What happens when a consummate cruiser decides to build a boatworks?
If you have never met Ed Dettling or taken a look at his Dettling 51 and
have only heard that he is a former attorney who in early retirement decided
to found a company to build “the perfect cruising yacht,” you
could be forgiven for entertaining the notion that he’s just a wealthy
man with too much time on his hands, dabbling in the boat business. In
truth, Dettling has been demonstrating for nine years that yacht design
and construction are his true callings—so much so that he is better
described as a boatbuilder who once practiced (quite prosperously) tax
law. But just because Dettling has proved himself an outstanding boatwright
doesn’t mean he is a conventional one. He brings an original perspective
to the craft, one that plays an important role in making the Dettling
51 an exceptional cruiser and Dettling Yachts a singular custom builder.
Ask him about his first career, and Dettling confesses that he became a lawyer on his father’s advice, saying, “In those days you listened to your parents.” After early graduations from both college and law school, Dettling was admitted to the bar at age 23. Of his 25 years as a tax attorney he says, “It finally reached the point where the practice interfered with my boating.”
After retiring at 49, Dettling turned to his true passion. “All my life I’d been a frustrated engineer,” he says, “and boat crazy.” Imagine workaholic fervor joined to the epitome of relaxation—it sounds impossible. But when cruising became Dettling’s and his wife Barrie’s chief occupation, he developed a comprehensive understanding of the practicalities underlying the sport of boating.
When he decided to transform that understanding (which was deepened by Barrie’s insights) into his ideal cruiser, Dettling focused on putting together the exceptional team necessary for the project’s success. Having commissioned many yachts over the years, he already had a few individuals in mind. John Cherrington, today the company’s general manager, had headed Lyman-Morse in Maine. Dave Iglehart, now plant foreman, is a veteran of two highly regarded Maryland yards, Eastport Yachts and Dickerson’s.
Ed and Barrie chose Maryland’s Eastern Shore as the location for their venture because they love its special beauty and the friendliness of its people, but it hasn’t hurt Dettling Yachts that this Chesapeake Bay region also boasts three centuries of boatbuilding tradition and lures marine craftsmen from all over the eastern seaboard. Dettling, Cherrington, and Iglehart have assembled a team of diversely talented joiners, electricians, mechanics, and finish carpenters who clearly take a great deal of satisfaction in the challenging work they do.
Dettling plays a large role in motivating this force. On hand for every day of the two-year construction of the first 51, he firmly established the rigorous standards his crew has brought to bear on every yacht since. “Getting every detail just right is my obsession,” he told me, “and my obsession has spread throughout this shop. Everyone here has become a detail fanatic.”
Ed Dettling has accomplished this in some unusual ways. When a vacuum-bagged, Core-Cell hull (from a C. Raymond Hunt & Associates design) arrives at the builder’s new facility just off the Choptank River in Denton, Maryland, Hardcore Composites, the Delaware subcontractor charged with its construction, has already seamlessly fused it to the Divinycell-cored house and deck with 10 layers of fiberglass. Once it’s in a construction bay the exterior is finished with three hand-sanded coats of epoxy primer and four polyurethane topcoats. Dettling insists on this because he wants every piece of deck hardware mounted on a fully finished surface. But there is an important parallel motive. Before any of Dettling’s crew of electricians, mechanics, and joiners set foot onboard, the boat is already gleaming. To preserve that condition—and, believe me, they do—they must work extremely carefully. According to Dettling, the precision necessary while outfitting the exterior becomes habitual, characterizing work done anywhere onboard for the whole of the now 10-month construction cycle.
Also, because the superstructure is already in place, every element that goes into the boat has to pass through the aft house doorway, making modular construction impossible. “Everything must be hand-worked into the boat, often using older techniques and traditional tools,” says Iglehart. “It takes a huge amount of talent.” Dettling, who once single-handedly built an 18-foot runabout from white cedar and teak using a minimum of power tools, welcomes this challenge to his team’s skills. “Building by hand naturally encourages you to work with the greatest attention to detail,” he explains.
Of course, this kind of care is only possible when the pace of the work is unhurried. Dettling told me that making money never played a part in his decision to build boats, so the normal pressures of running a business don’t apply. Observes Cherrington, “Some boatbuilders are forced to always look at profit margins, marketing deadlines. Ed made it clear from the beginning that our priorities are different, and he’s allowed us to build each boat to the highest standards and to the best of the abilities of everyone here.”
“We didn’t have a schedule for completing hull number one,” says Dettling. “By taking two years we got it right.” Gary Lasher, a fourth-generation woodworker who has worked for Dettling since 1993 adds, “It’s an unusual shop and a great crew. They know here that you can’t lean on craftsmen; you can’t push it too fast. The fact is, we do this kind of work because we love it. Just make it clear what you want and then leave us to it.”
The result is a yacht that John Deknatel, director of C. Raymond Hunt & Associates, describes as “consistently superb across the disciplines.” To Ed Dettling, the 51 is the direct product of decades of boating experience—“the boat that Barrie and I wanted but couldn’t find.” Every feature bears this out in a rare combination of practicality and elegance too painstaking to detail here. The configuration of engines, gensets, wiring, and tankage takes into account noise and heat isolation, good trim, and ease of access and maintenance. The deck is designed so you can walk bow to stern on one level protected by waist-high stainless steel handrails and features a teak-covered aft section for stylish open-air living. Below, the Dettling team has created an environment meant for long-range pleasure. Much of the interior—its teak joinery hand-finished with six coats of varnish—recalls the detailing of a fine sailing craft, but the spaces are more expansive and homelike, especially in the saloon, which is lined with large windows that bring in views whether you are seated or standing. Countless practical touches enhance every conceivable comfort and convenience and include a highly efficient holding-plate refrigerator, superior ventilation, and generous stowage.
It’s plain that for the past nine years Dettling has been building this boat for himself—over and over again. He and Barrie spend a minimum of five months a year on a Dettling 51; since the founding of the company, they have cruised hulls number one, three, six, and now 10. He is his own ideal customer, whose practical and aesthetic requirements are so comprehensive and insightful that if followed to the letter, they make a fine yacht inevitable. Dettling Yachts exists because he realized that between an ideal customer and an ideal cruiser you need an ideal company.
Dettling Yacht Company (410) 479-5101. Fax: (410) 479-5103.
This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.