One Square Mile: Bristol's Boat Building Industry
this week we've been bringing you stories from Bristol in our series
One Square Mile. We check in on the town's boat building industry. The
sector got whacked, as one boat builder describes it, when the bottom
fell out of the economy in 2008. Rhode Island Public Radio's Catherine
Welch checks in to see how it’s doing now.
Thurston gazes down at a huge, white triangle of a sail stretched
across the entire floor of Quantum Sails' facility. The plant sits in an
industrial park outside the cute historic part of Bristol. His
grandfather started the company in Barrington, it moved to Warren, then
Thurston opened this facility back in the late 80's.
He's been in
the business for 40 years, since high school. He loves everything about
making sails. Can't blame him, the job's got great perks. "Sometimes
we have to bring them to the Carribean and use them for a week down
there," he said of the travel he does for the job.
employs 15 people and can make a sail from design to finish. Not all
sails are one big triangle. Some are made from dozens of pieces. Workers
craft patterns on the computer, others cut those pieces on a huge
cutting machine, and then sew the pieces together on the factory floor.
And when I say 'on the factory floor' the pieces are literally on the
floor. "When we built this building we knew that we wanted to have the
sewing machines sunk in the floor," said Thurston. That's
right. Thurston designed the place so the people doing the sewing are
sitting in a box, in the floor. "So we went to a local boat builder and
we had him build ice boxes and we sank these ice boxes in the floor and
when we drop the sewing machines in because of the winter conditions
here the boxes stay nice and warm."
These days he builds sails
for old boats more than new ones. "A lot of people through those tough
times were able to hold on to their boats," Thurston said. "So we do a
lot of aftermarket on older boats, we do a lot of repair work and we
also build a lot of sails for older boats."
Things are starting
to pick up. Quantum Sails held steady during the recession not losing
businesses but not gaining any either. Thurston knows he’s luckier than
most. It pained him to watch the effects of a bad economy rumble through
Bristol's boat building industry. "Well, it was tough, there were some
great boat builders right here in this little Mecca of boat building we
have here in Bristol," he said, "and a lot of them just disappeared."
Hall Spars and Rigging
year, since Hall Spars and Rigging opened in 1980, it had seen year
over year growth. But after the bottom fell out in 2008, Ben Hall had a
year when business was half of the year before. “It was like a
precipitous drop off, it didn’t happen gradually, it was like falling
off a cliff," said Hall.
Hall makes masts, booms and all the
rigging that goes along with having a sail. Masts used to be made of
aluminum but Hall Spars and Rigging was one of the first to make them
out of lighter carbon fiber. Today, the company is one of the best in
the world. But after cutting his Bristol staff in half, and walking away
from multi-million dollar projects that wouldn’t have turned a penny in
profit, Hall moved away from strictly making boat masts and now lands
jobs for architecture and military projects.
Finding new markets is the name of the game in Bristol’s boat building industry.
Goetz walks through the large warehouse of Goetz Composites checking in
on a co-worker buffing the surface of a mold for a boat part. Goetz
works in carbon fiber. The company helped build a number of boats that
competed in The America's Cup. Like Ben Hall at Hall Spars and Rigging,
Goetz has branched out into architecture and projects for New York
City’s department of transportation. He’s had to. "Well in 2008 and 2009
we basically crashed," said Goetz.
At its peak, Goetz employed
85 workers. Today, there are 15. And even though the business, Goetz
Composites, bears his name, he lost it in the recession. Now he's an
employee, the chief technology officer.
"We're growing and we're
trying to continue to work with the companies whom we worked with all
along but some of our colleagues are having real pain," said
Goetz. Goetz sees signs of the industry picking up. But a rising tide
hasn't lifted all boat builders.
Bristol's Boat Building Industry
Mackie of the Rhode Island Marine Trade Association says the recession
wiped out half of the boat building industry. The biggest gains, she
says, are in composite technology, working in fiber glass or carbon
fibers like what Goetz deals in.
Because of companies like Goetz,
Halls Spars, and Quantom Sails, Mackie said Bristol has an edge in this
recovering sector by turning the town into a virtual boat building
company "They're able to go from one place to another inside of a day,
see all of the different components of the boat that need to come
together to make that custom boat," said Mackie.
When asked if
there will ever be a time when Rhode Islanders link Bristol to boat
building the same way they link Bristol to the July 4th parade Mackie
said, “Yes. In the industry you do say ‘Bristol’ or ‘Rhode Island’ and
the rest of the nation knows.”
Mackie said Rhode Islanders have
the right to burn with a pride for Bristol, not just because it hosts
the nation's oldest Fourth of July celebration, but because of the
impact companies here make on the boat industry worldwide.