A boat builder out of water Off-season: When the cold sets in and boaters take a hiatus, one yacht company makes up for lost business by taking on unusual jobs.

March 06, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Yacht companies do not live by boats alone -- especially during the off-season.

Thus it is that the partners in J. Hamilton Yacht Co., when not creating flashy, racing sailboats or elegant motorboats, have found themselves fixing brass hinges on enameled jewelry boxes, patching up prosthetic ankles and waterproofing fiberglass church domes. Recently, they received an inquiry about flying saucers.

The Annapolis company's occasional foray into quirkiness has a simple explanation, the owners say.

"If we could exist on building boats alone, that's probably all we'd do," said Joe Evans, who started the business 12 years ago with partner Colin Crozier. "But we've got to survive, keep food on the table and pay our bills.

"If fulfillment were marked by the bottom line, there would be no sculptors, painters or boat builders," Evans said. "Our work lies somewhere between craft and art, with a little bit of business mixed in. It definitely keeps us on our toes."

One could almost say the company is a magnet for the peculiar. For example, last Christmas a man called with a request for carbon fiber, a material used to build boat hulls and space shuttle doors. J. Hamilton obliged, pulling off a square foot of the stuff and sending the man away with advice about how to fix a crack in his wife's prosthetic ankle.

They also humor the occasional lost soul who wanders into their shop in the midst of the colorful boats and other maritime businesses at Bert Jabin's Yacht Yard by Back Creek. Their requests range from help fixing broken legs on wooden dressers to building fiberglass molds for arcade games.

"Sometimes it's so much easier just to do the job, rather than helping them flip through the telephone book to find a business that really does that kind of work," said Evans, who considers himself the businessman of the outfit. "We do get some interesting ones though."

Anything seems possible for Evans and Crozier, who is "the master artist," and their crew -- a group known for innovations and high-tech concepts. Anything seems possible in a warehouse where sawdust covers the floors, the scent of wood fills the air and power tools buzz incessantly.

Take, for instance, the time they designed foils for the U.S. Fencing Team in the early 1990s. The team was having a problem with swords that kept breaking, leaving jagged edges that could hurt opponents. America needed a safer, lighter blade, and J. Hamilton came up with the solution -- a combination of plastic, resin and fiberglass.

Then there was the time in 1988 when they built five submarine doors for the Navy, beating out several government contractors who bid for the work. It took J. Hamilton three weeks to build a mold, mix and mash fiberglass, epoxy and foam and squeeze all the bubbles out to make the doors airtight.

And now and then, they field a really out-of-this-world request -- such as building flying saucers for a space exhibit. "C'mon, not real ones," Evans said.

Once they found themselves balancing precariously on the side of the golden fiberglass dome of St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church several hundred feet above Riva Road near Annapolis -- far from the soothing water where they prefer to earn a livelihood.

"They were listed in the Yellow Pages," said Robert R. McNeil, who hired them. "But who better to waterproof than boat builders? It's the only church dome in the area that can be considered seaworthy, that's for sure."

Oh yes, and have they mentioned boats? When J. Hamilton isn't fixing "holes the size of men" in the hull of a boat, the company builds them in all shapes, sizes, colors and models.

In the late 1980s, the company's claim to fame was the Ultimate 30, a 30-foot custom-built, racing sailboat designed "to push the edge." The boats could move about 35 mph, three times the speed of regular sailboats, and weighed 260 pounds. A normal-size sailboat weighs about 1,500 pounds.

While the company might build an average of one to three original boats a year for customers, company officials have moved into a new direction by indulging their passion, fly fishing. Evans and his crew are producing a new version of a 1940s North Carolina fishing boat -- able to meet the saltwater fly-fishing challenge by crossing rough seas in a single bound.

"They're a pretty clever group of people," said William Ziegler, a Stanford, Conn., sailing aficionado who had a racing boat built for him by J. Hamilton. "It's not all about boat building there. In this industry, smaller companies that want to stay in business have to find other things to do.

"There's a need to constantly adapt, and they're very good at it."

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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