Even with a long and rich history in these parts, the boat building industry is at the mercy of the economy like most any other business. Perhaps even more so, as boating is generally a hobby and a luxury – related expenditures are the first to be cut when prospects worsen and the last to recover when they improve. The companies that weathered the recent storm, however, are poised to thrive in the recovery. Leaner and more diversified, several have shared their optimism for the upcoming year and beyond. A jewel like Narragansett Bay and generations of experience and skill will preserve this region at the forefront of the industry for quite some time. But like the schooners you’ve seen at the Ocean State Tall Ships Festival, it takes more than one sail to keep the boat moving.
The International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS) in Newport is turning out a new generation of tradesmen to carry the torch. IYRS offers a 20-month wooden Boat Building and Restoration Program, a six-month program in Marine Systems (electronics, engines and other technology) and a six-month program in Composites Technology. Most of the 56 students currently enrolled are from the Rhode Island area, but international students from Japan, Korea, France, Germany and Greece are a testament to the school’s global reputation. “In order to thrive here in Rhode Island, the industry needs a well-trained workforce. So there’s a big effort to draw talented young people to the industry,” says IYRS public relations contact Cynthia Goss. Students intern with local companies, and 85% of last year’s graduates had jobs before graduation – most of them in the Rhode Island area.
IYRS works closely with the industry to tailor the curriculum to current needs, and this has led to opportunities outside marine applications. For example, boat builders who have expertise working with composite technology are sought out for myriad projects. As IYRS VP of marketing Susan Daly explains, “We’re training people to work with this technology that’s not just in our boats, but our cars, tennis racquets and skis.”
Industry support has also come at the state government level. In 1992, the General Assembly eliminated sales taxes on boats and related services, “a boon to keeping companies here that might have gone elsewhere,” claims Hinckley’s Roe O’Brien. This summer, Newport will host an America’s Cup event from June 26 to July 1, the final stop on the World Series before the America’s Cup in San Francisco. According to Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC) executive director Keith Stokes, in preparation for the event, Fort Adams is receiving a $4,000,000 upgrade to provide the international crowd with a “world class sailing destination.”
Improvements are being made to the area’s utilities, docks and amenities. Stokes also mentions that re-development of the surplus Navy land on Aquidneck Island is targeted toward expanding the marine trade, citing “their exclusive use... without the residential/hotel, lifestyle uses that prices [the industry] out of other places.”
With the East Bay’s recreational focus and the West Bay’s large-scale industrial ports, both tourism and manufacturing are strategic initiatives to be supported by infrastructure improvements and marketing campaigns. Says Stokes, “We are looking to support our existing businesses, and attract new ones.”