Artisan Boatworks builds recession proof wooden vessels

Posted Tuesday, May 24, 2011 in Features

Artisan Boatworks builds recession proof wooden vessels

by Steve Cartwright

ROCKPORT -- Down a sleepy back road, the crew at Artisan Boatworks is hammering, sawing, planning and sanding on several projects. The owner, Alec Brainerd, has just returned from a few days in Florida, where he trailered a classic Herreshoff sloop to a potential customer for a brief trial sail.

The day sail aboard ‘Kitty’ resulted in a $150,000 commission. A worthwhile road trip, and it’s what Brainerd believes is the way to treat people shopping for a museum-quality, seaworthy boat.

Alec Brainerd and a boat he built.

Chad Myers is building a special-order lightweight dinghy, foam core with wood veneer and trim, for a price that is, well, a secret. It’s a custom Stephens Waring and White design with high-tech strip composite construction.

Josh Anderson and Mike Rogers are scarfing in mahogany planks to replace butt blocks on the hull of the Glory, a 1957 Sparkman and Stephens yawl undergoing full restoration.

Justin Ward and Ben Loveless are refinishing the hull of Dark Harbor 20 sloop, from Islesboro. As spring and sailing season arrives, Artisan will likely hire more workers. It’s another day at a young company that keeps on growing, building and restoring classic wooden sailboats from day-sailers to ocean racers.

Office manager Larrain Slaymaker is fielding inquiries via Internet for Artisan,  a business that sails on profitably despite the slumping national economy.

The shop builds from scratch, and also stores, trailers and maintains gleaming yachts for affluent owners, some of whom have homes on nearby Islesboro, North Haven and Vinalhaven. Others live out of state but value Artisan’s meticulous maintenance and attentive service.

Artisan’s customers have chosen to make a lasting investment in a boat built to exceedingly high standards. These sailing machines are classics. You might call them legacy boats.

Brainerd, 35, grew up around boats in Brooksville and sailed the world before attending a now-closed Rockport boatbuilding school. He settled into boatbuilding, marriage and raising a family.

“Have of what we do is restoration and maintenance, half is new construction. We’re the go-to people for that kind of work,” said Brainerd, adding, “We’re busier now than we’ve ever been.” He has heard customers say, “as long as you have your boat built in Maine, you can’t go wrong.”

Brainerd, who worked for Taylor Allen at Rockport Marine, said he his standards go beyond careful craftsmanship to the ethics of restoring historic boats. He said if someone came to him with a classic boat and wanted to severely alter its appearance, he would probably decline to take on the job. “The moral implications are important,” he said. But he is pragmatic, too. “It’s important to take a holistic approach with restoration work, which can otherwise be very inefficient. We aim to restore structural integrity and hull shape, while preserving as much original material and character as possible.”

Much boatbuilding work is still done by hand, and designs are lofted full sized, where else, in the loft. Brainerd has 1898 plans for Herreshoff’s gaff-rigged Buzzards Bay 15, of which the 25-foot ‘Kitty’ is a marconi-rigged example, called the Watch Hill 15. These graceful, swift centerboard boats are 24 feet, 6 inches in length overall, 15 feet long at the waterline.

It will take the Artisan Boatworks team three months to and build and deliver the latest one to its Florida owner.

Artisan Boatworks opened its doors in 2002, and has since managed to grow sustainably and expand substantially. The barn-style shop beside the house now includes a nearby 5,600-square-feet boat storage building, and Brainerd said he is about ready to add still more space with another building.

Before starting his own business, Brainerd signed on the 137-foot schooner Roseway, which took passengers on cruises from Camden. He started as night watchman and rose to first mate, sailing Roseway to the Virgin Islands. Over the next 10 years he sailed private yachts to ports from the Galapagos to New Zealand, where he spent a year working on the refit of a 100’ wooden yawl.

He crewed aboard the 94-foot William Fife ketch ‘Sumurun,’ built in 1914, taking first place in a 1997 trans-Atlantic race, New York to Falmouth, England. He later skippered the 83-foot schooner Appledore III, taking paying passengers for two-hour sails from Camden.

Brainerd recently joined the board of directors of the Apprenticeshop, a boatbuilding school in Rockland for people of all ages and abilities.

Between family and shop work, Brainerd doesn’t have much time to sail any more. He has a Pearson Ensign sloop and an Eastern 18 runabout. Both are made of fiberglass, he admitted a bit sheepishly. “They’re the only fiberglass boats here.”

 

 

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