Barely a month goes by that one of Maine’s well-regarded boat builders isn’t being recognized with extensive profiling in national maritime magazines and newspapers. Prolific positive reviews bordering on unabashed admiration have covered Maine’s small-boat building industry with the kind of attention that money just can’t buy.
From Washington County and Hancock County’s myriad builders — Wesmac in Surry, SW Boatworks in Lamoine, as well as Hinckley Yachts, Ellis Boat, Brooklin Boat Yard and many more — to creative yards in Friendship and Arundel in southern Maine including Southport in Augusta, craftsmen are creating beautiful boats. There are lobster boat builders, lobster-yacht companies, fast center console builders and cruising yachts and sailboat makers like Lyman Morse, as well as renowned restorers and boat builders like Front Street Boatyard in Belfast. Maine’s coast is covered with vibrant boatyards. Many have a lengthy backlog of orders for new boats — up to two years at several local yards — while refits and upgrades of many existing boats here as well as well up and down the coast are adding huge dollars to local payrolls and community tax payments. And we aren’t even looking at all of the ancillary support vendors and their jobs.
Throw in a healthy workforce at Bath Iron Works and Maine is once again a key player in all aspects of ship building both for the Navy and for the lucrative recreational market, as these are not $30,000 runabouts in mass production — many of these yards are crafting $750,000 work and pleasure boats that stretch the boundaries of what previously was accepted as the industrial norm.
Interestingly, this revival is organic. There have been no massive tax subsidies, no incentive programs, and certainly no infusions of training and employment initiatives. Most yards are embracing the latest technologies in construction and electronics the old-fashioned way — self-taught. As with generations ago, Maine’s boat builders build with pride, unparalleled craftsmanship and an embrace of the styling and functional virtues that have lent to a worldwide reputation for superiority. A sign over the gate at BIW says “Through these gates walk the finest ship builders in the world.” That slogan could hang in literally dozens of boat builders up and down our state.
More amazing is that this industry has been revived at all. Some of us remember that in 1991, U.S. Sens. George Mitchell and Ted Kennedy led the introduction of a luxury tax on boats, private airplanes, cars and jewelry. Their new luxury tax finally would finally make “the rich pay their fair share in taxes.” The reality: in one year, luxury boat sales had plummeted 77 percent and over 20,000 direct boat builder jobs had been lost. Several yacht companies had actually gone out of business. The new luxury tax actually generated $97 million less revenue.
The luxury boat tax was lifted two years later, but the damage had been done. Since then, Maine’s boat builders have recovered and their yards have grown. They have added employees, expanded and generated more and enriched their reputations. Maine’s standing in the maritime world continues to rise.
There are lessons to be learned from Maine’s boatbuilding brush with Robin Hood politics.