Bristol's Marine Industry

Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR
Boats in the water at Bristol Marine, a full-service repair and boarding operation.
The Bristol boat building industry has its roots in the late 19th Century, when the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company built boats for the Navy and yachts that successfully defended the America’s Cup. A lot has changed since then, but maritime industries still form an important part of Bristol’s economy. The work being done by Bristol’s current generation of maritime companies ranges from the traditional to the cutting edge.

Andy Tyska looks on as a big piece of equipment lifts a boat out of the water and moves it on shore. Tyska came to Rhode Island about 20 years ago for an internship at the Herreshoff Marine Museum. He went on to work with the legendary yachtsman and boat designer Ted Hood before starting his own business, Bristol Marine, in 1998. Bristol Marine sits on a scenic harbor not far from Colt State Park. Tyska says his company, which offers repairs and boarding for boats, is the only remaining working waterfront in Bristol.

“Anything to do with owning, maintaining boats we do here,” he says. “So we have not just a dealership which gets people into sailing and boat ownership, we have the marina which provides a place for people to put the boats. We have a full-service operation, so we do mechanical repairs, painting, gel coat, fiberglass, rigging.”

Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR
Andy Tyska, the owner of Bristol Marine.

On a recent windy day, Bristol Marine offers a quintessential Rhode Island scene: scores of boats bob on the gray water in the harbor, halyards slap against sailboats, and workers bustle about, using machines to move boats ashore for winter storage. It’s music to the ears of Andy Tyska.

“It’s almost a symphony of noises in a boatyard, especially when it’s blowing strong out of the southeast like it is today,” he says.

As president of the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, Tyska knows how Bristol’s marine industry has changed over the years. It used to be that a single company, like Herreshoff Manufacturing, would make all the different parts for boats. Now, Tyska says, the industry is specialized, with many different companies making different parts. But he says the boat-related industries remain a potent economic force in Bristol, supplying close to 900 good-paying jobs.

“The industry may not be as well-known or well-seen because it is tucked in nooks and crannies in industrial parks and neighborhoods throughout town versus in large very prominent pieces of real estate,” Tyska says. “So I’d argue to say that it’s as alive and well as it was in the late 1800s, 1900s, just changed, just different.”

A cello made of carbon fibers is one of the different things being made as a spin-off from the traditional marine industry in Bristol. Matt Dunham is the owner of Clear Carbon and Components, located a few miles away from the harbor in an industrial section of Bristol.

Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR
Matt Dunham of Clear Carbon and Composites says keeping tools closely grouped at different work stations makes manufacturing more efficient.

“We make high-end custom component out of composites, all different applications, different fields,” Dunham says. “We’re in the music industry, we make classical signal instruments, we do a lot of underwater signal stuff for the military – sub-sig. More and more we’re doing architectural work and we actually make medical components, so it’s over a pretty broad strata.” 

After starting as a custom boat-builder, Dunham noted how high-end fiber composites found their way into the construction of boats. He realized the carbon fibers could be used for a lot of different applications, including a commercially sold cello that Dunham helped develop with a veteran of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Gosh, that was 12, 14 years ago,” Dunham recalls, “and it went from ‘What is that?’ because it’s a very conservative industry, into, ‘Oh, that’s one of those.’ ”

The building owned by Dunham is home to another spinoff from the marine industry, Core Composites, which sells materials used in everything from battleships to lightweight components for building temporary military hospitals in combat zones. Core Composites’ owner, Rich O’Meara, says the composite industry represents a growth sector for Rhode Island, by reducing the weight and the cost of building things.

Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR
Rich O'Meara of Core Composites says Rhode Island has a strong edge in the budding composite industry. He's shown with different forms of balsa wood.

“Composites have really grown from a baby industry to what I call a raging teenager,” says O’Meara. “Carbon fiber is the fiber of the future. It’s the fiber of our generation. Everything that rolls, floats or flies is going to have carbon fire in it in the future.”

O’Meara says BMW used composite construction to reduce the mass of a new electric car by 700 pounds. He says Core Composites and MIT are working together to offer housing components for an expected construction boom in the developing world.

“If we go from six billion people on mother earth to nine billion, we’re going to have a big housing crisis, especially in the second and third world,” O’Meara says. “So we see factories that will build these panels being put into the areas where they want the labor and they want the houses. But the development of that will be done right here in Bristol, Rhode Island, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, so … pretty cool.”

Marine-related companies in Bristol aren’t without their own challenges, from the need for more trained workers to the relatively high cost of manufacturing in the Northeast. Yet by offering a mix of tradition and innovation, the town’s marine industry is building a connection from the past to the future.