In many ways, JB Turner is the quintessential marine-industry veteran. The president of Front Street Shipyard in Belfast, Maine, Turner grew up on the water in Noank, Conn., sailing with friends and family, including racing on Fishers Island Sound and Long Island Sound with Rod Johnstone, co-founder of J/Boats. Turner also worked at local marinas and yacht clubs. He started his career cleaning boats, then repaired them and moved on to building them.
The 55-year-old Turner has made bold moves that have paid off. He was instrumental in taking Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding from 43 employees to more than 200. Turner and his partners started Front Street Shipyard to accommodate boats up to 200 feet. The facility has a 440-ton mobile boat lift and, in late January, was finishing a warehouse called Building 6 that stands nearly 70 feet tall.
Turner has two children in their 20s and lives in Belfast with his girlfriend. They bought a Jonmeri 48, Rocket Queen, last summer. Turner is on the boards of directors for the Superyacht Society, Maine Built Boats and, locally, several hospitals and a museum.
You seem to have been around boats all your life.
I grew up sailing at the Noank [Conn.] yacht club. My best friend growing up was Bill Singer, and his father, John Singer, owned Noank Shipyard, so I was down there all the time. While I was going to school for business at Bryant college in Rhode Island, I was working at Dodson Boatyard in Stonington, Conn., in the bareboat charter business. I started out cleaning the boats and worked my way up to running the boats, and then I ran the business the last two years.
When I graduated, I ran the business that summer, and then the company owner, Bob Snyder, asked me if I wanted to move into the yard. I became the assistant yard manager, and Bob wound up having a stroke that winter. He said, “I’m going to take my family and drive across the country. You run the yard.”
How did you find your way to Maine?
I was at Dodson for about eight years, and by then I was married and my daughter had just been born. I was visiting Camden, Maine, and I told my wife, “I’m going to head down to the boatyard and see what’s going on.” I was down at Wayfarer Marine and ended up talking to the owner, Stuart Farnham, for about four hours. Within a couple months, I had accepted the service manager’s job. I was there for about four-and-a-half years, and one day I got a call from Cabot Lyman, the owner of Lyman-Morse, asking if I wanted to build boats. I said, “Sure, it has to be better than fixing the damn things.” I went to Lyman-Morse and was there for 11 years. I was president after two years and had an ownership stake.
How are things going at Front Street?
Things are going well. We started in 2011 and haven’t stopped growing. Building 6 coming online is our pausing point.
How big is Building 6?
It’s the same square footage, 22,400, as Building 5, which is next door. The key is that it’s tall, at just over 69 feet, and the doors are 53 feet, 6 inches tall, so we can drive the big mobile lift in. That was our motivation for building it, being able to drive the big lift inside.
Who made that big lift?
It’s a company in Italy called Cimolai Technology. We had the 160-ton Marine Travelift, and I was at the Fort Lauderdale show. I heard Derecktor’s new 900-ton lift was coming online, so I went over to see it, and it was a Cimolai. I called Cimolai and said, “We need 16 tires for the ground load and this much turning ability.” Everything I asked for, their reply was, “No problem.” We wound up with a 440-ton model.
What’s the price tag on something like that?
It was somewhere around $1.2 million, and then we had to add another $700,000 worth of pier.
How large will the facility be once the expansion is completed?
We bought the land that Building 5 is sitting on, and then we bought Belfast Boatyard in 2012, so we have 7 acres here and 7 acres off-site. At this location, there are now six buildings, and we have around 100 employees.
What is Front Street doing to attract and keep workers?
It’s a constant challenge. We spend a lot of time working on training younger people and working with schools both near and far to have people come through and see what’s going on here. We get potential employees from The Landing School here in Maine, some from the IYRS School of Technology and Trades in Rhode Island, and some from local vocational schools. We’ve been working hard to get high schools to bring kids through to see another option for their future. In the summertime, we usually get two to three interns from Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
Does Front Street have an apprenticeship program?
It’s not an official apprenticeship program, but we hire guys that seem to have the right attributes, and we’ll team them up with experienced people so we can get a better feel if they are going to grow into the job.
Are you one of the biggest employers in the area?
We’re number six on the list. There are still some big call centers in the area, like athenahealth and Bank of America. We have a good economic impact. Our staff and customers all go into town to buy stuff, and we’re kind of the tourist attraction because we’re right on the public walkway.
What’s the story behind the yard?
I was working at Kenway Corp., building boats in Augusta. Steve White, who owns Brooklin Boat Yard, and I got together after a Maine Built Boats meeting in 2010. I told him I heard about this land that was coming available in Belfast down on the waterfront, possibly, so Steve got excited and called Taylor Allen, who owns Rockport Marine, and the next day, we had a meeting and started trying to figure out how to talk with the owners.
How did those initial talks go?
We met with them in June 2010, and they weren’t interested in selling because they had dreams of building condominiums for big dollars. Then the city unknowingly gave us a hand because it had set up a bunch of covenants that the owners hadn’t fulfilled, so the city decided to take them to court. The owners, who were from Massachusetts, found out that having to go to Bangor for court appearances wasn’t much fun, so we started talking. Along the way, I told Ken Priest, my employer at Kenway, what I was up to, and he said, “I want in on it.” So he joined, and Taylor’s sister, Lucia Michaud, joined.
I had built an 84-foot motoryacht with a fellow named Burt Keenan. He was from Louisiana and had a friend, Jack Rettig, who was selling an oil-gas leasing company to Halliburton. Jack said, “I can be your bank to get you going and then change over to financing. So the original six were me, Steve, Taylor, Ken, Lucia and Jack.
Is the group the same today?
After three-and-a-half years, we refinanced with the bank, and there’s this rule in banking that if you’re a previous investor in a business, you can’t be an owner once the bank takes over the business, so Jack stepped out. When we decided to construct Building 6, Steve didn’t want to be part of that, so he’s still a member of the original holding group, and Taylor’s brother Ben stepped in to be a member of Building 6.
How does the ownership structure break down today?
We have DUBBA LLC, [Down Under The Belfast Bridge Association], which is the holding company that owns the original land and buildings. Then we have FSS, which is an S corporation that is the operating company. Then there’s Building 6 LLC, which is the building and land for that building.
Why did you choose Belfast?
We want to be on Penobscot Bay, which has some of the best deep-water cruising grounds in America. We wanted to be near a town or city because the crews and visitors want a place to go to within walking distance, and the harbor needed to have deep water for the big boats to come in. Belfast was really the answer to all of it.
Management seems to have been thinking big from the start, with lots of heavy equipment, huge mobile lifts.
Taylor and Steve had their yards in Brooklin and Rockport, but they can’t expand. They’ve had opportunities for bigger projects over the years, but haven’t been able to take them on because they don’t have the physical space. Coming from Lyman-Morse, I was used to running a bigger yard. That’s why we call it a shipyard, not a boatyard, because we want to attract bigger projects.
How big of a boat can you get in here?
It’s a matter of draft and maneuvering past the tugboats during the summer, but I’d say the limit is 180 to 200 feet. We have 17 feet of depth at low water all along the face docks.
Does the yard offer a mix of modern and traditional construction and services?
Taylor and Steve have the tie-in to the wooden-boat side, and I’ve done more high-tech composites, so among the three of us, we can cover all the bases: wood, steel, aluminum and composites.
Did the yard start mostly by doing refits?
Yes. There haven’t been as many new custom builds in America since the recession, so we focus on the refits and do some building. About 90 percent is refits.
Do you build hulls for other people who finish them?
We have a division in Bucksport where we build lobster boat hulls, and we have built about 30 to 40 boats up there.
Are you focusing more on sail or power?
It’s a good mix of sail and power. It seems the bigger boats that come up during the summer are starting to lean toward power.
Tell us about the new stepped-bottom RIB being built at the yard.
Steven Loui is the president of Pacific Shipyards International and Navatek. He was on vacation in Belfast walking down the boardwalk, and he ran into me and said, “I own a shipyard. Do you mind if I walk around with you?” We hit it off, and after he returned to Hawaii, he called me and said, “We have this new design, and we want to build a bunch.” I said, great.
It’s called the Sea Blade, and it’s something that Steven has been working on for years. I think we’re building version seven. It’s a 36-foot, multistepped-bottom RIB. The plug for the hull is being carved by Symmetrix Composite Tooling in Bristol, R.I., and we’re going to build the plug for the deck here. Vectorworks Marine in Titusville, Fla., is making all the small parts. The lamination is pretty standard. The stepped running surface is the high-tech part.
What are your thoughts on the economy and how it’s doing?
There’s this whole mind-set, and I’ve seen it through the years, where everybody decides it’s time for the economy to slow down, and it does just because it’s a foregone conclusion. There’s nothing terribly wrong with the basic fundamentals, but everybody’s talking about a slowdown, so it must have to happen.
The way that people boat has changed. How has that affected Front Street?
More powerboats. People are switching from sail to power because they don’t have the time they used to have. Everything happens so much faster now. The other big change has been the outboards being accepted as the main propulsion system. Now people really trust outboards. Anything over 100 hp, we do outboards, and I was anti-outboards for my entire life.
What trends do you see coming for the boating industry?
I think the powerboats are going to get faster and faster, and lighter. One of the things we’re trying to move forward with is building carbon-fiber passenger ferries. We’ve got a new company called Arcadia Alliance, and we’ve partnered with Brødrene Aa, a yard in Norway that’s been building them all over Europe for 20 years. Building with carbon fiber is totally accepted over there. You try to get American companies to buy into carbon-fiber ferries, and it’s like you’ve brought kryptonite into the world. We want to be the first with 80- and 100-foot ferries in this country, but the operators have this thing in their head that if you hit something, it’s going to break in half and sink. The Boeing 787 is all carbon.
What are your thoughts on electric propulsion?
Brødrene Aa just launched a fully electric, 400-passenger ferry that runs 1½ hours down the fjord at 16 knots, comes back and recharges in 20 minutes, and does it again all day long. We did a Gunboat 62 sailing cat with lithium-ion batteries two years ago, and within a year, the battery technology had improved so much that we took out that system and put in a whole new system. The owner can run his air conditioning all night, and the boat is totally solar-powered.
What do you think about autonomous operation?
I don’t think boaters want it because they want to be involved, but I think if you took electronic charting away from half the people on the water, they wouldn’t know how to get home.
As a lifelong sailor, you must be excited about the America’s Cup coming up. Do you think that event might breathe life into the sailing market?
Technologically, I think they’re too far out there with foiled monohulls. And for recreational sailors, the foils are dangerous. You come off the foil, and you go from 40 knots to 10. That’s why they have to wear helmets.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.