SEARSPORT, Maine — A few generations ago, every coastal Maine town or village would have had at least one family that specialized in building small wooden boats, each with a slightly different style that would set their craft apart from the rest.
Those days, mostly, are long gone. But one Searsport family is working to keep the small boat-building tradition alive and thriving in a busy workshop on Mount Ephraim Road. Here, Dale Cottrell, 65, and his son Seth Cottrell, 39, of Cottrell Boatbuilding transform wooden boards into seaworthy, elegant small boats such as wherries, yacht tenders, dories and daysailers.
“Our style is attention to detail,” Seth Cottrell said as he fitted long strips of wood into the steam box that would soften them so they could be shaped into the frame of a boat. “We’ve really sort of found our niche. Coming to work everyday, no day is the same. It’s a lot of fun.”
Dale Cottrell, who was carefully putting a coat of paint onto a 15-foot-long Penobscot wherry, said that he grew up on the New Jersey shore, where he and his friends were in the ocean all the time. In the early 1970s, he moved to Maine and started building fiberglass canoes in Hampden.
“It got crowded in Jersey,” he said with a smile.
In the mid-1980s, Dale Cottrell designed and began to build the Puffin dinghy, a small fiberglass boat that was intended to be a sailboat tender but also was used by people seeking an inexpensive way to get into sailing. Back then, his company was called Winterport Boat Co., and it built and sold more than 300 fiberglass dinghies a year before Dale Cottrell decided to shift his focus from fiberglass to wooden boats.
“Wood is great,” Seth Cottrell said, adding that he enjoys working with wood more than fiberglass.
And they have found that enough other people prefer wood to make their business viable. Using materials such as cedar, oak and marine plywood, they can build 10 or 12 small boats per year. Most of the boats take them about six to eight weeks from beginning to end, and they usually have a backlog of at least three to six boats.
“We’re busy year-round,” Lynn Cottrell, Dale Cottrell’s wife and Seth Cottrell’s mother, said of the family-owned business. “It’s a nice way to make a living and a nice way to carry on a tradition that’s just so Maine.”
On a hot late-June day, the shop was crowded with boats in various stages of completion, and it smelled richly of cedar and paint. On the lawn outside, a finished Chaisson dory — a rugged boat that rows and handles well — waited to be transported to a YMCA camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.
Lynn Cottrell said that the camp official who originally got in touch told her it had been very challenging to find someone to build a small wooden boat.
The Cottrells said they are glad to fill that need.
“We build small boats because it doesn’t take quite so long, and two people can move them around,” Dale Cottrell said. “And we like the customer base, the people who buy them. Most of our customers become friends.”