Bristol's Boat Building Industry

One Square Mile: Bristol's Boat Building Industry

All 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.

Steve 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.

Quantum 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

Every 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 Composites

Eric 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

Wendy 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.