Portrait of a Boatbuilder

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The boatbuilding trade is both complex and a whole lot of work 

The boatbuilding trade is both complex and a whole lot of work 

A couple of winters ago, I set a new course for my life by following my passions and interests. This in turn led me to boatbuilding. The reason why is I simply needed a change after working in a retail kayak shop a number of years. It was a great job that allowed me to develop as a kayaker and person. Nonetheless, I decided I needed something new.

While working at the kayak shop, I’d also worked at a tech startup one day a week for six hours. The company created individualized outdoor recreation plans in real-time based on customer preferences. My role was to create trips for the company database and recommend trips to customers. It was a cool job, but I barely lasted six hours staring at a computer. It soon became clear I am not cut out for office work—though tech money would have been nice!

I, therefore, chose to follow my long-held passion for sailing by finding work in the marine repair industry. My goal was to ultimately acquire the necessary skills to confidently buy and repair a sailboat of my own.

For the author, his persistence ultimately paid off 

For the author, his persistence ultimately paid off 

Growing up sailing on Cape Cod meant I was around boats all the time. I learned to sail at a young age and was always very comfortable both in and around the water. I picked up basic fiberglass skills while working on family boats, further developing my fiberglass skills and learned about gelcoat at the kayak shop. Though I can’t rebuild an engine, I’ve always enjoyed hands-on work, that and tinkering with gears and machines to figure out how they work. With these skills as my foundation, I began my search.

I started out by googling all the boatyards and marine industry businesses near where I in live in the San Francisco’s East Bay area. Even if they didn’t have a job posting, I called to “talk with a manager about hiring.” I figured talking to someone directly was better than explaining in a mundane e-mail how my hard work ethic would make up for my lack of experience.

I called a few places, with no luck. One company turned out to be more of a construction zone working on big ferries and tugboats rather than a boatyard working on sailboats and recreational craft. I wonder if a trade school might not be the best option to get a leg up on the competition. However, being in my 20’s and living in the Bay Area, I didn’t think I could swing it financially. After running the numbers, I was more determined than ever to find a paying job where they would be willing to train me.

Eventually, I discovered the Berkeley Marine Center. The company website listed openings for “front desk,” “fiberglass technician” and “general labor.” I would have happily taken any of these, but applied for the position of fiberglass technician because the description mentioned boat repairs and extending the sections of large boats. The qualifications also seemed within reach. I especially liked the part where it said, “Prior experience preferred, but we are willing to train the right person.” It took a few rounds of sending in my resume and then following up, but eventually, I was scheduled for an interview. My take-away from the application process was that you needed to push hard for the job you wanted and then be annoyingly consistent with your follow-ups.

I interviewed with the yard manager and explained my experience with fiberglass, growing up around boats and my desire to learn as much as possible about boat maintenance and repair. The plan was to convey my passion and ability to learn and work hard to overcome my lack of experience. Apparently, it worked. He explained they were looking for someone like me to work with a former surfboard shaper to build boats and do other fiberglass work. I was stoked. There was also a catch in that I would be pulled off for other jobs on occasion. But I always figured as the new guy I would have to sand and clean boats for days. I felt good about this company because of the genuine respect he had for the owner, Cree, and the other employees. He told me how everyone brought different skills to the table, and that there were some real industry masters to learn from.

A huge amount of expertise and effort goes into boatbuilding  

A huge amount of expertise and effort goes into boatbuilding  

After the interview with the yard manager, I met with Cree. Again, I explained my background and goals, to which he smiled, nodded and said, “Sailing is about 10 percent of what we do here. If you want to sail, there are other companies that will hire you.” I told him, though, that my goal at work was to learn as much as possible about the way boats are built and only sail for fun on the weekends. He didn’t say much, just stared a bit. I think his goal in the interview was to get a read on me to determine whether I’d be willing to get my hands dirty and carry my own weight. When the subject of family boat repairs came up, he said, “Good, so you know the work that goes into fixing boats.”

“Yes, totally,” I said. I explained some of my sailing experience, and it seemed, momentarily, like he wanted to pause the interview just to swap stories. He didn’t have to mention any of his experience for me to tell he was a serious sailor. Cree is the type of person whose presence demands respect. Finally, after about an hour for both interviews, I was hired!

My first day on the job I realized within the first hour just how much work the job required. I also quickly discovered how important it was to get a good pair of shoes. A few days later, the yard manager came into the yard to tell me, “Cree likes you. We like you. You’re on the team.”

Although I was hired as a fiberglass tech because the yard was between major projects my first couple of months were spent sanding and painting boat bottoms. There were a few small fabrication projects as well, and I soon learned how to build bulkheads and parts by infusing resin into sandwiches of foam and fiberglass. It quickly became clear how much I didn’t know, so I put my head down and kept on sanding, at the same time considering (as I do to this day) every task, big or small, as an opportunity to learn. Day by day, week by week the sander felt less heavy as my strength grew. I may still be decades behind my supervisors, but I can now at least tell the differences between projects, and work out solutions to various problems and tasks. I’ve discovered I’m good at figuring things out, but that due to my lack of experience my supervisors still usually come over and show me a much simpler, more efficient way of doing things. It can be frustrating, but at least I’m on the right track.

A tool of the trade 

A tool of the trade 

I’ve been on the job for about a year now and really love it. It isn’t easy work by any means, but I love using my knowledge and raw materials to help build and repair boats. I enjoy the atmosphere developed through collective honest hard work. The fact that I learn new skills, techniques or general boat knowledge every day makes it easy for me to face the endless hours of sanding. I still feel like a rookie, but then I look back on where I started and see how far I’ve come.

People romanticize boatbuilding. They hear the word “boatbuilder” and say, “Oh what a cool job!” (which it is), but don’t necessarily realize the labor involved—or the itchiness that comes from working with fiberglass! There’s still a lot of sanding in my days, but since that first morning when I was struggling to hold a sander above my head, I’ve built fiberglass and carbon bulkheads, fabricated a 42ft scow-bow mold and then built a hull on top of that. It feels good when people come to me for fiberglass advice or when people ask my supervisor for help, and he says, “Yeah, MacIver can do that. No problem.” And I can. I don’t know if I want to fiberglass for the rest of my life. But for now, the journey remains a fulfilling one. 

Photos by Greg MacIver

May 2021

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