2018-04-11

Wave of success

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>Bruce Thompson, the owner of Tern Boatworks, is looking to expand the operation beyond Gold River.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTOS</p><p>Bruce Thompson next to the International One Design boat his company, Tern Boatworks, built.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Tern Boatworks&#8217;s owner, Bruce Thompson, in front of the International One Design boat his company was hired to build.</p>
  • <p>A 48-foot motor-sailor boat under construction at Tern Boatworks.</p>

As the Nova Scotia government moves to diversify the provincial economy, it's ironic that among the more thriving businesses are those that hail back to more traditional times.

Boat building on the South Shore, for example, is riding high on a wave of demand, and one only needs to look at Tern Boatworks in Chester Basin as a case in point.

Starting about 15 years ago as a sideline operation in Dartmouth with a few odd jobs for owner Bruce Thompson, Tern has grown into a bustling business with 12 employees at the Gold River Marina, where work is lined up well into next year and expansion is clearly on the horizon.

Tern undertakes new builds, restoration work, repairs and maintenance, and insurance work, mostly with traditional wooden boats that locals own.

Its contracts range anywhere from $200 to $1 million.

But even though the company has seen steady, consistent growth that many rural businesses can only hope for, the placid and soft-spoken Thompson isn't given to hyperbole.

"We have a lot of work. And people that we do work for every year," he summed up in an interview with LighthouseNOW.

And while he didn't set out to have his own company, he says, "it just kind of happened."

Thompson was one of the younger generation's lucky ones when he graduated from high school in the mid-1990s. He knew exactly what he wanted to do - build boats.

It was a passion that developed as a youngster growing up in Bedford and who spent a lot of time around boats. When he was 16, he built his own trimaran.

But as luck would have it, as he was graduating, the colleges were pulling up anchor on their boat building programs. He was fortunate to get a junior position job at Royal Yacht Squadron in Halifax "launching boats and stuff."

He considered signing up for a course in England and approached Covey Island Boatworks in Petite Riviere to see if that was something management there would advise.

"And they basically did an interview there and hired me," he recalls.

He came on board at Covey Island as a general helper with entry-level skills, but went on to apprentice with them, while taking a couple of evening boat building courses that were still being offered through the Nova Scotia Community College.

"They basically fed my passion in boat building and gave me huge amounts of opportunities." He's grateful for having been mentored by "some really good boat builders there."

Thompson would remain with Covey Island for five years before spending the next two sailing his own boat to Florida, the Bahamas and Cuba.

He ended up in Halifax while his girlfriend (who would become his wife) finished college.

He took on work at a boat builder in the city, but would transition from that to his own clients as the company began moving from wooden boats to production fibreglass.

Working out of a rented space in Dartmouth, he and one employee, a friend, did interior jobs, a teak deck and built a spar.

Thompson registered the business in 2004 and "the work just kept coming."

They shifted the business to Gold River Marina, after hearing the owners were looking to cater to local wooden boat owners.

Thompson has never looked back since.

Tern was retained for a a complete restoration of Seneca, a 30-foot, 1907 original Herreshoff in time for its centennial.

"That was a good project and it was exactly where we wanted to be going," said Thompson.

It wasn't a particularly lucrative job, but it kept the boat works company going and within a couple of years of starting the business had three more employees.

After Seneca the company was hired to do all the systems and interior of a 38-foot lobster boat.

In 2009, an American with a summer home on the South Shore enlisted Tern to do a new build of a 34-foot International One Design, plank on frame.

"That was a dream job. It was such clean work and all traditional skills," enthuses Thompson.

Tern's mandate: "The boat was to last generations. " So the quality of materials was "top notch."

The association overseeing the International One Design builds sent three members to Tern to measure the finished product to make it official.

"And when they were done, the biggest discrepancy they could find from the original drawings was an eighth of an inch," says Thompson with pride. Considering it was hand-built, "they were pretty pleased with it."

And now they're building a 48-foot motorsailer (power) boat.

But even then he doesn't talk about lucrative contracts.

"I don't really look at it that way, I suppose. I mean it keeps us employed. I don't think it's a very lucrative trade," he says.

Since then, there has been a steady flow of boat maintenance, repairs, insurance work, restorations and the odd new build.

"We've got a number of boats now that we take care of. We get them ready in the spring. They're on the moorings when the owners want them there. Then we pick them up and bring them back and put them away."

Thompson attributes his success to the fact the business is "flexible in what we take on," balancing longer-term projects with shorter or steady ones.

The company recently hired someone to work in the office sorting invoices, researching materials and overseeing the marketing.

And Thompson says he would take on more general laborers if he could find them, something he says is "impossible" to do.

"We're always looking for anybody that's got skill in this trade."

It's a problem most boat building businesses are confronted with these days.

"It's not like you're focusing on one aspect. A good boatbuilder has to have woodworking skills, mechanical skills. There's plumbing, electrical. Like the composites, there's rigging," notes Thompson. Although he's quick to add: "Which is why I love it, because it's not repetitive in any way."

Despite the labor challenges, the company is forging ahead with plans to purchase a property and construct another boat building workshop dedicated to its longer-term projects, freeing up space at Gold River for the quicker ones.

Meanwhile, Thompson has come full circle. Having been "grandfathered" into the Nova Scotia Boat Builders Association accreditation standard, his company now draws and mentors its own apprentices.

Although Thompson insists his company was "an accident," he admits, "it's definitely worked out.

"There's no question about it. It's been great," says Thompson.

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