Boats

Morris Yachts Celebrates its 40th Anniversary

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The room went silent when the photo of Tom and Cuyler Morris flashed up on the boatshed wall. The classic wooden building in Northeast Harbor, Maine, was ground zero for a weekend of parties and raft-ups hosted by Morris Yachts to celebrate its 40th year of building boats. The photo was part of the “after party” slideshow that Cuyler—president of Morris Yachts—put together to show the 100 or so owners, boatbuilders and guests where the company came from. Cuyler choked up when he saw the photo of him and his dad, the founder of Morris Yachts. Both were smiling, but Tom was gaunt and bald from cancer treatments.

“I forgot that one was in there,” Cuyler said after taking a moment to collect himself. “That shot was taken at Dad’s last Annapolis Boat Show.” Tom died in 2008 and the simple pause was a pitch-perfect tribute. He was a practical, hands-on guy who loved boats, Maine and building things that were both beautiful and useful. He’d much rather people celebrate and talk about the boats his company had built and the relationships with owners and boatbuilders he and his family had formed over 40 years than get mushy about his passing. So, a simple pause, and then the next slide clicked up on the screen. “Okay,” Cuyler said. “Here’s one of the first Ocean Series boats.”

Each boat an owner’s original

Things were a bit different back when Tom stepped away from the world of banking and insurance and moved his young family from Philadelphia up to Mount Desert Island, Maine, to build boats. Nixon was president. Fiberglass was still a somewhat new and revolutionary boatbuilding material, and Hinckley Yachts—based in Southwest Harbor, just up the road from where the Morris family had been spending summers since the late 1880s—was the Maine boat builder. “Dad was an artist,” said Cuyler as he recounted the early days over breakfast the next day. “He loved working with his hands, and he loved giving people exactly what they wanted.” Soon a few prospective owners attracted to Tom’s simple philosophy—“each boat is an owner’s original”—were asking the other builder in Southeast Harbor to build their boats. 

Cuyler fondly remembers when his Dad bought the house and some land at the head of Southwest Harbor to establish his fledgling yard. “I literally grew up in the boatyard,” he recounts with a smile. “I loved the big dirt piles, and the machines, and the boats, and the long line of fascinating characters that were always there.” In the early years, Morris built two to four boats per year, and Tom was elbow-deep in every aspect of production.  

Morris Yachts established a reputation for building classic American cruising boats designed by Chuck Paine—the Justine 36, Leigh 30, Annie 29 and Linda 28—during the 1970s and 1980s. It grew stronger when the first Ocean Series boats were built in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Meanwhile, Cuyler went away to boarding school and college. He always spent his summers sailing in Maine—racing J/24s, delivering boats and eventually captaining a big Hinckley. After college, he ended up as far from Maine as you can get, in San Diego campaigning a Star in an Olympic bid and then working with the Young America America’s Cup program. 

The seeds of growth

“I was trying to figure out what to do after the 1995 America’s Cup when Dad called,” says Cuyler. “He said he needed a service manager. There was no pressure. It was just a job. I took it, moved back to Maine and I loved it. I loved the problem-solving and that every day was different in the service yard. I took on growing the service business so Dad could focus more on what he loved—his hands-on approach to building the boats and, just as important, to cultivating relationships with his owners.”

It worked. Cuyler grew the service business, and as the demand for Tom’s personal touch and the new Ocean Series continued to rise, they jumped at a chance to purchase a small boatyard with some dock space in nearby Bass Harbor in 1999. Soon afterward another piece of real estate became available, the old Able Marine facility next to the airport in Trenton. At the time, Morris Yachts had the enviable problem of not being able to meet the demand for its Ocean Series boats at the small yard in Southwest Harbor. The old Able yard had the space they needed to increase production, and they were ready to take the plunge. As the company’s production capacity increased, Tom again realized that the demands of the business were pulling him away from what drew him to the business in the first place—the hands-on building of boats—so he tapped Cuyler to take over as president in August 2001.

“I had a baptism by fire,” Cuyler says. “At the time, we had orders for Ocean Series boats, but we’d already sensed that the market seemed to be shifting. It didn’t appear that people were going off on extended cruises as they had in the past. And then 9/11 happened.”

Game changer

Changing sailing habits and a weakened world economy forced Cuyler and the entire Morris team to dig deep. Luckily they had a ringer: Tom may have stepped down from day-to-day operations, but he never stopped thinking about boats and the company. “He was the company. The company was him,” Cuyler says, describing the relationship. 

In the wake of 9/11, Tom and Cuyler discussed revitalizing the company with a new kind of boat that was better suited to people’s changing sailing habits. They envisioned a classic, sexy, sweet-sailing weekender, but couldn’t quite hit on the right design until Tom attended a book-signing for Lines: A Half-Century of Yacht Designs by Sparkman & Stephens, by famed naval architect Olin Stephens. Afterward, he had a long talk with Olin and ended up in the design offices of Sparkman & Stephens, where he was shown drawings of a 36-foot daysailer that several designers had been working on for themselves in their spare time. Tom called Cuyler from S&S. “I think I’ve found our boat,” he said—and he was right. Those drawings were the beginning of what turned into the M36, a boat that would go on to transform the company.

The term “big daysailer” may be a bit overused these days, but the idea of building a good-looking “weekender” with luscious overhangs that is comfortable, stable, easy and rewarding to sail for a couple of hours or on an occasional weekend cruise was pretty new when the first M36 debuted at the Newport Boat Show in September 2003. There were other boats with a similar design philosophy, but the M36 hit the sweet spot. And the success of the M36 provided the spark for an entire line of M Series boats, ranging from the cute and racy M29, to the smart and spacious M42 and the extraordinary queen of the range, the M52. All are modern classics, boats that are both head-turning gorgeous and fun to sail. And the impressive thing about the success of the M Series is that even though Morris Yachts has grown from a company that builds two to four boats a year to a company building roughly eight to 12 boats a year, it hasn’t lost the aesthetic acuity, laser-beam attention to detail and top-notch customer service that creates the sort of rabid owner loyalty I saw at the anniversary weekend.

Back to the future

All anniversaries are designed to celebrate the past, and Cuyler did a wonderful job describing the history and tradition of Morris Yachts during his slideshow. But what struck me most about the evening was how the company is not resting on its past success, but continuing to forge ahead. 

We learned, for example, about a new model in the Ocean Series design—the Morris 48GT. We also viewed some  preliminary 3D mockups of what the interior will look like, and collected packets of information to take home. But for the first time in the company’s 40 years, the spokesman was not a member of the Morris family. Instead, it was Doug Metchick, the new CEO who was brought in to run the company’s day-to-day operations so Cuyler can focus on “presidential” stuff like sailing, customer relations and new product development.

Other forward-thinking actions include opening a sales office in Newport, Rhode Island, and broadening the market for the company’s uniquely American boats by displaying at select European boat shows. Morris also has stuff on the drawing board that’s so new they asked me not to mention it. 

One thing I can mention is that Morris continues to take owner feedback seriously. So seriously, in fact, that as part of the anniversary weekend a series of “owners’ round tables” with Morris designers and builders convened to make absolutely sure Morris Yachts continues to “give owners exactly what they want,” just as Tom did when he built his first boat back in 1972.

“There’s leading edge and then there’s bleeding edge,” said Cuyler as we sipped coffee and waited for the fog to burn off so the celebratory Morris regatta could take place. “I think part of the reason we’ve been able to survive and thrive, even through the pretty challenging economy of the last several years, is that we’ve always focused on building good, honest, classic boats rather than following the latest trends.

“I love where the company is headed,” Cuyler continued. “It’s been a challenging couple of years, but we’re totally energized. The company has evolved over the last 40 years, and I feel like we’ve rebooted and are set to grow for the next 20.”

As we chatted, Cuyler’s son, Sam, came over. I’d first met Sam when he was about 10 years old, following a passage to Bermuda that Cuyler and I did aboard an Ocean Series 48. Young Sam had joined the boat in Bermuda for the trip down to Caribbean where their family spent the winter cruising.

Sam is now almost ready for college and wanted us to know how tired he was from staying up the night before. “Are you ready to sail?” I said. 

“Yeah, I guess,” was his reply. Then he said, “Hey Dad, when are you going to build one of those big cushy powerboats?”

Cuyler smiled. His dad never pressured him to get into boatbuilding, and he is doing the same with his kids. Who knows, though, what the next generation has in store for this quintessentially American family business? “We’re pretty busy with sailboats,” he said with a wink. “I’ll leave the powerboats to you.” 

Top photo by Billy Black

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