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High tech on the high seas.

Their tailored lines and highly polished materials might look traditional, but the sloops that sail out of Hinckley's plant in Maine are anything but.

Recently, I went for a sail aboard a friend's brand-new Hinckley 35-foot sloop. Her graceful, traditional lines drew the admiring glances of every other sailor on Fisher's Island Sound that day. And rightly so. A Hinckley is an exquisite machine and garners the same respect from boaters as a Ferrari does from automobile enthusiasts. About 10 years ago, I owned a then-15-year-old Hinckley 35; she too, had the distinctive styling and flair that sets these boats apart from the pack. My friend Andre also owns one of these beautiful sloops, a 1953 wooden model, which he has lovingly restored. If you were to place these three sailboats next to each other, apart from the obvious brightwork and the varnished spars of Andre's sloop, only a true aficionado could spot any major differences between them, or realize that they span almost half a century and a range in value of as much as a quarter of a million dollars.

But there are some significant differences - and they're largely technological. These changes take Andre's boat as far from that new Hinckley as a Conestoga Wagon is from a Lexus. And though my 1973 model was built primarily of fiberglass, as is the company's new 35-footer, next to that Lexus-like newcomer, it's a Model A Ford.

Hinckley has been a fixture in Southwest Harbor, ME, since it first cast sail as a repair yard in 1928. By November 1997, when the privately held company sold out to Bain, Willard, a Boston-based private investment firm, Hinckley had achieved its best year in history, in terms of sales and revenue, and become one of the state's largest employees, with 300 full-timers on the payroll. This past February, Bain Willard increased its share of the sailing market with the purchase of Portsmouth, RI-based Ted Hood Co., a Hinckley competitor known best for its Little Harbor line of sailboats.

While buying out Hood will help it compete in years to come, Hinckley's leadership in the industry is as legendary as its sloops, and stems from the company's well-honed, market-driven survival tactic: Throughout its history, it has recognized and adapted any state-of-the-art technology that could give it that all-important edge. And that heritage may prove even more critical. For now, more than ever, Hinckley - like all sailboat builders - is navigating its future, businesswise, through a maze of contradictions. The company builds a product as steeped in folklore as man's own seafaring tradition, but to compete in a rapidly diminishing marketplace - -one that's littered with the detritus of failed manufacturers - it needs to use measures that are only available through today's space-age technology. The majority of its customers sail because they want to escape, if only temporarily, from a fast-paced world. They're looking for boats that speak to them of centuries of sailing history; they revel in the gleam of handcrafted wood and carefully polished brass. But an increasing number also want features unavailable to their seabound ancestors: fancy instrumentation; speedy, aerodynamic design; sleek, lightweight, durable, space-age materials.

There are only a few large players in the sailboat industry, especially when it comes to building the high-end boats for the affluent buyers that Hinckley and other custom and semicustom builders are aiming at. And all sailboat builders are watching the cheap-fuel-fired motorboat industry with trepidation. Motorboats can look darn traditional, too - and can be an easy compromise for the middle-aged sailor who is tired of hoisting sails and traveling at a relative snail's pace. Cheap fuel, savvy marketing, and easily operated powerboats are all contributing to the steady decline of sailboat buyers, and, therefore, sailboat builders.

Hinckley was originally the most traditional of builders. Henry Hinckley was a craftsman who opened a repair yard in 1928 and began building his own wooden boats four years later. But from the beginning, unlike many of the tradition-bound builders of his day, Hinckley was quick to adapt innovative design techniques that would make his boats faster and more comfortable. In the late '50s, for example, when new materials such as fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) became available for boatbuilding, he quickly recognized their advantages and became one of the first builders to switch over to FRP. That recognition and adaptation of technology continued as the company's hallmark under the leadership of Hinckley's son, Bob, and of Shep McKenney, who were president and chief executive, respectively, until the Bain, Willard acquisition. Current CEO Ralph Willard says he has no intention of changing the direction of a company that has shown such continued success.

Hinckley's adoption of computer-aided design and computer-aided machinery (CAD/CAM) software is a good example of a corporate philosophy that embraces technology that was not originally intended for boating applications. CAD/CAM had originally been developed for the automotive and aerospace industries. When it purchased its first CAD/CAM program in 1988, Hinckley became one of the first major boat builders to apply this new technology.

Essentially, CAD/CAM allows a designer to view and draw a boat's lines in three dimensions. He can see and create components to scale in relation to every other aspect of the boat's construction. He can, in a sense, walk into the drawn-in framework of a boat through his computer screen and work from any angle. The result? "Nothing short of revolutionary," says Hinckley engineer Peter Smith. "Essentially, CAD/CAM replaced anything you can do with pen and pencil."

As more computer programs came on the market, Hinckley adopted them. Now, there are speed and velocity programs that interface with hull-design software. Hinckley customizes these programs to give its boats the most efficient underwater shape and still maintain their classic lines. Each of the company's seven contemporary boat models is the result of CAD/CAM technology.

The CAM part of the equation yields even more direct results. CAD drawings and data can be fed into automatic routing and cutting machines that prepare material, with virtually no waste, to tolerances unheard of previously, bringing unprecedented assembly-line precision to the boat-building process.

That process, incidentally, is one of the last major manufacturing regimens that still rely largely on handwork. Boats built primarily of fiberglass, for instance, which comprise the majority of pleasure craft in the U.S., must have each layer of glass cloth placed in the mold manually. Quality control in this process must be intense; momentary worker inattention or sloppy mixing of the resin can cause voids or resin-rich or resin-poor areas, which contribute to a weaker hull structure and the possibility of osmotic penetration of water.

To help ensure a consistent manufacturing process and eliminate, as much as possible, the problems associated with hand layup, Hinckley, in 1996, became one of the first licensees of the Seemann Composites Resin Infusion Molding Process (SCRIMP), developed by SCRIMP TPI Technology of Warren, RI. Although it was originally intended as a weight-saving measure for fast Navy patrol craft, many now consider SCRIMP the cutting edge of fiberglass pleasure boatbuilding technology. SCRIMP TPI licenses its patented procedure to builders who can use the process, as Hinckley does, to build complete hulls or to subcontractors who use the process to formulate components such as hatches or internal bulkheads.

While SCRIMP eliminates most of the problems associated with hand layup, its greatest benefit has been environmental. Hinckley, which was engaged in an emission-rich manufacturing process, has long been in the sights of environmental watchdogs, who considered it one of Maine's largest polluters. But since it adopted the practically emission-free SCRIMP process, the company has been heralded as an example of clean industry.

But SCRIMP is just one of the latest technological innovations this manufacturer has used to maintain its industry lead. Over the years, Hinckley has quickly adopted new materials and techniques as they have become proven and available. When the company switched its layup to a Kevlar and FRP mix, Hinckley became the first production manufacturer to commit to Kevlar, a space-age synthetic fabric from DuPont. Much lighter per yard than conventional fiberglass cloth, Kevlar exhibits such great tensile strength - the fabric does not tear when subjected to extreme impact - that bulletproof vests are made of it. While light weight and tensile strength are sought-after qualities in boatbuilding materials, most main-line builders avoided Kevlar because it lacks compressive strength, which a sailboat's hull needs because of strains from mast loads. Instead, Kevlar became the favorite of those who make closed-course racing boats, where the need for light weight far outweighs strength considerations. Hinckley, however, took a different course and built on what had become traditional FRP technology: It blended in the new material and drew on the advantages of a mixture of Kevlar and fiberglass cloth.

A few years ago, Hinckley again outpaced its competitors, scrapping the traditional aluminum spars - the masts and booms - in favor of lighter, stronger, and more expensive spars crafted from carbon fiber. This material has done for the sailboat industry what titanium has done for manufacturers of tennis racquets and golf clubs. Like Kevlar, carbon fiber was originally developed for applications other than boatbuilding. However, this space-program-derived synthetic seems to meet any requirement a boatbuilder could have. Still, though some one-off designers and cutting-edge racers have built carbon fiber-reinforced boats, no major manufacturer has yet committed to using the material on a production basis. The reason: Compared to other materials, carbon fiber is extremely expensive; more than that, working with it demands a higher level of skill. This fall, however, Hinckley will begin using carbon fiber as a major component of its hulls, making the company's boats lighter, stronger, stiffer, and faster. Oh, and more expensive. But Hinckley believes there are enough affluent sailors who appreciate this combination of tradition, craftsmanship, and technology to keep the company cruising nicely along its bottom line.

Nonetheless, even Hinckley hasn't been immune to the lure of the powerboat market. Since 1994, the company has sold more than 100 36-foot Picnic Boats, a single jet-powered cruiser that retails for upwards of $250,000. The Picnic Boat's big sister, the twin jet-powered Talaria, will sell for upwards of $400,000 when it begins production later this year. And just in case boat sales dip, Hinckley, sticking to its original mission, provides maintenance, repair, and storage services in Southwest Harbor, where it also operates a yacht brokerage and boat charter businesses and a marine store. No wonder, as Hinckley's long-time employees are quick to point out, in almost 70 years, the company has never had a bad one.

The Need for Speed

The dichotomy of sailing, which is perceived as a leisurely, laid-back activity - especially when it is compared to powerboating - is that within the sport itself, the competition for speed is intense.

A sailboat maker with an established reputation for quality and opulent boats could rest on its corporate laurels and let others take to go-fast trophies; the company would do just as well - maybe. But it wasn't just pride that drove Hinckley to build its boats for speed as well as comfort. The boating environment has always been driven by ping-ponging gasoline prices. When the cost of fuel goes up, people buy more sailboats. When gas prices drop, powerboat sales rise. And in engine-happy America, powerboating has always been the dominant waterborne sport. A sailboat builder, no matter how exclusive and quality conscious, cannot afford to voluntarily give up part of his market. In the early '70s Hinckley decided to take a bold and radical step. To build really lighter, faster boats that would maintain Hinckley's elite reputation and still distinguish it from the competition, Hinckley chose a cored fiberglass sandwich construction method for the bottoms of its boats as well as the hullsides and decks.

Fiberglass sandwich construction was nothing new. Most builders used a lighter coring material, usually marine plywood or resin-soaked balsa wood between layers of fiberglass. The coring saved weight and added stiffness - minimizing the flexing of a boat's hull in a seaway. But coring material has no inherent strength or water resistance compared to the boats's glass structure, and it was never used below the waterline. While fiberglass is water resistant, it is subject to osmotic penetration, which appears as unsightly "blisters" on the boat's hull, when submerged. The thicker the all-glass bottom, the less opportunity for osmosis or blistering.

Although few builders were willing to make the investment in top-grade materials, intensive training, and quality control to go with cored bottom construction, Hinckley did. Sailboat bottoms were, and for the most part still are, sold glass - except Hinckley's. And Hinckley's stronger, lighter, stiffer new bottoms have not only maintained the company's - and the sailor's - performance edge, they've helped drives, allowing Hinckley to provide its customers with what would otherwise seem oxymoronic: a speedy sailboat.
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Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Hinckley motorboats; includes related article on speed
Author:Reininger, Stuart
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Date:Aug 15, 1999
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