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A Master Class in American Boatbuilding

The 50th edition of the Newport International Boat Show proved that American boats of all sizes and uses are still first in class.

Photo courtesy of Newport International Boat Show

Americans have a knack for boat design and construction. In the mid-19th century, with the advent of our clipper ship era, the nautical leadership baton was passed to America by the British. These greyhounds of the sea rolled off the design desks and rails of East Coast yards in staggering quantities. Yankee ingenuity revolutionized trade and made the seas a highway, one that enriched generations of builders, merchants and bankers. From then on came one American innovation after another—everything from paddle steamers to America’s Cup race boats reigned supreme.

Yet, we all know foreign competition in much of manufacturing (autos, electronics, machinery) is severe, and America’s trade imbalance has shifted from global exporter to unsustainable importer. Fortunately not so in the $43 billion recreational marine industry. As displayed at the Newport International Boat Show, which ran from September 15-18, American boats of all sizes and uses are first in class.

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Not an easy accomplishment. Industry insiders Worth spoke to at the show repeatedly cited high labor costs, lack of skilled labor and environmental controls as headwinds not faced by overseas competition. Nevertheless, Aaron Crawford, president and CEO of Maine’s Sabre Yachts said, “We have a 50-year history of boatbuilding. It’s in our DNA. As a private company, we can take the long view and concentrate on innovation and quality. And yes, our customers thank us for building their dreams in the USA.” Sabre had a huge presence at the show; the yacht company consistently turns out eye-catching, tradition-inspired powerboats in the 40-60-foot range. Their more affordable Back Cove line is enormously popular.

Other top-quality builders from Maine included the legendary Hinckley, whose Downeast-style boats, and their newly acquired Hunt line, are all built in America, except for one model. Backed by serious private equity, Hinckley makes both power and sail, and now has service facilities up and down the East Coast. The Hinckley name is coveted worldwide.

Custom boatbuilding is thriving in busy yards like Lyman-Morse with their Wheeler 38, Hodgdon, Brooklin, Front Street and a dozen more all work with top naval architects and project managers to design and build everything from regatta-winning race boats to family liveaboards. As Lyman-Morse’s spokesperson, Marnie Read, put it, “Our clients care where the craftsmanship comes from, and Maine is a place they love.”

Further south, Rhode Island’s own New England Boatworks, recently bought by Safe Harbor Marinas, regularly sends world-class sailing and power yachts down its quay. Electric outboard maker Flux Marine, also based in Rhode Island, is leading the way in electrifying the old gas outboard motor. They won the best new product award at the show and the green award.

When it comes to sailboats, J Boats, most of which are made in Bristol, R.I. (historic home to the legendary Herreshoff Manufacturing Company) is an international success story. These one-design racing machines are the gold standard and often earn regatta trophies.

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Further south, Florida is home to Catalina Yachts, the last remaining production builder of cruising sailboats in America.

Moving on to power, MJM Yachts are made in America. These high-performance, advanced-composite, lightweight, energy efficient, superfast power boats have taken the market by storm. MJM could be a story by itself on how to innovate, build and market American-made boats that are best in class.

Lest anyone think New England is the only place for quality builds, brilliance can be found further south, on Long Island, N.Y., where Steiger Craft makes solid fiberglass fishing boats, which are currently on back-order.

In New Jersey, Viking Yachts has been building top-of-the-line deep sea fishing boats for over half a century. They have an international following, and the company continuously innovates with new models.

The Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and other Southern states are home to perhaps the largest category of boats sold—20-60-foot center console fishing and pleasure craft. Here, builders really turn out boats at scale, selling thousands across scores of models. Just a few of the top American brands at the show were Regulator, Everglades, Grady-White, Scout, Cutwater, Solace and Robalo. Many of these proudly display our flag or have “Made in America” decals affixed to their hulls.

Huckins Yacht, based in Florida, has a storied history and an award-winning presence. Their 38-foot sport boat came away with two show awards.

Despite often being in cold weather, Maine’s Southport Boats has top quality entries in this category.

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Heading to the Midwest, legendary Wisconsin power boat builder Burger had their 50-foot cruiser model on display. The remarkable history of Burger includes the finest luxury power yachts. Designers like Jack Hargrave and Sparkman & Stevens realized their vision with Burger. These boats are so distinctive that when you see one on the water you know it’s a Burger. President and CEO Jim Ruffolo and VP of sales and marketing Ron Cleveringa were aboard their boat and gave Worth a tour. The quality of the fit and finish was impressive. 

“We build in metal,” Cleveringa explained. “For this boat we chose lightweight aluminum, and we have found buyers looking for this quality.” The hull design is by industry leader VRIPACK, whose focus is on fuel efficiency. Twin Volvo Pentas supply the power. Burger can build to 260 feet. They also fabricate commercial boats and that order book is healthy, too. Cleveringa even said that the company hard at work on a new superyacht.

Wisconsin-based Cruiser Yachts, another show participant, has a wide range (33-60-foot) of boats in fiberglass. This segment has serious foreign competition, but through innovation, a well-trained workforce and high-quality levels they are able to keep their dealer pipeline filled.

Out west, the Washington state company Life Proof Boats really caught our eye. These rugged, all-aluminum, go-anywhere inflatable hulls have elevated welding to an art form. “Adventure” craft builds seem to be catching on both as fast pleasure boats and tenders to really large yachts. 

There were many other American manufacturers at the show who we could not make fit into this article, but, in a way, this is a good thing for the industry. It shows the vibrancy and success of a trade that, for centuries, has thrived on our shores.

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