'The pleasure boat market was decimated in the recession.'
STAYING AFLOAT: Naval-architecture and marine-engineering firm Bristol Harbor Group is finding opportunity in the cargo, transportation and energy sectors. Pictured above are Bristol Harbor President Greg Beers, left, and Vice President Cory Wood.
With the pleasure-craft market as depressed as it is now, two college students parading around Manhattan in tuxedos may not be able to convince anyone they are successful luxury-yacht designers like Gregory Beers and Cory Wood did in 1993.
Back then, such a story seemed plausible to the two University of Michigan students visiting a New York City naval-architecture conference, all dressed up with nowhere to go.
“We pulled up to the clubs in a limousine and they whisked us right in,” Beers recalled. “We had quite an evening and on the plane ride home we thought maybe we should try it for real. That’s what made us think we could do it.”
Nearly two decades later, the tall tale Beers and Wood cooked up to get beyond the velvet rope is at least partly reality, even if they don’t spend much time in limos.
Bristol Harbor Group, the company Beers and Wood founded along with fellow naval architect Andrew Tyska right after that trip to New York, now carries on Rhode Island’s storied ship-design tradition in an evolving way.
Now plying waters from Narragansett Bay to Alaska’s North Slope, the firm’s designs include runabouts, high-speed ferries, oil-tank barges, tugboats, Coast Guard cutters, paddle-wheel tour boats and construction-staging barges.
To survive the recession, which eviscerated the recreational boat market, Bristol Harbor is focusing on the commercial and industrial markets, where cargo, transportation and the energy sector are opening up opportunities.
“We are pretty pessimistic on the pleasure-boat market; it was decimated in the recession,” Wood said. “I was at the [Norwalk, Conn.], boat show in 2008 when Wall Street crashed. You could have shot a cannon through there and not hit anyone. It was like someone turned the spigot off.”
In 2009, Bristol Harbor joined with a Texas designer to open an office outside Houston focusing on vessels serving the oil, gas and inland-cargo markets, which have been much more resilient than the recreational sector.
Last year, Bristol Harbor Group sold Bristol Harbor Boats, its small-boat construction division, to Maritime Marine in Maine, which is now producing and selling the 19- and 21-foot center-console boats that used to be made in Rhode Island.
Bristol Harbor’s founders were drawn to Rhode Island because of its boat-building tradition, but now many of the vessels the firm is designing are much more at home on the Gulf of Mexico or a Midwestern river than the Atlantic.