Thomaston, Maine, is equal parts peaceful and bone-chilling cold in the winter. Without a thaw in sight, tourism all but shutters, and only locals are left, trudging down the town’s main street, bundled up against the cold. From the outside, Lyman-Morse appears quiet as well. Inside their oversized barn-style doors, however, is another world entirely.
Some 200 years ago, wooden schooners were built at the Lyman-Morse site. The hard-won craftsmanship and carpentry skills from that era have undoubtedly been absorbed into the DNA of the current workforce.
When many, myself included, think of Lyman-Morse, images of striking, classically styled sailboats and motoryachts come to mind. That’s fair enough—custom yachts like the Hood 57 LM are very much the builder’s calling card. Under the leadership of Drew Lyman, however, the builder has expanded to become Lyman-Morse Technologies. Now, the company is using its cutting-edge capabilities and skilled employees to win business in sectors ranging from architecture and hotel construction to wind tunnels and systems that support large-scale solar energy production.
It’s this mix of boat building heritage and forward-looking technology that attracted Silicon Valley startup Navier and its co-founder Dr. Sampriti Bhattacharyya to the iconic yard in Midcoast Maine to help realize its most ambitious project yet: An electric-powered … foiling … carbon-fiber … autonomous boat of the future.
When searching for a builder to bring the Navier project to reality, Bhattacharyya says, “few had that experience of working with high-tech composites. And they’re very well respected, and they have very good in-house capabilities. I mean, the team has a range of experience, and they are outfitted with all the machines and tools. So, when I visited the facility, I was very, very impressed.”
Named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30, Bhattacharyya’s résumé is as decorated as her ambitions are large. She earned her PhD in mechanical engineering at MIT in 2017. She then went on to launch HydroSwarm, a technology company that built autonomous underwater drones to chart the unexplored depths of the ocean. While answering my questions about her professional résumé she neglects to mention her work with NASA. Yes, NASA barely made her highlight reel!
Even with her impressive credentials, or perhaps because of them, Bhattacharyya knew that she couldn’t create a revolutionary new boat without a strong team at her side. She started by sourcing allies in her Silicon Valley orbit.
“Our founding team is just exceptional,” says Bhattacharyya. “You have to understand, a project like this requires people with an array of backgrounds. My co-founder and I are both from the aerospace field as well as ocean robotics. So we have a very strong founding team and, in our case, we also brought on [naval architect and engineer] Paul Beaker. From the get-go, we have the best of the best working together.”
With a strong core of 20 other engineers assembled, Bhattacharyya next needed a partner with experience in creating custom, high-tech boats.
For such an ambitious project, you might think that the first place you would look for a builder is the Netherlands, but that was far from reality. Her time at MIT introduced her to the charm and character of rugged Maine. She even contemplated an alternative reality where she herself would try to find work within the Maine maritime industry. Her love of the Pine Tree State and a passion-filled presentation from the Lyman-Morse team sealed the symbiotic partnership.“I love the community in Maine,” says Bhattacharyya. “And there is very big potential of marrying opportunities there, whether that is aquaculture, boating and so on. Maine has this rich history of old building as well. I think that has also played some role in decision-making. It’s a great community. It’s a great hub for building our initial run there.”
If Drew Lyman, President and Owner of Lyman-Morse, is anxious about how ambitious this project is, you wouldn’t know it from talking to him. That’s because he’s been here before. In 2016, Bertram sought his company’s expertise in building the first in Bertram 35s. “Where we really shine is in the tech implementation side of things,” says Lyman. “We do a good job with that stuff. Using the Lyman-Morse brand to reinvent their line. It’s a really dynamic group and we clicked.”
Lyman emphasized that in recent years, his company has expanded from custom boats to a myriad of different fields. “When I do talks I often spend time showing the beautiful Maine craftsmanship. Equal time is spent talking about our working relationship with the Department of Defense. Maine boatyards are known for their craftsmanship, and that’s ingrained in our crew. Then you add a younger group of engineers. A lot of people think you have to go to Europe for tech; we can go toe-to-toe with the Dutch yards, especially because we’re flexible and can adapt to a need.”
While Lyman-Morse has been tapped to get Navier off the ground—or if you prefer, atop the sea—Bhattacharyya hopes to one day move the construction of these boats to a location that can turn out a higher volume, something Lyman is understanding of.
“They have a book of orders already. We need to get them to volume-based building pretty quickly on hulls one to 10. If you want 30 to 40 to 100 boats a year, you have to look somewhere else.”
For now, reservations have been taken on the first 15 hulls, which they hope to begin delivering this fall. If the stars align, Bhattacharyya says that she would like to showcase Navier to the world at the upcoming Ft. Lauderdale show.
Perhaps as ambitious as a foiling, carbon-fiber day boat is the price point she hopes to sell the first boats for: $300,000.
“The way we look at the world is, if you reduce the fuel cost by making efficient vessels, and reduce the labor cost by making it autonomous, you’re basically building a very cost-competitive, new mode of transportation,” says Bhattacharyya. “And that’s really the end goal. I’m excited for boaters to experience a new kind of boating that is quiet, sustainable, but also really great as far as the ride quality goes. It would be pretty cool if in 10 years we see fleets that are scalable and carrying people and goods again, and in a sustainable way.”
But ambitions rarely meet reality. Over the last few years, I’ve seen other electric and foiling boat projects fail to be viable for a number of major builders. I ask Bhattacharyya what makes Navier different and will allow them to be successful when so many others have failed?
She takes a moment before explaining that at their core, Navier is not a boat builder but a technology company.
“If you break down the problem,” she says, “[creating easy-to-use foiling boats] is a control systems problem. You need to build a really great control system, and that really comes down to software at its core. The software that ties literally every part of the system—how they’re syncing together from control to propulsion.”
There are still facets of this boat and its systems that are being kept under wraps for the time being, but my sense after talking to Bhattacharyya and Lyman is that they’re all-in on building this boat of the future. Maybe most surprising of all is that they plan to test the first boats this summer.
Before hanging up with Lyman, I ask a question that’s nagging at me: Is this something boaters are ready for?
“I think it’s seriously viable,” he replies without hesitation. “I think what people are looking for in yachting is the ability to have a high-tech boat. I think the Silicon Valley world will love this.”
He goes on to admit that this type of vessel will most certainly not be for everyone.
“Look, technology makes people nervous. This is a tech system; it’s not what they’re used to. There are no filters to change. Look how long it took Ford to build an electric truck. They have that stigma to battle. But if you look at where automotive is going, you’re not going to stop this.”