From left to right, Ben, Seth and Dale at work in their shop on a Cottrell Catspaw Dinghy.
By Wanda Curtis

One business sector seeing a boom during the pandemic is the boat building industry. Contrary to what some boat builders expected, sales skyrocketed nationwide during the past two years. Maine’s “largest builder of small wooden boats” is Cottrell Boatbuilding, a company that has seen an increase in sales during the pandemic which they attribute to people having more flexible work schedules and more time for leisure activity.

“Most people were looking to isolate,” said Lynn Cottrell. “I had a lovely young mom in Rhode Island buy one for her three kids because they were not able to go to their summer camps. And I think people just had more time on their hands and decided it was time to pony up and buy a boat!”

Cottrell Boatbuilding is a family-owned and operated company with shops in Searsport and Winterport. Lynn’s husband Dale and their two sons Seth and Ben do all of the building. Lynn said that she handles the sales and bookkeeping. She also does painting and varnishing when the need arises, she said. They build small wooden boats for rowing and sailing — wherries, dinghies, yacht tenders, dories and daysailers. They also build custom boats.

“We use centuries-old traditional methods as well as modern construction techniques,” said Lynn. “We love building traditional plank-on-frame boats, but we realize it is not for everyone. These days most of our boats are a more modern composite construction, mainly glued lap wood epoxy. The new modern wooden boat. This modern construction method results in a very rugged, lightweight, strong hull. Less expensive and easy to maintain.”

According to Lynn, one of the plank-on-frame “fiddleheads” (a kind of small, double-paddle canoe) they built is being used as the base for a glass-topped conference table. She said the boat was specially designed to be taken out on the lake and then to an office setting in the New Hampshire mountains.

“We also have one in the barn now waiting for the house it is going into to be finished,” she said. “It is going to be a chandelier hanging from a cathedral ceiling. The owners are planning on rowing her at least once before she is installed — that made us feel a little better. We build our boats to be used, but we love that people appreciate their value as art too. We have built a couple of boats for some very famous musicians.”

In recent days, Cottrell’s 12- and 15-foot Maine whitehalls have been their most popular boats.  The 12-footer is good for a single rower but has room for several passengers, said Lynn. The 15-footer is better for couples who want to row together. One of their 12-foot Maine whitehalls was purchased by a local woman who grew up rowing on the Maine coast. The boat was dubbed “Annie,” which is also the name of the owner’s dog.

Customers From As Far Away As Spain

The Cottrell family builds custom boats for locals, as well as customers from far away. Spain, New York and Boston are real hot spots right now, said Lynn. One couple brought them a boat that had been in their family for many years and was left to disintegrate. They wanted the boat rebuilt but there wasn’t anything left to rebuild.

“We took the lines off it and built a new one for them,” Lynn said. “Actually our boats are all semi-custom as our customers choose the boat they want and then decide, for instance, do they want it trimmed in mahogany or teak, what colors do they want it painted, etc. The glued lap boat hulls are made of Marine-grade plywood and trimmed in mahogany or teak. The traditional plank-on-frame boat hulls are cedar on oak, trimmed in mahogany or teak.”

Customers need to allow anywhere from 6 to 12 months for custom boats to be completed. Some people give a deposit to hold a building slot for them.

All Parts Made By Hand

According to Seth Cottrell, their shop is one of the last of its kind in the world. He said they don’t fabricate any parts. Everything is made by hand using old, traditional methods. He said that his family has been building boats since the 1980s.

“Boatbuilding is a huge part of the Cottrell family’s culture because they’ve all grown up around it and honed their craft over the years,” said Seth. “My brother Ben and I are the primary builders. Dad is supposed to be retired but he has a hard time being it. We build between 10 and 12 boats a year. Boats take from six to 16 weeks or so to build from start to finish, but it depends on the model.”

Dale Cottrell moved to Maine in 1969 and worked for other boatbuilders for a time, said Seth. He worked for River and Gillman and then Plastic Pete. He started Winterport Boat Company, building the puffin dinghy, in the mid-80s.

The family finds pleasure in observing the joy their completed boats bring to the owners. Many of their customers share updates about where their boats travel and often seek help in maintaining the boats.

While Cottrell Boatbuilding is a family business and Seth’s three children enjoy working with him in the shop, he said he doesn’t expect the youngest generation of the Cottrell family to take up boatbuilding as a career. He hopes that maybe they’ll at least pursue it as a hobby in the future though. 

“There aren’t many people who build small traditional wooden boats anymore,” said Seth. “It is mostly done through museums. It is labor-intensive and there are faster ways to make a buck.”

But it is all worth it in the end. “Seeing a wooden boat come together from a pile of wood and some screws is a magical thing,” said Lynn, “and the joy that it brings to the owners brings us joy as well.”

See this Section as it appeared in print here