work force, and their industry generates over $600 million a year for the Maine economy. And with fishermen and pleasure seekers alike plying the state's 11,000 kilometers (7,000 miles) of coastline, there's been a steady demand for Maine-built boats. In and around Bar Harbor, Maine, craftsmen create everything from hand-built wooden lobster boats to luxurious pleasure craft for customers the world over.

Ralph W. Stanley has spent most of his 80 years designing and building boats in his home town of Southwest Harbor, Maine. Although he is now retired, his traditional wooden lobster boats, which he built by hand, using old-fashioned tools and time-honored techniques, remain legendary.

"Takes a lot of skill to work with wood, to build a boat out of wood," said Stanley. "Those skills are something that have been acquired over thousands of years and passed on to people and if somebody doesn't keep on building out of wood, it will be lost."

Stanley worries about that because an increasing number of boat builders are using fiberglass to create a mold of the boat's hull, which they then use to produce a series of vessels with a uniform design.

Stanley, like many traditional boat builders, thinks the material limits creativity:

"Fiberglass came along and I thought about going into fiberglass, but if I did, I'd have to have a mold and I could never change that mold," he said. "And every boat I've built I see something I'd like to change on the next one."

Stanley's son Richard is also a traditional boat builder. Like his father, he prefers working with wood.

"Fiberglass boats are harder on the body," he said. "The wood is forgiving, it absorbs the shocks, where the fiberglass is very dense and it just reverberates the shocks."

Kerri Russell, chairman of the Board of Directors for Maine-Built Boats, an organization that promotes the state's boat building industry, believes wooden boats will always have a certain appeal, but she notes that many boat builders are switching to fiberglass for some pretty good economic and practical reasons.

"When the company I work for went from building mainly wooden hulled boats to fiberglass, the issue was that you could get a strong hull with less weight and less maintenance," she said.

"This boat sails away for $385,000," said Cuyler Morris, who is head of Morris Yachts, an award-winning company that builds luxury sail boats ranging in price from $185,000 to $1.4 million.

An avid sailor, Morris says modern technology has helped him design boats that are much easier to own and operate.

"We are always trying to look for the best materials and incorporate those with the best design, and then in the middle there you put functionality and that comes from us as sailors using boats," he said.

His company, started 38 years ago by his late father, uses electrically operated instead of manual components on its boats.

"There's all sorts of things that have made boating easier like this little jiffy sail cover here," said Morris.

An automated sail cover protects the sail from the elements until it's needed.

"This is a great improvement over manual winches. This is an electrical winch."

A winch is a device that winds or unwinds the line that's attached to the sail that is used to furl [fold] or unfurl [unfold] it.

Maine-Built Boats' Kerri Russell says one of the reasons boats are being modernized is that they're catering to families who have less time.

"Technology is served to offer boating experiences to a range of people that might not otherwise have time for doing it the old-fashioned way," said Russell.

But whether for work or for play, the consensus among boat builders like Morris is that there's something very special about boats built in Maine.

"Whether it's a 12-foot (four meter) rowing Peapod [row boat] built in wood or a 150-foot (46 meter) super sailing yacht, Maine is all about quality, hands down," he said. "People just do it the right way."

While the recession has deeply affected the boat industry over the past couple of years, almost everyone seems optimistic about the future.

"Seventy-two percent of the world is covered with water," said Morris. "People are always going to boat. There's always going to be a demand for boats built in Maine because of quality, so I'm really optimistic."

For Maine's traditional wooden boat builders like Ralph Stanley, the future is less certain.

Stanley spends most of his time these days playing his hand-built fiddle; an instrument he crafted out of the same wood he's long used to build his signature lobster boats.

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