The Block Island Times

Writer's Block: Building a great American boat

By J.V. Houlihan, Jr. | Sep 21, 2013

Hinckley Yachts evolved from a company that built work and fishing boats up in Southwest Harbor, Maine. The company began in 1920, and after the war started building sailboats. Over the years Hinckley has become a brand which exemplifies a “Can Do” American attitude. Whether you’re a boat person or not, all one has to do is look at a Bermuda 40, or a Talaria 48 Picnic boat, and between the aesthetic and craftsmanship you’ll understand that you’re looking at a work of art. A Hinckley speaks to something deep inside all of us. It speaks of a job well done.

Jim McManus, CEO of Hinckley Yachts

Jim McManus sat down with me for lunch, and before we even ordered our burgers we got right in each other’s heads about boat design and the future of Hinckley. Jim’s a sharp guy, a Yale and Harvard MBA guy. Beyond that, Jim loves boats like I do. Also, Jim has a degree of humility which is gratifying to see. He knows that he has a responsibility to be a steward of this iconic company, and to do all he can to bring Hinckley into the future as a thriving, truly American builder of beautiful boats.

In 2009, the economy took a hit and so did many boat builders; Hinckley was one of them. Then, the Mark III Picnic boat sold 16 boats before the first one was commissioned. The Mark III became the most successful product in the company’s history. McManus says, “We were lucky that we were ready to meet the demand.” He knows that there are many things involved in the success of the Hinckley brand: innovative design, marketing and most importantly, craftsmanship. The Hinckley brand has set a very high bar for itself and this requires tremendous introspection for the entire company.

Jim McManus and I talk about our boats as being a place where we stay connected to ourselves; metaphorically speaking, our boats are kind of like a shed, where we can tinker with things. We talk about the value of something as being something that is an ongoing thing. We agree that a person can evolve and grow with his boat. Moreover, we agree that besides performance, we want the boat to be fun.

Next to where we were eating lunch, stands Newport’s International Yacht Restoration  (IYRS) School. It is here that Jim’s eyes light up as he talks about having partnered with IYRS a couple of years ago. “The first thing the students build there is a Beetle Cat; these little boats are perfect, like Hinckleys. They have the design, engineering, craftsmanship and aesthetic of a perfect sailing craft,” he says. So, the arc of beginning with building a perfect little Beetle Cat to a Hinckley 70 Sou’wester makes perfect sense. McManus knows full well that Hinckley will create its own future with its current designers and future work force.

Jim McManus reveals much about how he feels about the building of boats when he talks about the students at IYRS. “These guys who are there, who have found themselves there after maybe doing something totally different, and discovered that they really want to be at IYRS, will make the difference in the long view.” Furthermore, he talks about the patience which goes into building a boat. “If a guy does a glue-up and clamps something together, he needs to let the glue dry before moving on,” he said. Once a guy asked him when a certain build would be complete. Jim told the guy that “she’ll be done when the guys are finished building her.” Patience is a big part of building a Hinckley — and a Beetle Cat.

The legacy of Hinckley Yachts is powerful. Jim knows he’s a cog in the wheel of this expanding company. This is where a sense of purpose appears with Jim McManus’ words: “When guys come to work, they realize that they are building a Hinckley, and there’s a responsibility to the collective effort of what came before us.” With the soul of the company in mind, and a “Can Do” mindset, Hinckley Yachts will charge into its future and continue to build extraordinary American boats.

Nick Bellico, Apprentice at IRYS

Nick Bellico is a student at IRYS, the International Restoration Yacht School, which is based in Newport (about two hundred yards from where Jim and I are eating our lunch). Nick has been sailing since he was eight. He won the Junior Gold Olympics at age fifteen while racing on 420’s. Additionally, he worked at the University of Rhode Island Sailing Center and did some boat maintenance there under the guidance of Norm Windus. At age 22, Nick found himself, like many people his age, wondering about his future. While surfing the internet he Googled IYRS. It changed his life.

At the Point Judith docks Nick told me, “As soon as I walked into IYRS to check out the school, I knew something very special was happening to me.” That day Nick found his place in the world. His first year as a student at IRYS concluded with building his first boat, a small sailboat called a Beetle Cat. Nick’s mom bought it for him — needless to say she was proud of her son. A new Beetle Cat from IYRS costs $11,000 — Nick got a student discount.

“When I haul the boat this winter, I’m putting my mom’s name on the transom Lisa Marie,” he said. Nick has a winning smile and a laid-back way about him; however, when it comes to discussing the building of boats, his eyes light and he’s all business.

“I’m down at Mystic Seaport doing work on the Charles W. Morgan; we’re building the lead ballast cradles in the hold of the ship now, and it’s amazing that I’m working on this American artifact.” The Morgan is the last square-rigged whaling ship in the world. She was launched in New Bedford on July 21, 1841. It has been a five-year restoration, costing $7 million. Nick is part of the team bringing her back to her original condition, and she will sail next summer. “The caliber of the shipwrights I’m apprenticing with is extraordinary,” says Nick. “I get up in the morning with a smile on my face knowing I’m going to work on the Morgan, doing whatever it takes to restore her.”

Finally, I asked Nick where he wants to be in 5 years. “I’d love to be building American yachts,” he said with a big smile on his face. Like Hinckley, Nick will be ready to charge into his future.

Nota Bene

Nick Bellico worked at a local coffee shop before enrolling at IYRS. Point Judith freight boss Brian Cox hired Nick’s brother Mike a couple of years ago. I observed the hiring. Cox said matter of factly, “If you can work like your brother [Nick], you’ll do fine here.” He was right. ‘Nuff said.

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