OEMs and fabricators—partners in progress
As the marine vessel market becomes ever more competitive, the winners in the industry will be fabricators who stay on top of current and future design trends—offering innovative design solutions that go beyond service to deliver an exceptional product for both the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) with whom they partner and the consumers who will be enjoying the ultimate end products.
Some marine shops have direct relationships with OEMs, providing canvas and upholstery work for new vessels. However, nearly every fabricator has an indirect relationship with OEMs, given that new boat trends often set consumer expectations for upgrades, refits and aftermarket additions.
Gold Coast Yachts Inc., a small custom boat builder based in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, has been building boats and yachts for 33 years and has just finished its 125th vessel. Jeffrey Bisson, a designer at the company, says the Gold Coast Yachts team does have direct relationships with some local marine shops, but there are a limited number of local vendors to choose from. He says the company does what it can to supply locally or from the Caribbean island chain as appropriate.
“We have a local canvas shop for covers, awnings and some sail repair. And we source sails off island,” Bisson says. “We also have a long-standing relationship with Doyle Sail in Barbados.”
These days, Gold Coast Yachts has been running a backlog of new builds and rarely takes on big refit work. The company’s process involves about three to four vessels per year, with one in completion stage, one in assembly stage, one in component construction stage and one in design.
“We are generally working with existing clients, three of the four per year being repeat business. We are operating on a two-year lead right now and our backlog is about five vessels with a line of construction slots behind that,” Bisson says. “Essentially, if you came to me today and said, ‘I will buy the next vessel you can build,’ I would be discussing a delivery date in 2020.”
Rewards for long-term loyalty
Great Lakes Boat Top in Vonore, Tenn., works with more than 40 OEMs including Sea Ray, Boston Whaler®, Skier’s Choice Inc., Scout™, NauticStar®, Monterey Boats and Landau, to name a few.
“We’ve established these relationships with boat manufacturers through sales calls, trade shows, word-of-mouth marketing, and by providing 61 years of service,” says Jim Wilson, president of Great Lakes Boat Top. “A boat manufacturer will give us a concept and material to use and we work directly with the design from the boat manufacturer. We have a full staff of designers that will design the product and present it to the customer.”
Establishing a partnership with an OEM also has proven vital for Costa Marine Canvas and Enclosures in Egg Harbor City, N.J. The company is an exclusive interior fabricator for Viking Yachts, as well as a handful of other custom yacht building companies such as Weaver Boatworks and F&S Yachts.
“We work with an interior designer on all of the Viking builds,” says Chris Costa, owner of Costa Marine. “This designer is primarily focused on yacht interiors. We will do basic design consultation in-house.”
When it comes to the design process, fabricators and manufacturers glean inspiration from their customers and rely on tried-and-true suppliers.
For Bisson and his team, this often includes reviewing boating magazines brought in by customers who ask if they can incorporate a design element into their new build. This collaborative process is a win-win for both customers and the design team. “We are not in a position to get to the big shows often enough to really be at the leading edge,” Bisson says.
Gold Coast Yachts has brought much of its fabrication in-house. For the company’s in-house supply pipeline, Bisson says the company will generally start in the Miami area if it is an item Gold Coast Yachts has never sourced, because it simplifies shipping.
“With our local suppliers, we either have a relationship or we will reach out to a local one if we have not used them before,” Bisson says. “We have to take a leap of faith at some point with a new supplier to see if they deliver on time at a quoted price.”
According to Laura Shackleford, interior designer at Tiffany Yachts Inc. in Burgess, Va., the majority of the company’s marine fabrication is also in-house, and it primarily uses outside vendors for aluminum welding work.
When selecting fabrics for such things as enclosures, tops, shade structures and exterior fabrics, Shackleford has materials that are her “go-to” favorites for different applications.
“We use Sunbrella®, Stamoid®, and Steadfast2™ for tops and enclosures,” Shackleford says. “The customer leads the decision on which one to use.”
When working with a customer on cushions, Shackleford usually leans toward Sunbrella upholstery fabrics first.
“I think Sunbrella is a good choice for interior use on a boat because of the cleanability,” Shackleford says. “If customers cannot find something they like in the Sunbrella line, then we look into other upholstery fabrics. For exterior vinyl cushions, I have been using a lot of Seabrook marine vinyl in shades of white and tan.”
For Bisson, Sunbrella also continues to be his preferred choice in fabric. “It offers consistent colors and it just works,” he says.
Shackleford’s shop is off the beaten path, so fabric representatives don’t visit very often. She relies on the internet for research and reviews, and she also orders a lot of samples.
“Some of the vendors have gotten very good at photographing fabrics,” Shackleford says. “If I am really stuck, I go to the designers’ market in Richmond, Va. They have fabric samples from all the top vendors and are open to the trade.”
Sticking with neutrals for now
Marquis-Larson Boat Group, a recreational boat-building company in Pulaski, Wis., primarily uses time-tested marine fabrics that can withstand the elements.
“For interior materials we may or may not use a marine vendor, but for exterior materials we have to,” says Sam Shimanek, a designer at Marquis-Larson. “In the beginning stages of design, we like to get dealer input.”
Shimanek says that in some cases customers may pick out their own interior materials, but generally Marquis-Larson tries to keep a more neutral palette so that it appeals to more people. This allows customers to customize their vessel by adding color with their own pillows or decor.
“And when picking out materials we like to not only look at the color but also how it feels,” Shimanek says. Performance attributes such as superior stain resistance and ease of care are key, but the soft hand and sensorial experience is also a factor for the company.
So how does a smaller supplier or a fabrication shop establish a relationship with a boat manufacturer such as Marquis-Larson?
“By either contacting us and seeing if an appointment can be set up or by going to trade shows,” Shimanek says. “Sometimes word of mouth is how we find vendors. We are always looking for new products.”
Maura Keller is a freelance writer from Plymouth, Minn.