Skip to main content

Better People for Better Boats

Lead Line — August 2003

The smartest companies treat boatbuilding like a trade.

I’ll never forget the first boat factory I toured. It was in 1983, and driving to the factory, I anticipated a modern industrial campus, a fancy sign, and plush offices. Instead, I got a dirt lot, choking dust, and a building that looked right out of Blade Runner. To minimize overhead, the owner had purchased a defunct cement plant.

I unsuccessfully tried a number of doors—they weren’t locked, just rusted shut—and finally walked into the production area, which was open on all sides. Amid rusted-out tanks and dangling cables, a motley crew of workers was building high-performance sportboats. Two were half-completed, and a third was being laid up.

A disheveled chap introduced himself and offered to show me around, warning me of the sticky pools of resin that littered the floor. We walked over to the mold, and I peered in. Five men wearing cut-off jeans, flip-flops, and stained and shredded T-shirts were slopping resin onto fiberglass cloth, but the fumes were so strong, the poor guys, who wore no protective gear, had to shut their eyes or look away as they worked.

When I commented that the workers seemed more concerned about catching their next breath than the job at hand, my host explained that lamination was such a disagreeable task that paid so poorly, only lowlifes would do it. Most left after six months, so it was pointless to invest in better working conditions or protective clothing.

At the time this struck me as a bit short-sighted, an impression solidified as I gained experience. I learned that building boats is highly labor-intensive, and that companies that failed to invest in people produced inferior boats. Even today, with CAD-CAM, computerized routers, and robotic sprayers, it still comes down to men and women on the line. If they work in a nice place for people who care about them and pay them a decent wage, they do better work.

Such boatbuilding sweatshops have become rare, and many builders now have employee programs so attractive, they not only retain people, they lure workers from other industries. The smartest builders realize that to get and keep the best workers, they must treat boatbuilding like a trade and create apprenticeship programs.

The most impressive such program I’ve seen is run by the Australian builder Riviera. In 1997 it developed a one-day-a-week apprenticeship for high school seniors. Students who successfully completed it could become full-time apprentices upon graduation. It’s been a big hit. Garry Appleby, Riviera’s training team coordinator, recently told Qantas Magazine, “Students don’t just have a job, they have a career. All of a sudden a lot of things they learned in school have relevance. Their respect for teachers and the school increases.” And Riviera gets a workforce that does things its way.

Indeed, the program benefits students, but it’s really about helping Riviera prosper. Managing director Wesley Moxley told me the program is a key component of Riviera’s growth strategy. “We can’t grow without good people,” he says, “and this is the best way to get and keep them.”

Do programs like these—underway at a number of American yards as well—mean better boats? All I can say is that I’d rather have someone who came through one build my boat than someone focused on catching his next breath.

This article originally appeared in the August 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.