Made in Maine: Where craftsmanship and carbon meet

Published on April 22nd, 2014

When it comes to modern boatbuilding, this quaint little village by the sea, East Boothbay in Maine, has reached the Space Age.

Hodgdon Yachts’ latest endeavor is to build one of the most ambitious racing yachts, from material so high end, it can send astronauts into orbit. Literally.

“This is really aerospace technology. There are not many boats that are built this way,” Tim Hodgdon said. “You’ve got to have a really good reason to want to build something light and stiff and strong to want to put this kind of effort into it.”

And that really good reason means our local workforce is pulling out all the stops, which might just put Hodgdon Yachts on the books for building the super yacht that shatters world records.

Hodgdon, the company president, and the fifth generation of East Boothbay boatbuilders, said it took “massive capital investments” last year to renovate the School Street facilities from a boat shop into a giant oven. That’s right, Hodgdon Yachts is now an industrial sized oven where technicians, builders and engineers work around the clock.

Touring the Hodgdon Yachts facility is a bit like walking through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but instead of snozzberries, there are thermal couplers, vacuum bags and pre-preg carbon-fiber composites.

“Pre-preg” is a term frequently used in Hodgdon Yachts. It means pre-impregnated composite fibers, which are used to build incredibly light and sturdy carbon infused hulls. From a completely uninvolved layman’s perspective, a carbon hull looks sort of like the world’s most expensive piece of Styrofoam.

In reality, making pre-preg carbon-fiber composites is a high-tech process that not too many, outside of those in NASA and the United States Air Force are doing right now. The method involves an elaborate matrix of epoxies and fibers that come embedded in frozen sheets that then get baked at temperatures of 100 C. The fibers fuse under heat and pressure and the sheets form an incredibly strong surface. Hence the need for an oven that stretches 120 feet long and 40 feet wide. Inside it houses the futuristic 100-foot carbon hull dubbed “NewCubed.”

“This whole thing is specifically intended to be the fastest mono-hull ever built,” Hodgdon said. “It’s built to crush records.”

And if you think it doesn’t get any more sophisticated than that, you’re wrong. Joining Hodgdon Yachts’ local workforce is an international group Hodgdon calls the SWAT Team. Sequestered in the back room, the SWAT Team is made up of a bunch of tech savvy people monitoring the many components that come with building a record breaking ship.

So how on earth did this contract land in Hodgdon Yachts’ lap?

Five years ago, Hodgdon built two speedy motor yachts that were light, strong and stiff, and since then, the company has made a giant leap into advanced composite construction.

“I feel very fortunate working with Tim, that we’ve been able to take a relatively small group of composite people here and we really expanded the capabilities,” Foreman Skip Orne said. “Basically, it’s catapulted us into doing mainstream infusions.”

Outside of aerospace, carbon infusions are a niche market few boatbuilders have cornered due the high price of materials, infrastructure and risks involved. But with this cutting edge technology used in NewCubed, this monstrous carbon infused hull is strong enough to withstand rugged ocean crossings, but light enough to fly through the water. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a world renowned skipper on board. Ken Read has joined the team.

“We wouldn’t be building this boat if we didn’t have Kenny Read as the skipper,” Orne said. “He’s the driving force behind this project.”

As president of the North Sails group, Read plans to navigate NewCubed, (or whatever the real name will be) into the treacherous seas of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race; an event that will surely keep sailing enthusiasts busy blogging around the world starting the day after Christmas 2014. The Sydney Hobart race has a dangerous reputation for seas that swallow up million dollar yachts. In 1998 alone, five yachts went down and six people died.

Read also intends to shatter transatlantic records with the sheer power, thrust and agility wrought by the ultra-light carbon fiber design.

Fast-tracked on an aggressive timeline, the NewCubed vessel is slated for a September 1 launch in East Boothbay.

But before the doors open and champagne corks fly, Hodgdon is quick to point out that none of this could have happened without the combined efforts of his local team of skilled builders and engineers collaborating with world class people from Marc Van Peteghem and Vincent Lauriot-Prevost (VPLP) and Guillaime Verdier, the French design firms behind this innovative vessel.

In the 200 years of service, Hodgdon Yachts’ track record has achieved world class notoriety, pushing the envelope of innovation and advanced composite boatbuilding.

Tim Hodgdon continues to grow his family’s company from yacht construction, custom tenders, interior defense and, pretty soon, service (assuming the deal closes with Boothbay Region Boatyard and Wotton’s Wharf).

Only one question remained for the humble boatbuilder: What would your father and grandfather think if they saw this going on today?

“I think they would be pretty amazed,” Hodgdon said.

Source: Boothbay Register

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