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Traditional Boat Builders 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 5 percent of the state's work force, and their industry generates over $600 million a year for the Maine economy. With fishermen and pleasure seekers alike plying the state's 11000 kilometers (7,000 miles) of coastline, there has been a steady demand for Maine-built boats.

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

"It takes a lot of skill to work with wood; to build a boat out of wood," Stanley says. "Those skills are something that have been acquired over thousands of years and passed on to people." He fears that those skills will be lost, because an increasing number of boat builders are using fiberglass.

Wood versus Fiberglass

By using a fiberglass mold of the boat's hull, boat builders can produce a series of vessels with a uniform design. But Ralph Stanley, like many traditional boat builders, thinks the material limits creativity. "I thought about going into fiberglass, but if I did," he says, "I could never change that mold. And every boat I've built I see something I'd like to change on the next one, so that would be lost, so I stuck with wood."

Stanley's son Richard is also a traditional boat builder, and like his father, he too, prefers working in wood. "Fiberglass has its place, but I don't like working in it," he says. "I get all itchy, it burns my skin, and face and eyes."

Kerri Russell is chairman of the Board of Directors for Maine-Built Boats, an organization that promotes the state's boat building industry. She believes wooden boats will always have a certain appeal, but says 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."

Cuyler Morris is head of Morris Yachts, an award- winning company that builds luxury sailboats ranging in price from $185,000 to $1.4 million. "We are always trying to look for the best materials and incorrate those with the best design," he says.

An avid sailor, Morris says modern technology has helped him design boats that are much easier to own and operate. Many components are electrically operated or even automatic, like a sail cover that protects the sail from the elements until it is needed. Winches on Morris Yachts are also electric, allowing sailors furl or unfurl a sail at the touch of a button.

Boat industry trying to accommodate busy families

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. "I think certainly in the last 20 or 30 years leisure time for families is at a premium; kids are more scheduled than ever."

In order to accommodate families who would like to sail, she says, Builders are incorporating labor-saving devices into their boats to accommodate families who would like to sail, but "might not otherwise have time for doing it the old-fashioned way."

Whether for work or for play, the consensus among boat builders like Cuyler Morris is that there's something very special about boats built in Maine. "Maine is all about quality, hands down. People just do it the right way."

While the recession has deeply affected the boat industry over the past couple of years, almost everyone, including Cuyler Morris, is optimistic about the future. "Seventy-two percent of the world is covered with water," he says. "People are always going to boat. There's always going to be a demand for boats built in Maine because of the quality, attention to detail."

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 fiddle; an instrument he crafted out of the same wood he's long used to build his signature lobster boats