By Amy Rowley
Sam Devlin is a celebrity – not the type to grace the cover of Hollywood gossip tabloids but rather to be featured repeatedly in the industry bible, Wooden Boat magazine.
The master craftsman designs and build gorgeous wooden boats locally, in an industrial warehouse on Mottman Road. In this space, Devlin and his two sons build boats that range in size from a seven-foot dinghy to a 52-foot motorsailer.
I will unabashedly admit to knowing very little about wooden boats. All I know is that my husband is obsessed with his sailboat “Some Day” which is the Devlin Boat model, Nancy’s China.
It’s a little day sailer and doesn’t quite fit our family of four, which in my mind is perfect. I ship him off for the day and quietly read a magazine, both of us happy with our weekend hobbies. But, as other spouses of boat owners will understand, he yearns for the next boat.
‘Stitch and Glue’ Boat Building
Devlin pioneered a process for building boats which would earn him worldwide respect.
Using a methodology called “stitch and glue,” Devlin literally stitches pieces of marine plywood together before encasing the entire boat in fiberglass and epoxy resin. Devlin was the first boat builder to show that this structural boat building method would work in vessels larger than a dinghy.
Devlin’s method achieves a stronger boat that is easier to construct and uses fewer parts. It’s also simpler to maintain over the long term.
Designing and Building Wooden Boats
Devlin’s boat designing ‘career’ began in kindergarten when he won an art contest for his drawing of a tugboat. During college, he worked on tugboats in Alaska and also conducted wildlife research, which explains why many of his boat designs are named after birds. “My life had two directions – either to stay in academia (specifically wildlife research) or move into boat building,” says Devlin. “Boat building has always been a part of me. It would come in and go out but I could never get it out of my head.”
In 1977, he built three eight-foot dinghies and sold them in a garage sale for a one-way ticket to Kodiak, Alaska. His plan was to jump aboard a crab boat for three months and earn enough seed money to build more boats.
The plan went a little awry when the crabbing trip lasted only four days. But during that short trip, a deckhand commissioned Devlin to build him a 20’ sail boat. “He gave me a $1500 deposit and I started working on it,” recalls Devlin.
Relying solely on postal mail and Polaroid photos, Devlin sent off the first set of drawings to his customer. “I figured it would take a week for the letter to reach him. Then, I waited another week, figuring he may be out fishing. Then, perhaps a third week for him to write me back. I kept waiting and waiting and I never heard from him again,” he says. During that waiting time, Devlin took his father’s advice and secured a loan to finish the boat.
His next commission came from an investor who wanted to spend $10,000 on a spec boat. “I designed a 16-foot tugboat, “Ouzel”. In six months time, we had it on the boat show circuit and sold it for $12,500,” remembers Devlin.
“One project rolled into another,” he says with a smile. “I just have simply never caught up since then.”
Devlin has since sold 418 boats while carving out a niche in the marine industry.
He sells his boat designs worldwide to individuals with various levels of wood working skills, proving that his plans are simple to construct. In April, he shipped plans to Guam, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Bosnia bringing his worldwide total to 82 countries where Devlin Boats have been made.
Devlin is currently working on a 54’ custom boat design for a customer in Russia. “I paint myself metaphorically into every design. I spend a fair amount of time imagining what it would be like to use the boat in the conditions it is suited for,” he explains.
I try to pin him down to his favorite boat but he avoids the question. Instead, he says that if he could become his own customer, he would build a version of the 48’ Blue Fin and a new design, circulating in his head, for a 45’ motorsailer called the Dynamo.
A Partnership With Heritage Bank
To make his business work, Devlin has relied on a close relationship with Kevin Ekar, Senior Vice President at Heritage Bank. “The most formative piece of my business was when I realized that Kevin and the bank had become my partner,” he explains. “Kevin has been the support that I have needed financially which has given me the confidence to keep going. I will always be grateful.”
Devlin recalls advice from a family friend. “He told me to introduce myself to bankers. Avoid using the drive-up window and instead always stop in, reintroduce yourself, every time you make a deposit,” says Devlin when recalling how his relationship with Ekar began.
“People say banking is a science but I believe it’s about developing science around the relationship,” adds Ekar in mutual appreciation for the relationship with Devlin. “If you look beyond the numbers and into the relationship you get a very different picture of the business. Numbers may drive a decision but you have to understand the individual behind the business and how they will manage during both good and bad times.”
“I never allowed myself for this business to not work,” says Devlin. “The reality is that my business success isn’t because I’m talented but because I got my nose headed in a direction and I tried to keep heading north, following the compass needle.”
And, that advice seems suitable for budding entrepreneurs… and husbands who want to build their first wooden boat from a Devlin Boats kit. I’ll make space in the garage, honey, and maybe even look over the plans with you.
For more information on Devlin Boats, click here.