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November 18, 2013
Article

Boat-building in Maine remains a viable niche

Industry continues to bolster state economy

by Dana Wilde

Greg Rossel of Troy examines plans for a boat.
Greg Rossel of Troy examines plans for a boat. TOM GROENING

TROY—On Route 9 in this western Waldo County town, which you can miss whether you blink or not, a sign partly obscured by chokecherry bushes and apple trees announces: BOAT CARPENTRY.

Up the driveway are a 19th-century Cape-style house, a boat shed, a bright green 1954 Willys pickup truck and a wood-heated workshop. This is where Greg Rossel has plied his craft for some three decades, establishing himself as one of the many small cogs in Maine's diverse boat-building industry.

In the United States, boat building is a $1 billion a year industry, and nearly two-thirds of it—around $600 million worth, according to a 2002 study by University of Southern Maine economics professor Charles Colgan—is done in Maine. The industry organization Maine Built Boats estimates there are about 450 boat-building companies employing about 5,000 people in the state.

But the webwork of activities that make up and support boat building is perhaps more properly termed the "marine trades related industry," in the words of Planning Decisions Inc. of South Portland in its 2007 study, "Maine's Boat Building Industry: Obstacles & Opportunities."

The study noted that "Maine's boat building industry is larger by sales value than the state's entire biotech industry …  and the state's entire commercial printing industry," it states, "while employing approximately the same number of workers as these industries."

And Rossel, the builder, repairer, restorer, technical writer and workshop teacher—not to mention one of Maine's top optimists—says it goes well beyond that. 

"It would be very difficult to invent something that has as much [economic] variability and application throughout the state" as boat building, he said in a recent interview.

People are "building [boats] on ends of peninsulas, up in the North Woods, out in the far ends of Eastport doing repairs," either in boatyards or in individual shops like his. "Then there's all the ancillary, multiplier effects: the riggers, paint suppliers, sailmakers and merchants, the sandwich shops, the people who cut wood, the people who do milling, the people who do custom cabinetry in other shops. It's what people always talked about you should have: an economy of decentralized, decent-paying jobs," he said.

Rossel, 61, has been immersed in Maine's boat-building scene since he attended the Washington County Vocational Technical Institute Boat School in the late 1970s when it was located in Lubec. From there he moved on to restoring antique airplanes at the Pittsfield airport, started repairing boats in his own nascent shop, and served as assistant director for the Maine Maritime Museum. When by the mid-1980s the commute from Troy to Bath grew wearisome, he turned his attention full time to his own shop.

TEACHING THE SKILLS

In some ways a man as diverse as his trade, Rossel's craftsmanship branched from construction and repair into teaching workshops and writing books and technical articles. He's taught many workshops for the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin and programs in San Francisco, and helped set up bare-bones shops in Tampico, Mexico, to build Whitehall rowboats. His books include "Building Small Boats," "The Boatbuilder's Apprentice" and "Kayaks You Can Build."

He also undertakes restoration projects, and in recent years worked with the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport to take the lines off a Thomas Fleming Day pulling boat it has in its care.

"Museums have these artifacts in their collections, but they really don't know how they were used because you can't put them in the water," Rossel said. "You'd have to restore them or take them all apart, and you'd lose your original artifact."

So the museum enlisted Rossel to draw up the design and plans. He then began the construction in his Troy shop, and with the help of students at WoodenBoat, built an exact replica of the boat and launched it in the Sebasticook River.

"It was like a race car," he said, with characteristic enthusiasm.

"Enthusiasm" is a word that surfaces frequently, either spoken or unspoken, in a talk with Rossel because his love of his craft, its products and its people is evident at every turn.

In boat building, "there's an architectural aesthetic—you're building something that makes people smile," he said, whether they're owners whose love of their boats Rossel loves to share in, or simply onlookers awed by a schooner on the bay.

"There's a mystique to Maine-built boats," Rossel said, that goes back centuries to the first pinnace launched on the Kennebec River in 1608, through the clipper ships of the 1800s and on into the 20th century adaptability of a yard like Bath Iron Works.

EDUCATION INVESTMENT

"[Then] in the 1970s," he explained, "the state invested in the schools to train boat-building skilled labor. A lot of people in my class went on to create boat-building businesses and hire people. The investment in a good education in this case has paid back big dividends, because most of them stuck around and created good jobs."

Growing out of the hands-on education is a unique attention to detail in Maine, a key to the mystique. "There's a lot of upward push to always keep the quality high."

To foster the quality, Maine has continued to provide accessibility to suitable locations that other places have let slip away.

"So many of what used to be boatyards in places like Florida have been sold and turned into marina condos," he said.

The state also has tried to help with "referendums for trying to keep commercial places on the waterfront without being taxed at the highest possible use," he said.

"Not only are the materials here," he said, "but the people with the skills are here. I think it's why Bath Iron Works ended up staying here. What they've always sold is quality. They say it, and it's true. The boats will come out better than in Passagoula," a shipyard in Mississippi which builds similar vessels. 

"I'm pretty optimistic" about the future of boat building in Maine, Rossel said.

New technology such as the composite hull and solar-electric hybrid power, together with Maine boat builders' diverse skill sets, traditional knowledge and the ready proximity of marine support businesses, all factor into an industry that is not only economically vibrant, but diverse.

"This [industry] puts whole communities to work," he said at his little cog in Troy.

Dana Wilde writes the Backyard Naturalist column for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel newspapers.

 

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