August 28, 2011

The Bottom Line: Keeping on an even keel

A boatbuilder tacks to stay on course as the market shifts

By J. Hemmerdinger
Staff Writer

THOMASTON - Sailor Jean DeFontenay watched last week as workers prepared to reattach a metal ballast ball to the keel of his 62-foot sailing yacht the Baraka, which rested on wooden blocks and steel stands inside a sprawling garage near the St. George River in Thomaston.

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Carpenters Bill Harjula and Jeff Mank work on the hull of a new boat at Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding in Thomaston.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Lyman-Morse employees work on the Baraka, a racer-cruiser yacht built by the Thomaston-based company in 2006.

Additional Photos Below



HISTORY: Cabot Lyman, a sailor raised in Dover, Mass., bought Morse Boatbuilding Co. in 1978 and changed the name to Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding. Initially, the company converted lobster boat hulls to luxury motor yachts, but soon began building custom sailboats. In 2007, Lyman-Morse launched its largest boat ever, the 94-foot motor cruiser Electra.


EXECUTIVES: Cabot Lyman owns the company and two of his sons help manage it: Drew Lyman, 33, is general manager, and Zach Lyman, 37, lives in Washington, D.C., and manages research and development for the company's solar-power division.

WORTH NOTING: The recent economic recession led Lyman-Morse to diversify into new industries, such as renewable energy. The company builds the Powercube, a portable solar-powered generator the size of a refrigerator. The U.S. Army buys the units and uses them to power military operating bases overseas, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

FINANCIALS: Lyman expects the company will earn about $18 million in 2011, down from $22 million a few years ago. He added that Lyman-Morse remains profitable, thanks to efficiencies gained from a companywide restructuring.

DeFontenay had brought his ship, which needed maintenance, back to Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding, the yard that built and launched the Baraka in 2006.

"There's not many yards that can build boats like this," explained DeFontenay, a Frenchman living in Connecticut who has sailed the Baraka through the Caribbean and across the Atlantic Ocean.

The heyday of shipbuilding in coastal Maine has long passed, but Lyman-Morse continues launching custom yachts like the Baraka in Thomaston.

And thanks to a recent restructuring and a foray into solar power, the company has weathered a recession that battered the marine industry.

Still, boatbuilding remains the core of the company, which has some 90 employees and annual revenue of about $18 million.

"If you want to build a high-end boat in the U.S. and you don't call us, you haven't done your homework," said Cabot Lyman, 67, owner and CEO.

A longtime sailor who has circumnavigated the globe, Lyman launched Lyman-Morse with eight employees in 1978, when he bought land owned by the Morse Boatbuilding Co.

Initial projects included converting 46-foot lobster boat hulls into yachts and building 44-foot Seguin cruising sailboats.

In the last 30 years, Lyman-Morse has launched nearly 100 vessels, most ranging from roughly 25 feet to 60 feet in length.

The company makes sleek ocean-going sailboats like the Baraka and high-end motor cruisers like the 55-foot Whistler, which has twin jet-drive engines and can be controlled from the bridge with a computer mouse.

In 2006, the company launched its largest boat, the 94-foot motor cruiser Electra, which has twin 2,200-horsepower engines and cruises at 27 knots.

Marine architects design the hulls, and Lyman-Morse builds the boats. The process starts when the company's drafters and designers use computer software to create digital three-dimension models. They also lay out the cabins, many of which are trimmed with mahogany, and map each boat's electrical and mechanical systems.

"Everything you do on a custom boat is new and has never been done before," Lyman said. "That's what makes it fun."

After the boats are designed, workers create full-scale, plywood mock-ups to help visualize the finished product. Customers inspect the mock-ups, and often suggest changes.

Next, Lyman-Morse makes molds, which are used to create the major fiberglass components, like the hull and deck. The boats take shape once the fiberglass is laid.

Last week, workers sanded the underside of the fiberglass deck of a 63.5-foot sailing yacht under construction. The customer who ordered the boat, Lyman said, plans to sail it alone around the world.

Lyman-Morse also sells a host of other marine services, including sail rigging, metal fabrication, varnishing, painting and canvas and cabinet work.

The pinnacle years for Lyman-Morse were those leading up to the recent recession, when the boat business boomed.

"Everybody was getting spoiled," Lyman said of the period, when the company had more than 200 employees, $22 million in revenue and finished three or four boats a year.

In 2006, Lyman-Morse purchased a million-dollar, 110-ton travel lift boat hoist. The next year the firm completed work on a $4 million, 22,400-square-foot building. The 55-foot-tall structure can accommodate boats longer than 140 feet.

Then the recession hit, and boat sales across the industry plummeted.

According to data from trade group National Marine Manufacturers Association, 146,630 new traditional power and sail boats (excluding personal watercraft, canoes and kayaks) were sold in the United States in 2010, down 55 percent from a high of 327,100 in 2005.

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Additional Photos

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Glenn Smith, a carpenter at Lyman-Morse, fits a gasket around one of the company’s solar-powered cubes.


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