I must admit that I’ve always been a fan of Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs show. The affable host finds himself cleaning out sewers, feeding thousands of hogs with food waste from Las Vegas casino buffets, picking up roadkill by hand with a state road patrol, netting slimy hagfish among a salty seafaring crew, and just about anything else you can imagine.
I’ve also been known to binge-watch How It’s Made reruns. Maybe it’s useless for me to know how they farm shrimp, make baseball bats, produce truck tires or manufacture Dr. Martens boots, but the behind-the-scenes looks never cease to get the rusty old gears in my head turning.
Similarly, reporting deep in operations related to the marine industry has always been one the best parts of my job. My obsession with getting that type of access began when I wrote boat shop reports for a Chesapeake Bay magazine about 12 years ago. Once a month, with camera in hand, I’d drive from one side of the Bay to the other, popping my head into boatyard buildings and marina offices, hoping someone would spend 10 or 15 minutes telling me about the projects they had going on.
I hardly ever ran into anyone who said no. Most people were eager to show me everything from traditional, keel-up deadrise workboat projects to multimillion-dollar sportfish builds. As a result, I learned a lot about how boats are built and the components inside them. And I met some remarkable people. Some are close friends to this day.
Since then, I’ve scrambled with a bay pilot 50 feet up a Jacob’s ladder to board a moving 1,000-foot ship; rode along with an officer from the Maryland Natural Resources Police during a night shift on the Potomac River; deployed aids to navigation on a Coast Guard buoy tender; worked inside a Maryland Hydrographic Office shop that was painting waterway warning signs; and explored more high-tech boatbuilding operations than I can remember.
This month, I was lucky enough to return to a piece of ground that was bare earth only three years ago, when I was there for the groundbreaking of Yamaha Precision Propeller’s $20 million propeller foundry in Greenfield, Ind. Today, the foundry — one of only two of its kind in the United States — is humming along at capacity, churning out more than 100,000 stainless-steel propellers yearly.
During my tour in August, I saw firsthand how Yamaha is leveraging innovative manufacturing equipment and processes to boost production from its old facility in Indianapolis by 67 percent. Watching workers craft wax propeller patterns by hand and with computers was super-interesting, as was seeing how robotics are used to dip the patterns into ceramic slurries, and silica sand and zircon flour baths to create a solid mold.
However, most entertaining was the pouring of 3,000-degree molten stainless steel by an automated furnace that keeps 4,000 pounds of stainless-steel alloy at the perfect temperature for 24-hour pouring. This setup produces quite the fireworks show when the white-hot metal goo hits a ceramic mold. Seeing the silver-suited workers do their risky jobs amid all the fire and metal was remarkable.
When I asked plant general manager Batuhan Ak about the gas and electric bill at the plant, he chuckled and said, “It’s well into the five figures.” Maybe next, I’ll find out what a drum of vinylester resin costs.
We’ll have more of these types of insider stories in the next several months. I’ll start out at a large boatbuilder that provides free healthcare through an on-site walk-in clinic. Then I’ll travel to the Midwest to see how pontoon boats with the latest propulsion technologies are built. There’s a certain outboard facility I would love to visit in Wisconsin, and I’ve always wanted to build one small part of a production boat from start to finish, even if it involves laminating fiberglass, a thankless but crucial job in boatbuilding.
My hope is to include at least one of these stories in every issue of Soundings Trade Only, to provide a look at corners of the trade that some folks might not know exist. I encourage you to email me at email@example.com if you’re willing to give us insider access to your outfit.
Who knows? Maybe Mike Rowe is free too.
This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue.