Baltimore Sun

Local companies design and build custom boats for the Bay

On the Chesapeake Bay, the summertime months are made for cruising. From the crisp mornings of late spring through the hazy evenings of August, a boat on the bay is the place to be.

And how better to cruise than in a boat built by one of the bay's own builders? A handful of companies, on the Eastern and Western shores, design and build custom boats that are worthy of any body of water. But, thanks to their creators' deep knowledge of the area, these yachts are especially at home in the bay.

Campbell's Custom Yachts
26106A Bachelor Harbor Drive, Oxford

For Tom and Susan Campbell, owners of Campbell's Custom Yachts and three marinas in Oxford, what they do every day all comes down to one thing: the finished project. "It's a great accomplishment to put a whole boat together," says Susan Campbell. "Each one's so different and unique. That's the biggest thing -- the pride in the boat."

Campbell boats follow a traditional "downeast" design, with level riding hulls, which means they sit square in the water, even when moving quickly. Every boat is custom, usually developed in close cooperation with the owner; according to Campbell, new boats typically take about a year to build.

In addition to smooth operation and attractive styling, system accessibility is a hallmark of their yachts, says Susan Campbell. "If you work on the boat later, it's not a hard process to get into the systems," she says. Plus, the heavy involvement of customers in the design process means that buyers are intimately familiar with their boats before they even hit the water.

Tom Campbell began building custom boats in the mid-'80s, for another company, before starting Campbell's Custom Yachts in 1993. The location of their business was never in question -- they grew up on the bay and love Oxford.

"It's a slower pace," says Susan. "As my husband says, we're always on vacation in Oxford."

Composite Yacht
1650 Marina Drive, Unit A, Trappe

Martin Hardy grew up in Washington, D.C., thinking of Maryland's Eastern Shore only when he was driving to or from the beach. But in 1974, after a stint doing wooden boat repairs on a farm in Scotland, Hardy found himself in Cambridge, learning to build wooden boats from John Swain of Swain BoatBuilders.

Hardy opened Composite Yacht in 1999; his son, Lewis Hardy, joined him in the business about 10 years ago. The elder Hardy says he no longer builds wooden boats -- "people don't want the maintenance of wood," he explains -- but his designs do draw on the region's history.

"Our specialty is the Chesapeake Bay deadrise-style boats," he says. "They evolved from Chesapeake Bay workboats. They're especially suited for the sea conditions on the bay. They stand up to the chop of the bay and have good seakeeping abilities."

Hardy estimates that about three-quarters of the boats he sells are sport-fishing boats; the rest are more cruising-oriented, with the occasional commercial vessel added to the mix.

It's a great job, he says, and a local industry with great camaraderie. Talking about other local boat builders, Hardy says, "We're competitors, but we're all good friends. The Chesapeake area has a huge maritime history, and to maintain it and make it a strong boat-building center is an advantage to all of us."

Eastport Yacht Co.
808 Boucher Ave., Annapolis

The team at the helm of Eastport Yacht Co., Tom Weaver and Mick Price, is unlike most of the powerboat builder community in one specific way: They're sailors.

Both naval architects and lifelong sailors, the pair has been designing boats for decades and began working together, as Weaver-Price Design & Construction, in 1996. They still design sailboats, but today their flagship powerboat, which they design and build under the Eastport Yacht Co. name, is the Eastport 32.

Early on, "we designed boats for all different builders," Weaver says. "The funny thing about that is you end up designing what they want. You compromise because different people have different ideas. Then we designed our own boat, the 32."

The 32 is a twin-engine boat with great maneuverability and shallow draft, says Weaver, noting that because of their sailing backgrounds, both he and Price have a strong understanding of the importance of shape and weight distribution on the water.

For Weaver and Price, boat design and building is more than just a job. "You could call it a vocation," says Weaver. "My whole life has been on the water. My office overlooks the water. I'm there every day of the year."

And though the New Zealand native has traveled all over the world, he says the Chesapeake Bay area is special. "The bay is an incredible body of water -- shallow and protected with lots of creeks and places to explore. There are very few places in the world like it. Every year, we consider ourselves lucky."

Judge Yachts
9531 Legion Road, Denton

A self-described "boat nut," Bill Judge started designing boats right out of college when, as a competitive water skier, he worked as a representative for a tournament ski boat company. In 1988, he opened Judge Yachts, where he now employs a crew of about nine expert craftsmen who design and build 22- to 42-foot sport-fishing and cruising boats.

Judge Yachts designs and builds 10 or 12 boats at a time, using a semi-custom build approach, in which customers start with one of Judge's designs, modifying the specs to fit their personal needs.

Designing and building a Judge Yacht is like building a custom home, Judge explains, in which the buyer can pick and choose interior and exterior features.

"Typically, our customers are already knowledgeable about boats," he says. "So they try to incorporate what they like about three or four other boats and put them into one. They can put on what they want and take off what they don't."

Judge says he and his crew have a great time working closely with customers to design and build their boats, experimenting with different layouts and features. The former skier admits, though, that what really keeps him happy is getting out on the water.

"One of my favorite things is to water-test boats," he says. "To try to improve them -- to make them work better than someone else's boat."

And Judge believes there's no place better to water test than on the Chesapeake Bay. "Nowhere else in the country do you have an area with a body of water like the Chesapeake, with all those creeks and rivers. Once you grow up on the Chesapeake, it's hard to leave."

Mathews Brothers
408 N. 10th St., Denton

On any given day, Mathews Brothers owner Pete Mathews might be found in his office, tooling around his marina, or out on the build floor, helping finalize the details on a custom build. A boat lover since childhood and a boat builder since the 1980s, Mathews learned his craft on the job, building and then running a marina and performing the boat maintenance that comes with the territory.

"I've been around boats since I was a little kid," he says. "Messing about. I spent the majority of my life around Talbot and Caroline counties. I remember as a kid being out sailing with my folks, fishing with other kids and crabbing.

"In the '80s, I worked on everything from the cheapest little runabouts to the biggest, most expensive boats."

After nearly a decade of marina work, in 1995 he started Mathews Brothers with his brother, whom he bought out in 2008. Today, the company works closely with customers to build custom boats in the "Chesapeake Bay style," incorporating elegant lines, lots of woodwork and easy handling.

Whether Mathews is on the floor or busy sanding a boat, chances are, he'll be surrounded by his family, including his wife, Annie; son, Spencer; and daughter-in-law, Patience, all of whom work closely with him. Mathews also relies heavily on floor manager Dave Iglehart, who has taken over some responsibilities as the company has grown.

Still, a bay and boat lover at heart, Mathews likes to keep his hands in the process, saying, "I don't get to do much of it anymore, but the most enjoyment for me is the woodwork."