In the late 1970s I moved from my home state of California to New Orleans to get my first shot at professional boat design. I was met with great skepticism by the shipyard workers at Halter Marine West End Division, as they were introduced to their new designer and all they saw was a 25-year-old, long-haired kid wearing flip-flops.
While I looked like a hippie, they viewed me as a nerdy academic, clearly out of my element in a commercial shipyard. Those old salts made my life pretty rough in the beginning and kidded me unmercifully for being a notoriously light drinker, ordering me milk whenever we went out to a bar after work.
During my first year, the yard was building a 65-foot Halter aluminum sportfish yacht and some of the interior finish work wasn’t coming out very good.
The galley countertop design called for an inlaid laminate design and the gaps between the pieces were totally unacceptable. I had the carpenters tear the work out several times until they got really pissed off with me, complaining it wasn’t possible to do it any better. The following morning they came aboard the boat and were surprised to see that the countertop inlay was perfect. Their attitude toward me changed that day in an instant when they realized I had stayed late the night before and had done the inlay myself.
They didn’t know that I had left California because I had been typecast in my role as a yacht carpenter, and had to move halfway across the country for a chance to be a designer. In fact, I had been a wood boatbuilder for several years and was probably a better carpenter than any of them. The notion that I was just a book-smart designer with no practical skills ended that day. They came to realize that their milk-drinking designer could also bench press 300 pounds and was not the helpless egghead they had imagined.
I related this story to a friend who worked as Halter’s chief weld inspector. He held his master’s degree in engineering and was generally viewed with academic contempt by the shipyard workers. He told me about the flak he was getting from a welder one day, after he had rejected his work, with the angry steel worker challenging him to do better. My friend asked to borrow his welding visor and proceeded to lay down several perfect welds.
The astonished welder had no idea my friend was a nuclear-certified welder who could make five passes on the back side of a pipe using a mirror, with all of them passing X-ray inspection. He had worked his way through college as a welder, on his way to becoming an engineer.
I wouldn’t give you much for a guy straight out of school with a bunch of advanced degrees, if he hasn’t spent any time crawling around the bilges of boats. Fortunately, the boat industry has plenty of professionals who started off doing the hard physical work of boatbuilding, before getting a formal education.
It is hard to judge who some of these people are, but give them a chance to show you their skills and I’ll bet they would surprise you. I always love borrowing a tool and showing the guys on the shop floor what this old boatbuilder can do.