Boatbuilders in the right places are busy
By Michael Crowley
Chris Van Peer has been fielding numerous inquiries from fishermen who want a new steel boat. "Some of them," he says, "want a boat built right now."
Van Peer, who builds boats one at a time at Van Peer Boatworks in Fort Bragg, Calif., can't accommodate them.
"I can't do it right now," is his reply, because there's a troller under construction. Once the troller goes in the water, Van Peer's crew will start building a crabber.
The size of the crabber hasn't been determined, but it will probably be 58 feet. "Fifty-eight feet, that's what they want up there," Van Peer says. This particular boat is going to a Dungeness crabber who will fish in Washington, but Van Peer's referring to Alaska and its Bering Sea cod-pot fishery, which favors boats under 60 feet, as well as Alaska salmon fishermen who are looking to replace older boats.
Nearly all the way across the country in Coden, Ala., Williams Fabrication works on a couple of boats at a time. The boatyard's owner, Dale Williams, is also getting inquiries from scallopers who want to have boats built. "I've found a spot within New England and have a couple of customers that have been real good to us," he says.
A developing market for new boats might seem counterintuitive to most people, given challenges facing much of the industry. One hears about boats being sponsoned and lengthened, and some conversion work, but discussion nowadays doesn't usually revolve around new construction.
Indeed, there are market and regulatory forces that keep fishermen from building new boats. The price of boatbuilding steel has about doubled in the past 10 or 15 years. Copper, used in wiring and elsewhere, has also gone up dramatically, and the cost of new diesels is almost certain to cause sticker shock if a fisherman hasn't priced an engine in the past decade.
In addition, many boat owners may feel compelled to stick with their current vessel if it is grandfathered by existing rules in their fishery.
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