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A project changes lives in Maine and Japan

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One winter ago, Stacey Raymond found himself in the same boat as a lot of small builders, scratching and clawing for every sale. This winter, however, was a bit different for the owner of General Marine Inc. of Biddeford, Maine. Raymond was busy building 20 small boats for fishermen in Japan whose lives were turned upside down by the devastating tsunami of a year ago.

And just last week, Raymond was in Japan for the first time, working shoulder to shoulder with a group of resilient fishermen to put the final touches on the boats and to take part in an emotional ceremony when they launched the new fleet.

It has been something of a blur for the small builder from Maine, a feel-good story, to be certain, but more important an experience that changed lives on both sides of the world.

“These people are up against it,” says Raymond, surprised by the extent of the devastation and amount of debris remaining in Kesennuma, Japan. “It hits you deeply when you see what’s going on. It’s just unbelievable.”

Click play to view footage of Raymond's work.

The boats were contracted by Operation Blessing International, a non-profit humanitarian organization based in Virginia Beach, Va., and sponsored by the SAP Solidarity Fund. The arrangement turned out to be one of those proverbial win/wins. The fishermen in Japan received 20 strong, light outboard skiffs that are enabling them to once again work their inshore waters, and Raymond was able to hire back workers at his small shop.

Along the way, lives are being altered for the better. “You gain a respect for their culture, and they gain a respect for ours,” says Raymond, 53, a self-described “problem solver” and former motorcycle racer who proved to be an unlikely but effective international ambassador.

“They took a small Maine boatbuilder and dropped him on the world stage,” says Raymond, still shaking his head at the events of the last several months.

What did Raymond know about small panga-style Japanese fishing boats before this project? Not a whole lot, but, he notes, “I learned quickly.” The shape is pretty basic: The hulls are narrow, the bottoms pretty flat. “A pretty easy design,” Raymond says. “Simple is better.”

The lightweight 19-foot fiberglass/composite boats are powered by 9.9-hp Yamaha 4-strokes, which push the little planing hulls surprisingly well.

Raymond worked through a liaison in Japan to get advice from the fishermen who will use the boats he was building in faraway Maine. “How can we improve the design?” he asked them.

The builder used the feedback to modify in small ways the traditional Japanese panga so it reflected the changes that have occurred in their seaweed, oyster and net fisheries. That meant adding a little more freeboard and altering the shape of the bottom slightly.

“We didn’t try and reinvent the wheel,” Raymond says. “And they loved the boat because it better fits their fisheries now.”

Someone suggested that Raymond simply build a traditional Down East skiff for the Japanese fishermen, but the builder didn’t think that was the best idea. “I wanted to make sure they were happy,” he says. “They’re not different than my customers over here.”

And he’s proud of the fact that he didn’t skimp or cut corners. Raymond says General Marine’s ability to build boats efficiently enabled him to produce a robust craft by using more material in the layout and going with heavier rub rails, beefier stringers and better hardware.

“The goal has to be building the best boat we could at a price point … and still make enough to eat.” Raymond says. He could have built them cheaper and put more money into his pocket, but that wouldn’t have felt right, he says.

“I have a moral compass,” Raymond continues, “and no matter what, I go back to that. I go back to what I think is right. We stuck to our guns, and everything came together in the end. We went the extra mile, and they absolutely love the boats.”

Working with a subcontractor, General Marine was able to design the hull, build the tooling and produce the small-boat fleet in about two months.

The contract didn’t call for Raymond to fly to Japan. He did that on his dime and his time. But seeing the widespread destruction firsthand and helping the fishermen finish the boats by fastening the seats in place had a significant effect on the builder. He worked side by side in the cold for 10 to 12 hours a day with the Japanese watermen; one of the fishermen was 75 years old.

“I couldn’t get a 20-year-old to do what he did,” says Raymond. “By the end of the day, my arms hurt so bad they were shaking.”

He was moved by the fishermen who embraced him just before he left, showing what the translator told him was an unusual amount of public emotion.

“It’s not like we saved the world,” Raymond says, “but it was a mission that went right.” True, he might not have saved the world, but these simple boats, built with a good bit of pride and Raymond’s presence at the water’s edge in Hikado, meant an awful lot to a group of fishermen who had lost so much.

Click play for an NBC News report featuring Raymond on the anniversary of the earthquake.

“I felt an obligation to go,” he says. “I wanted to make sure it ended right. It’s something that changed me.” The experience touched Raymond in ways that he has trouble putting into words. He says he would like to return to Japan soon with his wife and 18-year-old daughter.

“You have only so many days on this earth,” the boatbuilder says.



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