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Maine's Modern Classics

Kate Yeomans

Tim Hodgdon reaches into the top drawer of his desk at Hodgdon Yachts, his boat building company in East Boothbay, Maine, a village where lobster traps line dooryards, family dogs nap untethered on porches, and two grade-school-aged sisters tend the general store, which is housed in a yellow Victorian. From the drawer, Hodgdon produces a curled shaving of lead as thick and as tall as a teacup, which peeled off the keel of the 124-foot sailboat Antonisaduring her launch six years ago. For Hodgdon, a fifth-generation boat builder with roots in Maine that run as deep as those of the spruce trees surrounding the village, the scrap serves as a reminder, a validation of his belief that, as he says, “Those saying ‘It can’t be done’ shouldn’t interrupt the ones doing it.”

 

One nay sayer arrived early on the day of Antonisa’s launch, before nearly 4,000 people gathered at the edge of Linekin Bay to witness the event late in the summer of 1999. While the glistening blue hull was perched on a custom-built hydraulic trailer atop the launch ramp, this particularly salty local, while snaking his 14-foot skiff around her and down the asphalt ramp, noted the shallow water—just 12 feet deep at high tide—and muttered to a companion, “There’s no way they’re going to be able to launch that thing.”

 

 

Launch it they did, however—some bottom-scraping notwithstanding—after a ceremony that included speeches rife with accolades and warm wishes for Antonisa’sjourney home to the Mediterranean. “Maine has a great tradition of shipbuilding,” Hodgdon, one of the speakers, declared, “and it’s one of the things that makes Maine, Maine.” Angus King, then governor of the state, said, “No matter where she sails, a piece of Maine will be there.” King added that he had asked her owner, Pasquale Natuzzi of Santeramo, Italy, why he came to Maine to have his yacht built, to which Natuzzi replied, “Because this is the best place in the world to have a boat built.”

 

Of course, Natuzzi would not receive any arguments from the folks at Hodgdon Yachts, which specializes in building boats that have been termed “modern classics,” vessels such as Antonisa that display traditional wood styling but employ the latest in yacht-building technology in their construction, rigging, and operating systems. Hulls are built of cored carbon or cold-molded wood laminates, and the rigging, mechanical, and navigation systems operate with computers and hydraulics. The boats therefore require smaller crews than many others do, allowing for more room belowdecks for amenities such as Antonisa’s varnished wooden bathtub and pipe organ.

Antonisa’s initial admirers were not limited to her owner, her builder, and the governor. ShowBoats International, now a sister publication of Robb Report, selected her as that year’s best sailing yacht in her class (38 meters and under). Tim Hodgdon traveled from Maine with Antonisa’s designer, Bruce King (no relation to the governor), to Monte Carlo to receive the award and banner, which now hangs over the production bay at Hodgdon Yachts like a world championship flag in a sports arena.

In that same vein, the company perhaps should hang another banner honoring King, who recently retired—from designing the big boats, at least. He built a total of five yachts with Hodgdon, including the 155-foot Scheherazade, which in 2003 was the largest sailboat built in the Western Hemisphere. “They have exceptional workmanship,” King says of Hodgdon Yachts, “and they know how to build my boats. They know my ways.” In addition to his affiliation with Hodgdon, King has close ties to the Hinckley Co., another prominent Maine boat builder, for whom King continues to produce designs, including its new DS42 day sailer.

 

Originally from Southern California, King began a relationship with Ericson Yachts—a California company that was purchased by Pacific Seacraft in 1990—in 1964 that lasted 25 years, during which more than 7,000 boats were built from his designs. In the early 1970s, he introduced what has become his trademark modern-classic design on his own 40-footer, Unicorn. Wooden yachts built in the late 19th century and early 20th century appealed to King, but he was wary of the high maintenance and low durability associated with wood construction. Therefore, instead of a traditional wooden hull built plank by plank and affixed by metal fastenings, he employed a construction technique that involved multiple thin layers of wood adhered with epoxy. Known as the WEST (wood epoxy saturation technique) system, it increased the hull’s strength and reduced its weight. It also enabled Unicorn to retain the beauty that is characteristic of the finest wooden boats.

While building Unicorn, King drew the attention of fellow Californian Phil Long, who was in the market for a larger version of Ticonderoga, a speedy, world-record-holding 72-foot ketch designed by L. Francis Herreshoff. King designed for Long the 105-foot Whitehawk, which was built by the Lie-Nielsen boatyard in Rockland, Maine, using the new WEST system. When launched in 1975, Whitehawk was one of the largest boats built with this construction technology. Long later commissioned King to design the 90-foot Whitefin and then formed his own business, Renaissance Yachts, to build her. Renaissance, which launched Whitefin in 1984, was based in a shed that Long had constructed on the tennis courts in the backyard of his new home in Camden, Maine.

Recognizing that custom wooden boat building was thriving in Maine, King, one of the few designers incorporating this cold-molded wood epoxy technology into the building plans for large yachts, relocated there in 1981. Before long, he was designing sailboats for the Hinckley Co. of Southwest Harbor, Maine, and that relationship continues today.

While most of King’s work involved sailboats, Hinckley co-owner Shep McKenney made a special request of King in 1993: that he design a powerboat emphasizing performance and aesthetics rather than accommodations. “His intent was that this would never be a big seller, but instead a niche product,” King remembers. “But then everybody wanted a piece of that niche. Its success surprised everyone.” Hinckley introduced the first of what it calls its picnic boats in 1994; last year it delivered its 300th.

 

Meanwhile, King continued to work on larger projects. Long eventually sold Whitefin to a Spaniard who in time decided that, although he liked King’s design, he wanted a larger boat, so he sold Whitefin to Pasquale Natuzzi and commissioned King to design Alejandra, a 135-foot ketch. Natuzzi eventually sold Whitefin and commissioned King to design Antonisa. Knowing Whitefin had been built in Maine and wanting the same quality of construction for Antonisa, Natuzzi hired Hodgdon for the job. (Renaissance Yachts had by then gone out of business, and some of its boat builders were now working at Hodgdon Yachts.) While Antonisa was under construction, an American yachtsman commissioned King to design and Hodgdon to build Scheherazade

Having designed a dozen large sailing yachts—including Signe, Sophie, Hetairos, and Maria Cattiva, as well as the 80-foot, Hodgdon Yachts–built commuter Liberty—King has begun to retire. He now occupies himself by designing production boats for Hinckley when not working on his own sloop. His wood epoxy 20-footer, Frog Princess, is nearly complete in the workshop beneath his home office on the Maine coast not far from Hodgdon Yachts. Some of the interior carvings were done by one of the craftsmen who worked on Scheherazade, but the rest of the boat, including the hull, has been a slow labor of love for King.

A passion similar to King’s for wooden boats remains strong throughout Maine’s boat building industry, which preserved the craft when, in the 1960s and ’70s, builders nationwide turned to aluminum and fiberglass construction, believing that the wooden boat business soon would meet its demise.

The Hinckley Co. pioneered the use of fiberglass hulls for sailboats with its popular Bermuda 40, but it also included a teak and mahogany interior, a feature absent from many other fiberglass boats. Over the years, Hinckley has earned acclaim for using high-tech hull construction techniques while still producing fine woodwork details.

Other Maine builders eschewed fiberglass completely. At the Brooklin Boat Yard, in Brooklin, Maine, founder Joel White, son of writer E.B. White, gathered his crew together one day in the early 1970s and asked them what course they should take with respect to fiberglass versus wood. “He told them, ‘I can design a fiberglass boat and we can build a mold,’ ” recalls his son, Steve White, who now owns the yard. “They said, ‘No.’ They made a conscious decision to stick to wooden boat building.”

 White says his father worried that his company would not receive enough business to remain solvent, but over the next few years, Brooklin, like other yards along the Maine coast, cobbled together a workload that included finishing the interiors of fiberglass-hulled boats, repairing and restoring wooden classics, and occasionally building new wooden boats. All the while, the craftsmen were honing or preserving their ability to complete detailed joinery work, which would be needed to build boats using the epoxy technology that would be touted by King and the younger generation of builders—Tim Hodgdon at his father’s yard and Steve White at his father’s yard.

At the turn of the last century, when the demand for recreational boats and yachts matched and eventually surpassed the demand for commercial boats, Maine builders adjusted their businesses accordingly. “Maine saw the opportunity to move from commercial boat building to yacht building,” says White, “which was big in Rhode Island and New York. But they lost it for awhile and are only now starting to bring it back. Maine has never lost it.”

 

Inside the shed at White’s Brooklin Boat Yard, workers are preparing three projects—one new construction and two restorations—for launch this summer. Each showcases the yard’s expertise at blending modern construction with traditional joinery.

The new boat is for the owner of another Brooklin-built boat who is upgrading to a larger vessel. The 76-foot, $2 million sailboat has a cold-molded hull and an interior crafted of sycamore and cherry. Next to her is the 74-foot commuter Aphrodite, a boat built in 1937 that is undergoing a complete restoration in which builders are replacing nearly every piece of wood, adding new engines, and restoring or replicating her brass hardware. When commissioning the Hodgdon-built commuter yacht Liberty, the owner asked Bruce King to design his boat to look just like Aphrodite. In a side shed, other Brooklin craftsmen are restoring Seminole, a 47-foot gaff-rigged yawl that her current owner purchased for $1 at an auction in San Diego.

 

 

White was preceded as a boat builder by his father, Joel, whose last large design before his death in 1997 was the 76-foot Wild Horses, the first of five W-Class boats commissioned by a Boston real estate developer and built by Rockport Marine, which is owned by White’s brother-in-law, Taylor Allen. The signature feature on each boat is a 6-foot-diameter teak steering wheel with spokes shaped like flower petals. Because of the elaborate woodwork, it takes craftsmen a month to construct one of these wheels.

 

Allen, White, and Hodgdon belong to the recently formed Maine Built Boats Organization, an alliance whose goal is to promote the state’s 450 builders worldwide. “We are a collaborative of boat builders who agree we are stronger working collectively,” says Allen. “Each of us is a little bit different, but we all have a commitment to giving a good value to the customer. We’re really trying to market ourselves to a much wider [group] of clients. Our fear is that new boat buyers tend to look overseas. Our hope is that clients will seriously consider one of us.”

Hodgdon sees no reason why buyers should overlook Maine. “Typically the marine industry in Maine breeds inventive individuals, and this covers an unbelievably broad spectrum. At Hodgdon Yachts alone, we’re involved in projects ranging from the highest-end mega yachts to the military [Navy SEALs boat]. This represents the blend of state-of-the-art construction with the just-as-complex joinery, and it isn’t one or the other, but rather an elegant combination. That diversity is indicative of the boat building industry along the coast.”

Currently under construction at Hodgdon is a 98-foot ketch-rigged sailing yacht. Except for the intermittent roars produced by a sander or an electric saw, the production bay is quiet as craftsmen in Tyvek suits and dusty T-shirts work slowly and deliberately, pausing to converse and consult with one another under the banner that they earned for their work on Antonisa.

 

“There are a tremendous number of very sophisticated things going on with regard to fiberglass and other advanced composites,” Hodgdon says. “Hodgdon Yachts, and Maine in general, has adapted and made use of that technology but also does have that link to traditional detailing in joinery and other boat building areas. It is important to realize that building modern classics isn’t just an outdated, low-tech pipe dream.”

Indeed, no one can say, “It can’t be done,” because Hodgdon and the other Maine boat builders are doing it.

Brooklin Boat Yard, 207.359.2236, www.brooklinboatyard.com
Bruce King, 207.563.1186, www.bkyd.com
Hinckley Co., 207.244.5531, www.hinckleyyachts.com
Hodgdon Yachts, 207.633.4194, www.hodgdonyachts.com
Rockport Marine, 207. 236.9651, www.rockportmarine.com

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