We’ve probably all had the urge, or the itch, if you prefer, to have that perfect boat custom made to our specifications, just for us. For most of us that dream remains just that, a dream. But to find out more about the subject, I stopped by Weaver Boatworks on the shore of Rockhold Creek in Deale, MD. I sat down with legendary sportfish builder Jim Weaver and asked him how the custom building process works in his shop.
“It usually starts with a phone call,” Jim explained. “Someone will call and say something like ‘I saw your 75-footer yesterday. How much does a boat like that cost?’ One word leads to another, and soon we’re sitting down in the office talking about boats. We usually start with the price, and the customer starts talking about how they’d like to change some things, customize the boat to their ideas. That’s when I explain that we use Belkov Yacht interiors and naval architect Donald Blount for design issues.
“If the guy just wants the same boat, same size, same engines, we don’t usually need design changes. If he wants to change the engines or change the hull size or whatever, then we go back to Blount for a redesign. We could add a few inches to the jigs and turn that boat into a 77-footer, but we don’t do that. We are very cautious about what we do. We have been very fortunate. Every one of our boats runs really well, and we want to maintain that reputation. Blount designs them well, and we build exactly what he designs.”
At this point I had to ask the inevitable question about money. I asked if he used a deposit and progress payments, based on major steps, such as completion of the hull, et cetera.
“We don’t do progress payments,” Jim replied. “Let’s say we get down to the point where we agree to build you this custom 77-footer for seven million and it will take 20 months. First you buy the engines, say 1.4 million. Then, we take the remainder and divide it by 20 and take one payment a month, and at the end the boat is finished and paid for. This system allows us to deal with all the things that go on early in the building process.
“For example, on the boat we have in the shop now, we’re just building the hull, but we’ve ordered the fuel tanks; we’re building the interior, and we’ve already paid for a lot of the design work. Everything on this boat is custom. It takes two months to get the fuel tanks made, for example, and if you don’t order them ahead of time, you won’t have the pieces on hand when you need them.”
I was curious about what would happen if he had an owner change his mind and cancel in mid-construction. Jim’s answer, “No, I haven’t had that happen, but if it did, I have the boat and I have a waiting list of potential buyers who would be glad to buy the partially completed boat. If I can tell the buyer he can have the boat in far less time than waiting for a complete new build, most would jump at it. The people who buy these big boats don’t like to wait; they want a boat now.”
When asked about the working relationship with Belkov Yachts, Jim said, “We work very well together. I’ve used Larry Belkov on every boat I’ve ever built. I pay him once a month, just like I get paid. He buys his materials and builds the interior in his shop in Annapolis, and we bring it down and install it in the boat when we’re ready. When Blount designs the jigs to build the hull, he first creates a Computer Assisted Drawing (CAD) which corresponds to the three dimensional shape of the hull. I build the hull to that CAD plan using a computer controlled router, and Belkov has the same CAD plan, so we are working with the same shape and space and when it comes time to install the interior, it fits right in.
“As long as everyone sticks to the computer generated 3D plan, it is so accurate that it works just fine. The biggest problem that some boat builders have is where the floors are going to be. That’s very important. You have to remember that you have a shape that has no square edges. If you put the floor in two inches off from the CAD 3D plan, you have big problems. To avoid that we establish a base line and take all our measurements from that line. While the hull is still upside down, the baseline is the highest point of the structure. All measurements are taken from that line. When we turn the hull right side up, we have already established the offset from the original baseline to the top of the jigs and bulkheads and that becomes our new baseline for all measurements.
“Unlike many builders we put our bulkheads in as we go, so we have an accurate starting point for measurement from the top of the bulkheads; so the floor goes exactly where it is supposed to, and everything else fits just right. As long as everyone does what they are supposed to the system works,” he concluded.
Jim then took me on a walk around the shop and gave me an introduction to the finer points of cold molded construction. The hulls are built upside down over a forest of plywood jigs cut by the computer-controlled router. Once all the jigs are in place, laminated Douglass fir engine stringers, sheer clamps, and battens are installed. Then, thin sheets of okoume plywood are bent to shape and glued together over the jigs. This skin is encapsulated in epoxy and fiberglass, producing a strong, light hull. Once that process is complete, the hull is turned over or “flipped” by a crane, the jigs are removed, the engines and interior are installed, and the interior finish is applied.
In the yard Jim showed me a custom boat he just completed and delivered this summer. Although she is not one of the opulent sportfish boats for which Weaver is justly famous, the Weaver 50 Loosen Up is a good illustration of how the custom building process works. According to Jim, her owner runs a Chesapeake Bay charter fishing operation and wanted a boat with very specific characteristics. He wanted her to have the traditional bay-built deadrise profile and layout, but he wanted her to be faster and more economical to run than traditional deadrise designs. She also had to meet all relevant Coast Guard inspection requirements.
At first glance Loosen Up does look like a typical bay-built charter boat. She has the classic profile, the sharp entry, flaring topsides, and vee bottom of a deadrise, but she is very economical to run and tops out at a speed of 39 mph, quite respectable for a 50 foot, single-engine boat.
Some of the innovations in her design include an aft-facing 900-hp Scania diesel engine driving a four-bladed prop through a vee drive. This installation keeps the weight of the engine and the boat’s center of gravity well aft. This keeps her at an efficient planing angle, even when her passengers move forward to stay out of the weather. Gone is the traditional bay-built full keel and skeg. These protect the propeller when working in very shallow water. They also create a lot of wetted surface and speed-killing drag and are not necessary on a boat designed to fish in deep water. A prop tunnel also reduces draft and flattens out the propeller shaft angle. By all reports, her owner is very happy with her.
I can’t say that my visit to Weaver Boatworks cured the itch, but my dreams of gorgeous custom yachts now seem to somehow also involve lottery tickets!
By Captain Rick Franke