The art of shipbuilding has taken on many forms and advances over the millennia. From the ancient Egyptians traversing the Nile River to new world colonists navigating the Port of Boston, our fascination with being on the water has never waned.
While we no longer bind reeds and twine to create our watercraft, the rich heritage of boat building still requires a skilled touch in an industry that generates more than $170 billion of economic impact annually in the United States.
Volusia County is home to nearly a dozen boat manufacturers. Among them are some of the world’s best-known, large-scale, corporately-owned builders coexisting alongside privately-owned, small builders with a long history in the industry.
In May 2021, Boat.com ranked the Edgewater-based manufacturer Boston Whaler #2 in the world for their vast array of models, high resale value and their ‘unsinkable legend,’ which dates back to the 1960s.
Employing 1,600 people between Volusia and Flagler counties and producing as many as 4,000 watercraft a year, Boston Whaler is synonymous with quality and safety.
“Whaler also boasts 15 consecutive Consumer Satisfaction Index Awards and has won seven NMMA Innovation awards in the past decade alone,” writes Boat.com fishing and boating expert Lenny Rudow.
Julia Levesque, senior human resources business partner for the Volusia-based Boston Whaler Group, Inc., attributes the accolades to a few simple but important elements.
“Our long-lasting reputation in the boating industry, quality boats, great customer service and our focus on safety,” she said.
With an eye toward the future, Boston Whaler is continuing to expand. There has been an increased demand for watercraft over the past few years, and in response, the company opened a second manufacturing plant in Flagler County in 2021.
“We are meeting our staffing goals. [In our Flagler plant] we have over 300 employees currently and are looking at 400-450 employees by the end of 2022,” said Levesque.
Whether it’s going 244 miles an hour on a Mystic Powerboat off-shore catamaran or spending a relaxing day along Volusia County’s endless miles of waterway on a Bay Craft skiff, there’s a builder for every boater.
Launched in 2001, Everglades Boats employs 300 team members and produces 300 watercraft a year. Krista Graves, vice president of human resources for the Edgewater-based boatbuilder, says their leadership team is committed to building on Volusia County’s strong maritime history.
A key driver of the company’s success has been its investment in local talent.
“The foundation of our culture is our people, both current and future, and our community partnerships through the Volusia Manufacturers Association, Daytona State and local organizations allow us the opportunity to support their, and in turn, our company’s growth,” she said.
As a smaller but influential boat manufacturing operation in Volusia County, SŌLACE Boats sees its potential for sustained growth in a new generation of boaters.
Owners Stephen and Sarah Dougherty have maintained the exceptional quality Volusia County boat manufacturing is known for, launching SŌLACE Boats in 2019 with 35 employees.
A resurgence of interest in watercraft over the past two years as a result of the pandemic has brought an economic boom for marine suppliers and boat manufacturers.
“AllSalt Marine moved their company here from Vancouver and relocated their employees. We’re seeing a lot of suppliers either move to this area because they rep in the area or they’re relocating business here,” said Sarah Dougherty, who shared that their own business has tripled in the last six months.
“COVID did something for the boat industry that no amount of marketing could have ever done.”
“It put people on boats because they couldn’t go on vacation. They wanted to be outside, and they went and bought boats. During COVID, we put kids in boats, and that was a generation we were missing because they sat in front of computers. Now, that generation is going to end up being a boater as they grow up,” she said.
As the maritime industry grows, so does the need for a skilled workforce.
Nationally, recreational boating generates $43B in annual sales and service, with $23B of that in the state of Florida. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, 3,624 jobs and 198 businesses are supported locally by the recreational boating industry, generating $893M of economic impact in Volusia County each year.
To meet the need, the Volusia Manufacturers Association has joined forces with the region’s businesses and colleges for the ‘FAME’ – Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education program.
“There are seven major boat manufacturers, custom boat builders and small companies providing welding [and] upholstery services to the large companies employing over 2,000 people. These companies are expanding and growing their workforces,” explained Jayne Fifer, director of education and president emeritus of the Volusia Manufacturers Association.
“Every manufacturer in our area needs skilled labor trained in advanced manufacturing technical skills. VMA is mounting a campaign to connect all the colleges that train these skills to our manufacturers,” said Fifer.
Not only is the marine industry an opportunity for lucrative, long-term employment, but it’s also appreciated by those with an eye for detail.
“It’s a career. You have people (in the boating industry) [who] love what they do, and it’s an art,” said Sarah Dougherty. “They don’t get enough credit for being as talented as they are.”
Did you know? Buying a boat locally, there’s a chance your builder employs someone who worked with or learned from one of our region’s most notable boat builders, Bob Dougherty.
Dougherty spent 30 years at Boston Whaler, where he was key in developing their “unsinkable hull” and creating numerous other innovations, including the Rapid Molded Core Assembly Process, which is the model for many boat builders today
In addition to being an innovator, Dougherty was a businessman. After retiring from Boston Whaler, Dougherty founded Edgewater Power Boats with his son, Stephen, in 1992. And in 2002, the duo founded Everglades Boats.
Dougherty earned many accolades during his career, including the coveted National Marine Manufacturers Innovation Award in 1999, 2002 and again in 2005. Dougherty also won the Volusia Manufacturing Association’s (VMA) “Manny Award,” which recognizes life-long achievement in manufacturing. In 2004 he was inducted into the VMA’s Hall of Fame.