The Spirit of Rockport
If you're lucky enough to wander down into Marine Park in Rockport this spring, you might just happen upon one of those moments that appears so idyllic it could only happen in Maine. The wide red doors of the boatshop at the head of the harbor will roll open, and Godspeed, a sixty-four-foot wooden replica that looks like she's floated right out of a history book, will ease her way out into the sunshine. Built for the Jamestown Settlement living-history museum, the ship is a replica of the original Godspeed, one of three ships that carried John Smith and his collection of settlers from England in 1607 to establish a permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia.A procession of tractor-trailer trucks will haul the ship past bystanders lining the route through the postcard-perfect village and across the narrow bridge over the Goose River. A group of Carhartt-clad boatbuilders will stand somewhat bashfully on the three-masted sailing ship's wooden decks as she is eased into the blue waters of West Penobscot Bay, where she'll join a growing fleet of optimistic mariners getting a jump start on the coming boating season.
From the outside the whole scene seems sleepy and quaint in the same way lobstering and winemaking can to an outsider. But like all occupations that have become iconic, the work that goes on at Rockport Marine — and the wooden ships that the yard has become world-famous for creating — is far from simple or predictable.
Pass through the shop's massive doors, for example, and the modern scene that unfolds could not be more unlike the anachronistic performance playing out across the harbor. Workers are installing high-tech electronic equipment and a state-of-the-art entertainment center on board an elaborate yacht nearing the end of a two-year refit. In the space beside the one vacated by Godspeed, a painter is applying a final coat on the cabin top of Spirit of Bermuda, an eighty-five-foot schooner being built as a training ship for a foundation in Bermuda. Like its former neighbor, Spirit of Bermuda harkens back to another era — her lines are based on the merchant and privateer schooners of the early 1800s — but the similarities end there. Instead of the black locust trunnels and thick planks of wana, a tropical hardwood that forms Godspeed's hull, this ship is built of six layers of fir and mahogany glued together with epoxy, a modern building technique known as cold-molding that creates a light and exceptionally strong wooden vessel. The carbon-fiber masts weigh a fraction of the stout timbers on Godspeed. All told, Spirit of Bermuda is expected to cost about $4.2 million when she is launched this summer.
While the wood that forms these boats' hulls is one material linking these two dissimilar projects, they are connected by a force far more powerful: a boatbuilder named Taylor Allen.
Taylor Allen was just thirteen when his father, a mechanical engineer from Worcester, Massachusetts, bought the property at the mouth of the Goose River and founded Rockport Marine in 1962, shortly after turning down an employer's request that he move west. Allen recalls two things about Rockport at that time: the property his father, Luke Allen, bought was reasonably priced, and there were very few boats in the broad, deep harbor. While the former made the venture feasible, the latter was not a good sign for an aspiring boatyard operator. The practical solution that the Allens came up with would become typical of this innovative family.
"They decided to start a restaurant, mostly for cash flow reasons," Allen explains. The resulting Sail Loft Restaurant became a fixture on the harbor and a favorite stop for diners until it closed in 2001 to make way for a boatyard expansion. (Today the relatively unaltered dining room, complete with a hostess station and dining-room booths, serves as the yard's office.)
Initially Luke Allen and about five employees ran the boatyard as a maintenance and storage operation, simultaneously building the restaurant's clientele and a couple of small boats over the years. The only requirement was that the boats be made of wood. During those early years, teenage Taylor didn't take much of an interest in the family business. But after going away and working for his future father-in-law, legendary boatbuilder Joel White, at Brooklin Boat Yard in 1980, Allen began taking a renewed interest in his family's enterprise in Rockport. He came home and took the reins from his father less than two years later and started building the business incrementally. He added more boat storage a mile away, built a new dock and shop building, and expanded the yard buildings yet again. Most recently, Allen added even more storage and work facilities at a property off Route 1 — plenty of space for the yard's fifty employees.
Today Allen, now 56, seems neither surprised nor offended by anything that comes his way. "I kind of go from one day to the next responding to what comes along," he says, like a farmer or fisherman who knows better than to try and plumb the unfathomable complexity of running a business in the face of unquantifiable variables. Rockport Marine was asked to bid on both Godspeed and Spirit of Bermuda — projects the yard eventually won in the face of national and sometimes even international competition — but Allen doesn't let such flattery go to his head. "That's probably a significant flaw in our marketing strategy," he laughs, adding that such rapid growth can be difficult to manage.
"Two boats has really stretched us," Allen says. But what might seem like an overwhelming number of uncertainties and challenges is no cause for consternation in his world. Indeed, the idea of predictably repetitive work is the only scenario that seems to dishearten him.
"We don't like doing the same thing twice," he says. "If there's a focus, it's for different kinds of projects." That diversity of talents, coupled with a workforce that's among the most stable in the industry, attracts well-heeled clients like Donald Tofias, the founder of W-Class Yacht Company. Tofias has had Rockport Marine build four cold-molded hulls since 1997.
It was Tofias who first asked Allen to build a large cold-molded hull back in 1997 when he was looking to have two identical W-76s built. Tofias said he asked Steve White, whose father designed the boats, and Allen to each build one because neither had the space or manpower to build two at once. At the time there weren't that many choices for someone in the market for a large cold-molded boat. "They were the two best yards in Maine who were doing it," Tofias said.
Since the 1998 launch of the W-76 White Wings, Tofias has had Allen build three W-46s: Equus, Zebra, and Arion, helping to cement the yard's reputation for state-of-the-art modern construction techniques involving cold-molding. Last summer the seventy-six-foot sloop Goshawk was launched from Brooklin Boat Yard, but the yacht's complex hull of epoxied layers of wood, carbon fiber, and foam were built at Rockport Marine.
But Rockport Marine is far from a one-trick operation. During the same years that the W-Class racing yachts were being built for Tofias, the yard also put together Lynx, a seventy-six-foot replica of an 1812-vintage Baltimore clipper, complete with traditional rigging and black-powder cannons. Designed and built for sail training and used for educational programs by a California-based nonprofit, Lynx was completed in 2001 and now sails from Newport Beach.
As it stands, Rockport Marine is an undeniable success. It has become something of an institution in the broad community of wooden boat enthusiasts and an important player in Maine's reported $650-million-per-year marine trades sector. While Allen says he doesn't yet have a project to fill the shop after Godspeed and Spirit of Bermuda are gone, the boatyard's storage shed holds about forty boats, much like a vineyard with cellars full of vintages as a hedge against a bad season. The boats receive maintenance annually, and frequently need minor and major rebuilds or repairs. The yard's relationships with their owners are long-term and often lead to new construction projects, Allen says. But even in its prosperity Rockport Marine points to the threats that changes to local land values and community expectations can pose to traditional occupations and industries.
"You think about Rockport Marine going away and you've torn the heart out of the harbor," says Paul Rich, a cruising sailor and president of Maine Built Boats Inc., a trade and marketing group for Maine boatbuilders.
Over the same years that the yard has grown, the rest of the Rockport community has changed as well. A two-year moratorium on new moorings in the now-crowded harbor was finally eased in January, and the shoreline has become dominated by larger homes, driving property values out of reach for the average working Mainer. During the 1990s the former Rockport Apprentice Shop's boatbuilding facility was sold for residential use, leaving Rockport Marine as the only working boat facility in the harbor. Due to those high residential property values, a steep harbor shore, and complex permitting for new boatyards, it's unlikely that a new facility will emerge here. So the likelihood of competition in Allen's immediate neighborhood has diminished. That sounds like good news, but for Allen it's no cause for celebration. He sees it as a reminder of the local changes that are threats to his own yard, no matter how it prospers.
"You couldn't start a yard like this now," Allen says. "I think that's a really unfortunate consequence of the way our country values real estate."
The realization that his father never could have escaped to Maine with his family today as he did in the 1960s makes Allen all the more appreciative of the tolerance of his neighbors in Rockport.
"I try to be as inconspicuous as I can be," he says. But it's hard to be inconspicuous when you have fifty employees building eighty-foot boats right next to the public road at the head of the harbor. The fact is many visitors and residents want to see what's going on at the yard, and Allen tries to make it as accessible as is safely possible. "I want to be a positive force, a complement to the community," he says. That means more than just paying taxes and staying out of the way. To some degree it means sharing his yard with the community, whether it's through tours or the fanfare that surrounds a launch such as that of Godspeed.
Paul Rich, of Maine Built Boats Inc., points to the ceremony and public involvement that still attend boat launchings as indicators that Mainers value boatbuilding as something more than a source of tax dollars. It represents a shared appreciation of local excellence, he says.
"Everyone has a stake in it," Rich explains. "At the launching they just feel like they helped build it. The homespun Mainer is standing next to the megamillionaire owner, seeing the same thing.
"As the communities change, the value of the boatbuilder remains. It transcends class, or where you came from."