Coronavirus pandemic slows, but doesn’t stop, local boatbuilders

ELLSWORTH — The coronavirus pandemic continues to have enormous impact on the U.S. economy, closing many businesses and costing millions of jobs. At least so far, many Downeast boatbuilders are still busy building new boats, but not all of them. 

On Monday, Pete Saladino, chief marketing officer for The Hinckley Co., offered an opaque description of the ongoing level of activity at the company’s Trenton plant. 

We are charting our course through this difficult environment,” he said, “prioritizing employee safety in line with the executive orders from Governor Mills and the other governments where we operate.” Asked to expand on the extent of Hinckley’s current operations, Saladino replied with an email containing the Governor’s list of Maine industries deemed “essential.” 

Just up the road in LamoineSW Boatworks is “muddling through,” according to Alice Workman, the company’s business manager. 

SW currently has five boats underway in its shops, and its crew is “spread out” over those projects with everyone wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks or respirators “as they usually do,” Workman said. 

The workers also are practicing social distancing, staying away from the yard at off hours, and the office is operating off site. Maintenance crews are disinfecting work areas three times a day — between shifts, during lunch breaks and at closing — when crews are not in the shops. Although SW has been able to order necessary boatbuilding materials by phone and email, work has slowed somewhat. 

We are being very creative to keep everyone working,” Workman said, “trying to make sure everyone is getting a paycheck. 

Brooklin Boat Yard has taken a different approach. 

“We first chose to have the crew work on a voluntary basis and over two weeks we went from 55 people to about 25,” yard owner Steve White said MondayWe decided to close the business beginning March 30 for two weeks, with possible extension, which we will decide this weekend. 

Most of the BBY crew, including White, have filed for unemployment, but the company is still paying for employee health benefits. 

Even if BBY does return to work next week, White said work in the main shop, where most of the new boat construction is done, will be somewhat limited” to reduce crowding. The yard and paint crews will be able to function pretty much as usual during the spring commissioning season, “obviously following CDC guidelines.” 

BBY is currently building a new Taylor 50 sailboat for a local, repeat customer, a 38-foot replica of author Ernest Hemingway’s famous sportfishing boat Pilar, and a Taylor 44 for a repeat client to take to the West CoastAlso in the shop is a major refit of a classic 65-foot sailboat. 

Pilar and the 50-footer were scheduled to launch in late May or early June, with the 44-footer scheduled for a fall launching. 

Assuming BBY goes back to work in two weeks, launching of all those boats will be delayed at least two weeks, White said, adding “We have informed our customers and they have been very supportive and understanding.” 

At Wesmac Custom Boats in Surry, work continues on four new boats and the refit of an older 50-footer recently purchased by Linda Greenlaw, wife of Wesmac owner Steve Wessel. The new boats are big and complex: a Coast Guard certified 54-foot research boat for the state of Georgia; a superwide 46-foot sportfish boat headed to California; a twin-engine 50-footer; and a 46-foot sportfishing boat due to launch next month as the culmination of “a 12-year project,” according to Bill Grindle, Wesmac’s general manager. 

Grindle said crews at the boatshop are currently working, clothed as always in full PPE. A small number of the crew have chosen to self-quarantine for brief periods and suppliers and salespeople are allowed to visit by appointment only. 

The arrival of spring means that Wesmac has both new boats and winter storage boats to launch and sea-trial over the next few weeks, but that has been “a challenge” to arrange for owners visits in light of current restrictions on travel and lodging bans. 

We remain open for business as an essential business,” Grindle said, though “trying to maintain proper distancing can be a challenge.” 


Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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