Abaco Life Magazine

Abaco Life, An Island Magazine

 
   
       

Boatyards of The Bahamas

Every winter Bill Gallo of Melbourne, Florida returns to Green Turtle Cay to fetch his sailboat, an Irwin 43 named Blue Rondo. For four previous months the boat has spent its annual vacation and downtime perched in a wooden cradle fortified by eight jack stands at Abaco Yacht Services, which has maintained and generally baby-sat Bill’s baby as though it were a close relative or a friend’s visiting child. “I’ve had the boat for ten years,”
says Gallo, “and this is the best boatyard I’ve ever used. My boat has been through Irene, Floyd and Jeanne with very little damage here; less than $500, mainly from rain water than had to be pumped out of the transmission.”

The Green Turtle Shipyard has been an institution on the island for 28 years, having doubled in size since its inception in September, 1978. Owned by the Bethel family of Nassau and operated by Manager Everette Roberts, his son, Scott, anddaughter, Crystal, as well as several dedicated yard workers, AYS counts on a growing list of satisfied repeat customers who have come to rely on the kind of security and competence long associated with Abaco’s flourishing boating industry. There are boatyards in four Abaco locations; Green Turtle Cay, Hope Town, Man-O-War Cay and Marsh Harbour, and while providing safe haven and shelter from the storm is an essential function, it’s only one of many services they perform for hundreds of boaters, including bottom painting, engine repairs and preparation work.

“Many boats are left year-round, especially by owners from Florida and North Carolina,” says Craig Knowles who, with his wife, Linda, are the management team at Lighthouse Marina in Hope Town, a business also owned by the Bethels of Nassau. “We store the boats and prepare them so that when the owner comes back, they can jump in and go, either here or in Marsh Harbour, where we’ll deliver the boat. Many owners will fly back and forth during the peakfishing season from April through May, then leave the boats here in mid August.”

Lighthouse Marina, with its fuelstation, marine store and liquor store, can’t be missed at the entrance to Hope Town Harbour, but the protected boatyard is tucked away in a hurricane hole behind the marina and beneath the Elbow Cay Lighthouse. “Boats do very well here in bad weather,” says Craig, who has operated the business with Linda since 1988. “There’s no surge here and a high hill to the west provides great protection. We’ve stored up to 200 boats in preparation for hurricanes, and that’s about the maximum for the boatyard.”

The yard at Green Turtle is similarly protected on Black Sound, but while it has a Travel Lift that can raise boats up to 50 tons and 50 feet, the yard at Hope Town specializes in smaller boats up to 36 feet. Most of its tenants are outboards, speedy little craft lined up by the dozen as though waiting their turn for a snorkeling trip or island cove picnic. It costs between $150 to $175 to secure a boat for storage and about the same amount to relaunch it. The storage fee is $4 a foot per month, and for many who return regularly, it’s often cheaper to put their boat in and out of the yard and pay the monthly storage than rent one while they’re here.

The same is true across the Sea of Abaco at Marsh Harbour Boatyards, located on the southeast shore at Calcutta Creek. Here, however, the boats tend to be bigger, and can range up to 100 feet because of the yard’s 85-ton Acme Marine Hoist “When we commissioned the yard’s lift, we had them build it four feet wider than standard to accommodate catamarans with 24-foot beams,” says Laurence Higgs, the yard’s
general manager and co-owner. “Many of the boats in the Moorings charter yacht fleet are examples, boats which are popular in Abaco because of their shallow draft.”

The yard can accommodate morethan 30 large boats from a week to several months. But while a number of big boats are kept here for six months during the winter, most come in for maintenance, repair and bottom painting that gets them in and out of the yard in a week. “This is our bread and butter work,” says Higgs. “We have 20 dedicated spaces for this kind of work, and we do it year-round. We also do fiberglass repairs, much of it to boats that have run aground, and engine work.” The yard occasionally subs out woodwork as well, and has several factory-trained diesel mechanics.

Business is growing here, as well as in other Abaco boatyards, as more and more boat owners, particularly from Florida and the Carolinas, are finding Abaco and discovering its cost-efficient and convenient facilities. In the past five years, the yard at Calcutta has doubled its business, growing from a staff of three to 18. For many boaters, the season has been extended because they know they can stay longer to have work done here, or simply leave their boats. While the majority of boats are in the 40 to 55-foot range, a hydraulic trailer can easily raise smaller craft. “A lot of small boaters with houses on Lubbers, Tilloo or Elbow Cay leave their boats here and catch a taxi to the airport, which is seven minutes away,” says Higgs. “Other cruisers stop over in Abaco and go on south to Exuma in the winter, working their way back here in the spring.”

At Marsh Harbour Boatyards, 90 percent of customers are here because of the workmanship, reliability and paint used in bottom painting, Higgs says. And while many boaters stay in a hotel, with friends, or even return to the States and come back during the five-to-seven days it takes for painting and maintenance, it’s not uncommon to find some living aboard their boats while they sit mounted on blocks in the yard.

Abaco has a long history of boat building and maintenance expertise, but the longest-running survivor of this traditional industry is at Man-O-War Cay, where construction of sailing schooners and dinghies have evolved into small sloops, ferry boats, regatta racing boats and, most recently, 20 and 23-foot fiberglass Albury Brothers boats, which are in high demand as rental and fishing boats throughout the Bahamas and Florida.

Today, however, Man-O-War’s boat industry has shifted in large part from building to repair and maintenance, with storage as a secondary option. Two boatyards, Edwin’s I and Edwin’s II, trace their origins back 45 years to 1960 when Edwin Albury started BoatYard I, then expanded when he bought out legendary boat builder William H. Albury, affectionately known throughout Abaco  as “Uncle Will.”

“Most of our business today comes from repeat customers and word-of-mouth, and it stays steady almost year-round,” says Daren Sands, who started with his father, Darwin Sands, in 1997, and has managed Edwin’s Boatyard II since last year.

Both Edwin’s II, run by Daren, and Edwin’s I, run by Keith Albury, feature rails which can haul boats up to 60 feet. “We do fiberglass repairs, carpentry, painting and mechanical work,” says Keith Albury. “And we have customers from up and down the eastern coast of the U.S. from as far away as Maine.”

Many boaters prefer the quiet setting of Man-O-War to store their boats. The
relatively small yards, where there is sometimes a waiting list to get in, can take boats up to 25 feet for storage. Wet storage on moorings is also available with adequate lead time.
 Hanging out in a busy Abaco boatyard on a pleasant afternoon provides an  inside look at how a well-oiled operation works, how yard employees interact with customers, and how work gets done in well-organized segments, from hauling a boat out of the water and getting it secured on blocks to bottom painting and relaunching.

“Because it’s family run and on a small island, service is a lot more personal than you would get from a boatyard staff in Canada or the U.S.,” says Alan Wainwright, a Brampton, Ontario attorney who comes to Green Turtle Cay twice a year and has kept his 32-foot sailboat Distant Fire parked at AYS for the past 11 years. “It’s one-on-one from the top down. And you can depend on the quality. Once I had my boat blocked at a Canadian boatyard, and when I walked on it, I could feel the boat move. When I have it blocked at AYS, I can’t feel it move.”

Not even Hurricane Floyd rocked his boat in 1999, even though there was only one jack-stand holding it up. In such a renowned cruising destination, such stories form a nucleus of information and opinion among boaters. And their shared experiences either inspire confidence or create an uncomfortable doubt that drives them elsewhere. In Abaco, boatyards have well-established reputations today because yard operators have come in contact with customers from all over the world. The growth alone indicates a healthy long-term success for this traditional industry.

“When I started here, there were no computers and the yard was half the size it is now,” says Crystal Roberts, office manager at AYS in Green Turtle. “It’s been amazing to see how it’s changed over the years. We have a lot of good customers here, a lot of repeat customers. And we’ve become good friends with many of them.”

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©  Jim Kerr, Abaco Life Magazine
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