In April, Sabre Yachts and its sister company, Back Cove Yachts, celebrated two milestones: the retirement of vice president of sales and marketing Bentley Collins after 28 years with Sabre, and the sale of the 1,000th Back Cove for the 18-year-old brand.
It’s not possible to tell the story of Back Cove, in particular, without including Collins, one of the driving forces behind it. Jason Constantine, Back Cove president and chief operating officer, says that along with former Sabre CEO Chris Evans, Collins was “really responsible for creating Back Cove.”
Now 72, Collins was introduced to boating as a 10-year-old growing up in Montreal. His father joined a yacht club, and Collins immediately took to racing. “It gave me the
opportunity to learn about boats and sailing,” he says. “I always loved being on the water and doing competitive sailing.”
As he got older, he was self-employed, selling products to local schools. A yacht club member asked Collins if he would be interested in representing a sailboat manufacturer. The answer was obvious, and he started as a representative for CS Yachts of Brampton, Ontario. Then Collins became a dealer for St. Catherines, Ontario builder Hinterhoeller Yachts. “I started to meet people and other dealers that worked for the same builders, and in 1987, I was approached by Beneteau France to open a Canadian subsidiary,” Collins says.
That he was bilingual helped, and Collins worked his way up through the industry. He expanded Beneteau’s export programs, and when Beneteau USA opened an office in Charlotte, N.C., Collins relocated to the United States.
Collins started dating Brenda Amato, whom he got to know through the boat-show circuit. She was working for Sabre Yachts, a sailboat builder from Maine. Amato was planning to move south to be closer to Collins, but before that happened, Sabre owner Daniel Zilkha asked her if Collins might consider moving north to join his team.
Collins and Zilkha met at the 1993 Newport Boat Show and hit it off. “I really enjoyed the idea of a smaller builder that was more artisan-like,” Collins says.
Sabre soon got into building powerboats. The first Sabreline 36 motoryacht came out in 1991, and the 34 followed. “Sailboat dealers aren’t great at selling powerboats,” Collins says. “I recognized that we needed a whole new dealer network if we were going to expand our powerboat program.”
Growing the business meant that Sabre became one of the largest manufacturers in the Lakes Region of southern Maine. When Collins started at Sabre, there were 39 people. When he left, the combined workforce between the Sabre headquarters in Raymond, Maine, and the Back Cove facility in Rockland was 350 employees.
“My greatest pleasure, when I reflect on what 350 salaries does for an area like the Lakes Region in Maine, it has a great impact on the restaurants and supermarkets,” Collins says.
A Bold Move
In 2003, Sabre was having trouble satisfying dealers who wanted more boats to sell. The company had 15 dealers around the country, but Collins says four or five took 30 to 40 percent of the company’s output of 60 boats per year. Collins, Evans and George Menezes, then the company’s designer, decided to start a new line of boats the company could build at its Rockland shop, which made smaller fiberglass parts. They came up with a drawing for a Down East-style boat powered by a single diesel and equipped with a bow thruster. Evans lived in the Back Cove neighborhood of Portland, and the team thought Back Cove would be a good name for the subsidiary.
Sabre flew its top six dealers to Manchester, N.H., where Southwest Airlines had a strong presence, and rented a conference room at a local hotel. After the dealers saw the drawings, Collins recalls, “The first 36 boats went to those six dealers.”
The first model was the Back Cove 29. Collins says it was designed to compete with offerings from Albin and Mainship. “We listened to the dealers for those brands, and they had plenty of things to say,” Collins recalls. “We said, ‘What would we need to do to make it better for you?’ And it was all service, relationships, warranty and high-quality hardware.”
Much of the success with Sabre had come through maintaining good relationships with dealers and customers, and building a quality product, so it didn’t take long for Back Cove’s reputation to spread. “We used Sabre to give Back Cove its wings and get it going,” Collins says.
That may be so, but Kevin Burns, vice president of design and product development for Sabre and Back Cove, says Collins played a much bigger role. “He was so in tune with what people who buy boats are actually looking for, and in particular our buyers of Back Coves,” Burns says. “He knew our owners inside and out, from forecasting what they might want in the future down to personal relationships.”
After the Back Cove 29 came the 26 because dealers asked for a smaller boat. Through the years, the company built single-diesel boats in 30, 32 and 34 feet models. The current line includes the 372 and 41 on the inboard side and the 34O and 39O, which are outboard-powered boats. Hull No. 5 of the 39O, which is new this year, is the 1,000th Back Cove hull built. It’s going to a customer in Boston.
The smallest Sabre is a 38-footer, so there is a little crossover between the two brands. Some customers do vacillate between the brands, but an effort has been made to keep them separate. All Sabres have Volvo Penta IPS propulsion and stick-built wood interiors. The Back Coves have more visible fiberglass and are designed more for a cruising couple to be able to maintain them with minimal effort.
Burns calls the Back Coves “boutique production boats” because they are still hand-built to the same level of fit and finish as a Sabre in a repeatable process. He says each company now has an established identity and stands on its own.
Moving forward, Collins, who splits time between Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and Fort Myers, Fla., leaves Back Cove in the very capable hands of the talent he had a hand in mentoring. This summer, he plans to volunteer as a docent at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine. You can be sure he’ll develop a whole new set of relationships.
This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue.