Story and Photos By Daniel Harding
When I think of Cruisers Yachts, I think of South Florida. I think of bright blue water, a searing sun, the smell of sunscreen and the feeling of bare feet on a warm teak sole. A few years ago, I helped a family that was new to boating bring their 60-foot Cruisers to a rendezvous in Bimini and back. During that adventure, my appreciation for Cruisers as a builder of family-friendly boats was born.
Oconto, Wisconsin, is 1,601 miles away from Ft. Lauderdale as the crow flies, but it might as well be on another planet. I land in Green Bay the afternoon following a Packers home game—the first full-capacity game since kickoff of the pandemic. It feels as if the entire town is home nursing a hangover when I arrive. Restaurants and hotels in the shadow of the stadium are quiet as a church.
Early the next morning, Cruisers VP of Sales and Marketing Matt VanGrunsven arrives at my hotel in his pickup truck, and we begin the 30-minute drive to the factory. Somewhere in the middle of farm country we decide to make a detour to see the newest addition to the Cruiser’s brand: a factory in nearby Pulaski that was formerly the longtime home of Carver Yachts.
There is shared history between the boatbuilding giants. We roll past a slew of Tractor Supply stores when VanGrunsven reminds me that his father is a former president of Carver; it’s where VanGrunsven learned the art of boatbuilding and began his career.
The Carver factory had reopened just five months prior to my visit, and already Cruisers had hired back 150 employees—the backbone of their brand. The plant appears fully operational, with craftsmen working on Cruisers models in various stages of the build process. Look closely, and you can still see ghosts from Carver’s past hovering around the edges. I spot a sign overhead in the carpentry shop that quotes an article published in this magazine two decades ago: “The JOINERY is perfect.”
Outside the busy factory, however, Carver molds lay idle, exposed to the elements. There are no plans to revive the once-monstrously popular brand.
Back in Oconto, outboard boats and cruisers march methodically down the production line. I notice that a large percentage of those working the line are women. “We’ve always had a lot of women work here and in every different department,” says VanGrunsven. “That’s just part of our Midwest heritage.”
That heritage stretches back just a couple years shy of seven decades when the first Cruisers—wooden, outboard-powered boats—were built in the middle of a corn field. By the early 2000s the company employed as many as 1,500 people. Today, the battle to grow the Cruisers brand is limited not by financial backing; in May, MarineMax acquired Cruisers from KCS International for $63 million. They’re not limited by space (for now) thanks to the 225,000-square-foot facility in Pulaski. They’re certainly not limited by their longtime workers who clock in at 5 a.m. on bitterly cold, impossibly dark winter mornings. No, for now, the biggest challenge appears to be a battle to attract new employees.
As we drive through the countryside, signs on the side of buildings promise cash bonuses and various sundry incentives designed to pull at the working class. VanGrunsven has had to shift some of his marketing focus to billboards, radio ads and direct mailings to attract new workers. It’s not an issue that’s unique to the Midwest—not by a long shot—but it feels like an exceptionally raw issue here.
VanGrunsven and I make our way to a white-cap-topped Green Bay to check out the new 34 GLS. A versatile weekender with more seating arrangements than I’ve seen on a boat this size, I can’t help but think this would be another perfect boat to blast over to Bimini in.
I feel fortunate to have met the hard-working, unfailingly friendly people who bring Cruisers Yachts to life. I also feel fortunate that I’ve gotten to see the end result of their labor: a platform on which families can come together and build something of their own … memories.