The Maine Difference
THE EDITORS ROLL UP THEIR SLEEVES AND REPORT TO WORK AT SABRE YACHTS, WHERE WE LEARN ABOUT BOATBUILDING AND THE APPEAL OF DOWNEAST CRAFTSMANSHIP. IT’S TIME TO CLOCK IN. BY DANIEL HARDING JR.
The editors join the line at Sabre Yachts, where they learn firsthand the special craftsmanship that goes into each yacht.
TThe sun is just rising over the mountains. It’s a still summer morning. We drive along a sleepy Maine road in the town of Raymond and pull into a gravel parking lot beside a large building. A salty looking, veteran employee raises the flags—the American flag, Maine state flag and lastly the blue Sabre flag, the type I’ve seen at boat shows for years. Yet, we’re a long way from the glitz and glamour of a Lauderdale or Miami show.
The bell rings. It’s 6:00 a.m. and employees file through large garage doors. At 6:01, the morning air is filled with the scream of a bandsaw, the whirl of a buffer and the thud of a hammer. It’s been 13 hours since these workers and the Power & Motoryacht team clocked out the day before. They didn’t skip a beat. They’re on a 10day build cycle, meaning not that it takes 10 days to build a boat, but that a new boat is completed and moves off the line every 10 days. The schedule is as ambitious as this workforce and the facility allow. There’s no room, time or patience for staffers who don’t show up and give it their all.
Over the next two days, myself, Managing Editor Simon Murray and Digital Director John Turner will be working alongside this seasoned team, doing our best to learn how Sabres are built. The man in charge of production—and our boss for the next few days—is Don Wentworth. With a graying Fu Manchu, camo ball cap and safety glasses, he physically blends in with the 100-plus employees. But his status on the company totem pole is revealed in the way the other workers go out of their way to greet him. And rightfully so. He’s been walking the shop floor since he started with the company in 1985.
“I started off in the woodshop, but there’s not a job in the shop that didn’t used to be mine,” Wentworth explains, as he walks us through one of the busiest parts of the building. His story isn’t unique at Sabre, where almost every member of the management team has worked his or her way up from the shop floor. Not only is he in charge of all the employees on the Sabre payroll who are working
on the boats, he’s also responsible for the ones you don’t see—the next generation of boatbuilders.
Wentworth spends a fair amount of time visiting various trade schools trying to recruit, well, recruits. He says there has been a significant decrease in the number of young people who are willing to pick up a trade. “There are a lot fewer people today who can build you a house, fix your plumbing or your vehicle. But I am starting to see that shift; I’m seeing the trades become popular again.” Wentworth is also working with the four high schools in driving range of the factory; he hopes to get kids interested in boatbuilding by explaining that Sabre needs skilled employees not only in the woodshop and for hull infusing; this company needs people to incorporate new technologies and chemistry into the building process. Yes, chemistry.
Standing in the belly of a Sabre 45 with Wentworth, he briefs me on how to tab the fuel tanks to the hullsides. I thought pouring resin on fiberglass was going to be a mindless task. The next thing I know, he’s mixing the resin and talking about monomers, polymers and catalysts. All this chemistry talk sends me into a cold sweat, with flashbacks of a high school class that I try hard to forget.
Tabbing the tank requires me to brush resin on both sides of five layers of fiberglass mat and place the mat on top of the tank and along the hull. I then use a roller to press out any air bubbles that might affect the seal. No matter how careful you are, it’s a sticky job.
Air is an enemy in various components of the build. Take, for example, the resin-infusion process. We watch as an employee preps for the infusion by pumping air through the hull first, taking his time with an extremely sensitive meter, checking every inch for possible leaks. Anything but a perfect seal will allow air into the hull.
We watch as deep red resin is sucked from a barrel and spread into the hull—not unlike a Hollywood murder scene. After the hull is sealed for the infusion process (which can take hours if there’s a leak) it usually takes only 12 minutes and then a day to cure. It takes between 25 and 30 gallons of resin to fully infuse the Sabre 45.
When you look around a Sabre at a boat show, you’d be forgiven if you thought most of the boat was the result of work done by precision robots that mold the parts in great detail. While there are a pair of CNC routers for some templating, the majority of the work is done with hands and muscle. Take, for example, a simple—or what appears to be a simple—window frame: Eight separate pieces of wood are required to build just one. And no one knows how to build these frames better than Scott Brown. He joined Sabre in 2001 and began crafting window frames in 2009. At the time of our visit he’s built exactly 2,803 frames. “That’s all?” I joke. He pulls out his notebook filled with small, neat pencil notes. He’s logged each one; it’s all right there in gray and white.
A majority of our time is spent in the woodshop, which is fitting, considering the work produced here is considered the hallmark of the builder. We’re tasked with helping craft a salon table. It should be one of the easier pieces, I think to myself. After all, the tables are fairly flat. We take turns
sanding, routing the edges and planing the wood. It takes hours, especially the way we’re doing it. I would totally understand if the craftsmen around us lost their patience, but that never happens. Despite our fumbling, I think they appreciate how seriously we take each job.
It takes us the better part of an hour to sand and sculpt a compass inlay for the table, but by the end it’s looking pretty sharp.
We follow the table-making process to where it’s finished with a coat of epoxy. We walk through a varnishing department that’s sectioned off from the dusty woodshop and into a room where we meet Lori Clark.
Clark started at Sabre six years prior with no carpentry experience, and has since learned how to build tables that come out looking so beautiful I’d sooner hang them on a wall than actually eat off them.
“At first, I would get frustrated, but now this is a piece of cake,” she says as she pours epoxy from a measuring cup onto a taped-off tabletop. The measurements on the side of the cup are for show at this point; she has the ratio of resin to hardener down by heart.
She strikes a torch and waves it back and forth above the curing table. You have to look extremely close to see tiny air bubbles rising to the surface (again, air in this case is bad), leaving behind a mirror finish. Simon and I take turns wafting the torch above the table. As with most jobs at Sabre, it’s harder than it looks. Clark takes the torch back and gives it a once-over after I thought we were done. It takes her between five and 10 hours over the course of four days to seal a single table. “I’m a perfectionist. I assume kids are going to crawl under the table and see a mistake. The bottoms of my tables look as good as the tops,” she says.
You can’t talk about attention to detail and pride of workmanship without talking about the electricians, including 25-year company veteran Tim Lorrain. (His brother also works the line and has been with Sabre for 35 years.) Lorrain shows us a series of deep green bins weighed down with hundreds of pounds of wiring that will make its way into a new model. He needs to snake wires through very tight confines, and that’s one of the most shocking aspects of his job. A trickledown effect from Sabre’s sailboat building heritage, the company places a big emphasis on not wasting a single inch of space in its boats.
It’s often said that the true definition of integrity is doing the right thing when no one else is looking. By that definition, Lorrain has it in spades. Even though the majority of the wiring in the boat will never, and could never, be seen, he is adamant that it get done neatly.
“My first month on the job I couldn’t work a screwdriver. Now, I’ve had a hand in everything,” says Lorrain. “It’s always a good feeling to see a boat roll out the door. It may have given you a headache but it’s a real source of pride. You need to make sure you have everything, from the bilge pump to the eighty individual lights, wired correctly.”
His drive to do the job right, he says, comes down from the top of the company; today, that’s President Daniel Zilkha. “Daniel gave us a bonus one year when it was freezing cold, to make sure that everyone could heat their homes,” says Lorrain. “Then there was the time he gave us a bonus when we saw a spike in gas prices. He really cares about us.”
“We’re so blessed to be as popular as we are and to have a backlog of orders,” says Wentworth as we are wrapping up at the yard. “Yeah, there’s a little bit of chest-beating, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s unfortunate, but a lot of times you’re defined by what you do. I don’t want to defame what anyone else does for a living, but I have no problem at all telling people I build pleasure yachts from thirty-eight to sixty-six feet,” he explains, as workers file out for the day, many of whom are on their way to a side job. “It’s something to be proud of.”
Thanks to the small amount of time we have spent in a variety of departments, we have a taste of that pride. We got our hands covered in resin tabbing fuel tanks to a hull. We shadowed one worker as he installed a pod drive and discovered that no matter how advanced marine propulsion has become, it all starts with a man and a chain. We worked in the carpentry shop, where we learned the intricacies of putting together salon and cockpit tables, a job that takes three people numerous days to complete and requires a whole lot of patience. We learned all this and so much more.
I’ve been aboard countless Sabre yachts before, and always had a level of respect for the product the builder puts out. Now, after two days on the line, that’s all changed.
The next time I see a Sabre, I’ll look at the window trim and see Scott Brown pouring epoxy into the corners with a paper Dixie cup, the same way he always does. I’ll run my hand on a salon table and remember Lori Clark and her blowtorch. I’ll turn on a stateroom light and wonder if Tim Lorrain wired it. I’ll think of the hard-working craftsmen who punch the clock at 6:00 a.m. in Raymond and leave it all on the shop floor.
I’ll never look at a Sabre the same way again.