‘A fabulous journey’ from dock boy to boatbuilding executive

It could only be called destiny: My dad spent the idle hours of his teenage years looking out over the Hudson River from his fire-escape tenement perch on the West Side of Manhattan, my mom doing her chores while looking out the kitchen window at the Ottawa River as it flowed through Pembroke, Ontario.
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It could only be called destiny: My dad spent the idle hours of his teenage years looking out over the Hudson River from his fire-escape tenement perch on the West Side of Manhattan, my mom doing her chores while looking out the kitchen window at the Ottawa River as it flowed through Pembroke, Ontario.

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The metaphorical seed was planted. My brother and I had our first boat, a 6-foot pram, before either of us arrived at first grade. Family runabouts and then cruisers followed into our teen years.

My first paying job in the marine industry came at age 16, when I worked summers as the dock master/launch driver at Onset Bay Marina, which I would own nine years later. During summers while in college and later graduate school, where I learned the tools to become an associate professor of English at Bentley College and an adjunct faculty member at Boston University, I continued at the yard: painting bottoms and doing general yard work. At one point the three-man service crew even taught me the fine art of sanding and varnishing.

With an intense love of literature and creative writing, and although my family expected me to follow my dad into the practice of medicine, my goal was to write “the great American novel” and become the next Herman Melville or Herman Wouk, author of “The Caine Mutiny.” Why not? I’d been running boats since grammar school. Of course, I needed a day job after grad school, so I took a teaching position and wrote at night. As a young, single man living in Boston there was never enough time for the writing.

The same youthful naïveté that informed my hubristic goal of becoming a famous American novelist took me to the next chapter and one that would become the framework for the rest of my life. As an avid boater and successful physician, my dad had leased the same marina at which I had earlier been the dock boy, etc. Since I “knew all about boats” (hah), I persuaded him to allow me to take a leave of absence from my teaching positions and manage the marina.

To my great sorrow he died of a heart attack a month later, and I became the head of the family. Not to worry, I thought. I will buy the marina, make lots of money, and after five or six short years be financially set and ready to return to writing full time.

Well, the reality was, it took over 10 years to get out of debt and another five to become truly profitable. During those first years I came to realize how little I knew about boat repair or running a business, and how devastating Mother Nature can be. We survived several hurricanes. During one of them we lost the entire marina, which had grown from 44 to 110 slips, plus one of the first drystacks on Cape Cod.

But it was certainly not all adversity. With the exception of the oil crisis and the luxury tax — the latter actually was a boon to the service business, as we began adding cockpit extensions to sport and motor yachts — the period of the 1970s and ’80s saw exponential growth in boating and the marine industry in general.

Parlaying what had become an incredibly successful service and brokerage business at Onset Bay Marina, we opened a retail dealership on the highway and later built a half dozen Down East-style coastal cruisers. In fact, we believed we had stumbled onto the lobster boat gentrification before Hinckley and others took it to the huge presence the style enjoys today.

Toward the latter half of the ’80s my wife and I sold Onset Bay Marina and moved to Florida, where we took a couple-year respite from the boat business to begin the development of a luxury condominium and marina project in Fort Lauderdale. By the mid-’90s I had returned to yachting, now as a megayacht broker in Fort Lauderdale, an experience that formed the basis of my second published novel (the first was a narrative history published by McGraw-Hill during the teaching years in Boston), a mystery titled “A DaVinci to Die For.” Health issues ended my time in Florida.

Soon after recovery from surgery and a brief return to teaching in the University of New Hampshire system, I was tapped to become the general manager and later the VP at Palmer Johnson Yachts in Savannah, Ga. These years were among the most exciting, as we were engaged in multimillion-dollar refits — in fact, we won refit of the year for M/Y Charisma in 2001 — and large new construction projects. It was a very different world from the small and medium-size boat/yacht business — a different culture populated by professional managers and captains with much less contact with and for end users.

The Savannah years saw Annie and me jet-setting around Europe to develop a joint-venture service facility with the government of Malta and later attempt to establish a satellite new-construction business in Turkey.

When Palmer Johnson was sold again, we returned to New England, where I reopened a consulting practice (originally formed to assist a start-up patrol boat builder) and found myself once again traveling the world, this time to the Mideast for a Kuwaiti group that was planning to import and ultimately build U.S. yachts in Kuwait.

Tiring of the travel, I was fortunate to find another opportunity to work for an extremely high-luxury custom builder, Hodgdon Yachts, in Maine. Upon completion of an all-carbon 83-foot high-performance café cruiser-styled motoryacht for the patriarch of a European royal family, I retired and believed I was finished with the boat business.

Less than six months later Ian Kopp, the president of Maritime Marine, called to ask if I might know someone who would join his company to help develop and take to the next level his recent asset acquisition of Southport Boat Works. We both agreed I was the candidate he was after. I have been with Southport Boats now for over three years, during which the company has grown more than threefold and is on its way to becoming one of the most successful high-performance/high-value offshore center console builders currently on the market.

What began as a parental hunger for the water has instilled in me a fondness — no, truly a love — of boats and boating: from that little rowboat that my brother and I paddled as youngsters to building some of the finest craft afloat. I remain as passionate about the business, the products and the people as I was at 16, standing on the gas dock and waiting for a transient yachtsman to throw me his line. It has been a fabulous journey with no end in sight.

Skip Robinson is the managing director of Southport Boats LLC.

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