Lay in a New Course
Atlantic Canada has had a long and proud history of boatbuilding, from sturdy dories and magnificent sailing schooners to modern fiberglass work and pleasure boats with unique designs. But these are challenging times. The United States economy is quivering, with many other countries following suit, and costs of materials are rising. Unless you’re a commercial fisherman, a boat is a luxury item. Atlantic Canadian boatbuilders are looking for new markets, and hoping that new designs and technologies will help them weather the economic storm.
Wood was the principal material for boatbuilding until the 1970s, when advances in fiberglass technology took the wind from wood’s sails. Boatbuilders began using fiberglass composites, and fiberglass-hulled boats soon became popular. They don’t rot, rust, or corrode, and they’re durable and easier to care for than traditional wooden or metal boats.
“Very few beginning boaters ask for wood these days,” says Keith Nelder, of Big Pond Boat Shop in Big Pond, NS. Nelder is one of the few Nova Scotia boatbuilders still building wooden boats. “Fiberglass is the preferred material, especially for larger pleasure boats.” Most of his larger boats are fiberglass or wood-epoxy composites. “Partly because there’s the perception that fiberglass boats are maintenance-free,” he says with a laugh.
According to Nelder, although fiberglass isn’t maintenance-free, both fiberglass and wood-epoxy composites will tolerate more abuse than wood, making them popular materials for everything he builds, from the sturdy little Bras d’Or sailing dinghies to sedan cruisers.
Customers like fiberglass boats, but can they afford them? “Normally we have one 42-foot sedan cruiser in production all the time,” Nelder says. “But when the Canadian dollar went so high, it meant that suddenly US customers would be paying 20% more for a vessel here.” On a $500,000 boat, that $100,000 makes a big difference.
While the American dollar is falling, the price of building materials is rising. That’s especially true of resins, which are petroleum-based. “Every time we see the price of fuel go up, resin is not far behind,” says Sandy O’Rielly, office manager with the Dartmouth, NS, location of OP Fiberglass.
Another drawback to making fiberglass boats is health-related: traditional hand-laid fiberglass lamination produces harmful dust and vapours. O’Rielly is enthusiastic about new manufacturing methods that are attempting to address this issue, especially a new process called either vacuum infusion or closed-mold processing. “It’s one of the best things happening in our industry,” says O’Rielly.
In closed-mold processing, all of the fiberglass materials are laid in the mold, sealed inside a huge bag, and saturated with resin that is vacuum-pumped through feed lines that run from nearby resin barrels. No fumes are released into the air, which results in a cleaner process. Since less resin is used, there’s less waste, yet hulls and other manufactured parts are stronger and lighter. “You use less time, less materials, and less people power,” says O’Rielly.
Despite these advantages, there’s a price to pay for changing from traditional fiberglass construction to closed-mold processing. “The start-up costs for a vacuum-infusion process are steep,” says O’Rielly. “It’s not an easy switch, but the benefits will come over time.” She says that although this process is quite widely used throughout North America and Europe, in Atlantic Canada, it’s still considered new technology.
Belfast, PEI, boatbuilder Kevin Jeffrey, president of NorseBoat Ltd., understands the competitive importance of new technology. His NorseBoat has been described as the Swiss Army knife of boats because of its versatility and durability. “The boat sails and rows extremely well,” says Jeffrey, “and can be single-handed or accommodate a crew of six.” His customers come from four distinct groups: cruising sailors who want a small, easily accessible vessel; sea kayakers who want room for kids and gear, and the ability to go further and faster; day sailors who want high-performance boats with classic lines; and even power boaters who use a NorseBoat on the aft deck as a launch.
The NorseBoat has become so popular that Jeffrey is creating a new production facility and showroom in Lunenburg, NS, where he will build using epoxy resin. “Epoxy is a much more expensive resin, but it results in a stronger, higher-quality part,” he says. According to
Jeffrey, using epoxy instead of the standard vinylester or polyester resins all but eliminates hazardous fumes.
Even with newer techniques and products, boatbuilders face a number of challenges. George Yates is president of the Boat Builders Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. A fifth-generation boatbuilder who operates Yates Boatbuilding in Springdale, Nfld., Yates says the boatbuilding industry in Newfoundland has traditionally been very dependent on the fishing sector, and that the past three years have been especially difficult. However, Yates’ company has found success in diversification. It has developed niche markets for a variety of models of pleasure vessels, ranging from motor sailors and weekend cruisers to water taxis and runabouts.
Finding new markets may also help Yates and other regional boatbuilders. “Several firms have worked on developing export markets for commercial vessels into other provinces and into Europe, with limited success,” says Yates. And instead of looking south, Nelder, in Big Pond, is focusing on Canadian markets, particulary Montreal and Toronto, markets that have been virtually ignored by Atlantic Canada’s boatbuilders until now.
Much has changed in the vocabulary of boatbuilders in Atlantic Canada, with new terms like vacuum infusion, wood-epoxy composites, computer-assisted drafting, and computerized manufacturing operations. Yet in spite of the changes to materials, methods, and markets, much remains the same in the lexicon of boatbuilding in the Maritimes. Words like sturdy and seaworthy will always be in fashion.