Why does one become a builder of boats? W. Matthew Shipman talks to Steve Zimmerman, of Zimmerman Marine in Mathews, about the challenges and joys of running a boatyard.
Lee Baskerville and Tyler Darden
A Magical Craft - Feature
Growing up outside Philadelphia, Steve Zimmerman was virtually certain that he would become an attorney. Instead, he’s spent the past three decades building and repairing ships in the Virginia Tidewater. Since opening the Zimmerman Marine boatyard on the East River in Mathews County, just off Mobjack Bay, Zimmerman has worked on everything from small fishing boats to the 80-ton replica of the Godspeed owned by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. In this interview, Zimmerman talks about why he never showed up at University of Virginia law, the magic of boatbuilding, and why he doesn’t fantasize about owning a boat when he retires. Excerpts:
VIRGINIA LIVING : What sparked your interest in sailing?
STEVE ZIMMERMAN: When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, I got invited to go sailing with an uncle and just fell in love with it. Gradually, through my uncle and some friends of his, I got invited onto other boats, and I’d just go out for the day. And that evolved to where, when they were moving their boats in the spring from up the Delaware down to the Chesapeake, I’d get invited along because they needed crew.
When I was 17, I saw an ad in a magazine for a deckhand on a boat in New York. I applied for it and got the job. That was a boat called the Rosa II, a [custom-built wooden ketch] that I’ve been taking care of since 1971. I lived on the boat in New York. Every Saturday and Sunday, we’d sail with guests. And then we took off in July for six weeks and cruised to Maine and back, almost to Canada. That was what got me going.
What was it that appealed to you about being on a sailboat?
When you’re on a sailboat, you have to take what’s given to you and accept it, because you can’t overpower Mother Nature. Without realizing it—I was only a teenager—I think that really connected for me.
When did that interest in sailing turn to an interest in boatbuilding?
In 1977, I had graduated from UVA, was accepted at law school there for the fall, and was working on this boat—the Rosa II. I’d been away from the boat for a few years and wanted something to do that summer after four years of college. That summer we visited the yard where the boat had been built, by a guy named Paul Luke. It was these craftsmen, working with their hands in this beautiful, rural cove on the coast of Maine. At the end of the day, they look back at what they just did, and it’s good. And I thought it wouldn’t matter if these guys were building violins or boats. What’s happening here is really unique and something I’d like to experience. And when else am I likely to do it, other than now? So, I finished my season on the boat, drove to Maine and went to work for Paul. Minimum wage. I didn’t know what I was doing. And that’s how I got started.
How did they start teaching you about boatbuilding?
Here I am, I give up law school and drive 1,000 miles to come work at this place, because I want to build boats. I get there, and the first day they send me to the machine shop. There was a 55-gallon drum of wing nut castings next to the drill press. My job was to take one of those out, drill it, and drop it in the empty barrel. I’m thinking, “This is not what I came here for.” Then I have to tap every one of those castings—threading them. Then I have to sand the casting smooth. By the end of the day, my fingers are all bloody. I’d gotten through them all. And thatwent on for weeks. So many people came and went—they didn’t take you seriously until you proved you could work, you could learn, and you were willing to do whatever they sent your way.
The first year, I just thought I was taking a year off and doing something I’ll remember later on. As the year went on, I thought more and more that the lifestyle was really appealing. These guys work with their hands, their day ends when the whistle blows, they live in a beautiful area. There was just a rhythm and simplicity to their lives. I thought, “You know what? Forget the career. As a lifestyle, this makes a lot of sense.” So, I started contemplating the idea of not going to law school. The guys [at the boatyard] knew what was going on, and when I would do something stupid they would say, “You having a law school day, Steve?” [Laughs.]
Once I decided [to make this] a career, the only way I could envision getting the education I needed was by working in different yards and working in different media—aluminum, fiberglass, wood. So I spent three years working for Paul, then I left there and went to work for a fiberglass boatbuilder in Virginia. I had already spent three summers in the boatyard in New York, when I was on the Rosa II. I just educated myself that way.
When did you start Zimmerman Marine?
I started the company in July 1981. I had been working in Urbanna for a guy named Joseph Conboy, where I was the yard foreman. I thought, “You know, in a few years I might be ready to start my own place. Maybe I should start looking around now, because it’s going to take a long time.” A few weeks later, a guy said he knew a place that was available. It was this Quonset hut with a very dilapidated railway and weeds three feet high. Nothing was happening there. That was our original yard in Mathews—the yard we’re in right now.
Did you have a specific philosophy or idea of what you wanted the business to be?
Yes, I did. I wanted to have a boatyard in the New England tradition of working on yachts to very high standards. My nightmare was that I would survive financially, but that I’d have a yard full of boats that I couldn’t stand and couldn’t relate to. That was clear in my mind from day one.
What boat that you’ve built are you most proud of?
It’s a little bit like a parent loving his kids. There is a boat we built called Chanty, a 56-foot wooden ketch, which is just a spectacular boat. That was the most challenging boat we’ve built. From day one, the task was to create a boat that not just performs, but was a work of art. It was a very beautiful boat, and it was all built out of wood. The designer didn’t care how difficult it was to do something. He designed with the idea of “How beautiful can this be?” So, it made for a lot of technical challenges.
What is it that you love about building and working on boats?
Building boats, for me, is magic. You just start with this piece of paper and two-dimensional lines everywhere. And you end up with this thing that floats gracefully. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that, when a boat is on land, it couldn’t be more awkward and cumbersome. And yet, when you put it in the water, no matter how big it is, you can push it with one hand. That’s never lost its magic for me.
Your company also re-fits existing boats. Is that all high-end work, or do you also do minor repairs and modifications?
We do a lot of minor repairs and modifications. Over the years, we’ve worked on some very beautiful, high-end boats. We’re proud of that work—it’s very challenging and gratifying. But people started to have the perception that we only worked on fancy yachts. The reality is that we work on all kinds of boats for people who value a job well done. People come in with 16-foot runabouts, we’ll take care of them. But we’re also working on the Godspeed for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. It’s a 65-foot, 80-ton historic replica [of one of the three ships that sailed to Jamestown in 1607]. It’s not about the boat, it’s about the people.
Is there a particular re-fit that best exemplifies a “before and after” transformation?
We did one last year that was a 16-foot wooden sailboat that had sat in this fellow’s barn for 20 years. The boat was about 40 years old. It was as close to a wrecked boat as you can get. It barely held together. Planks of wood normally fit very tightly together to keep the water out, but you could stick your finger into the gaps between the planks on this boat. The boat had a lot of sentimental value to the owner. It was named after his deceased wife, and he had a lot of memories of using the boat with her. She had passed away, and he decided he wanted to restore the boat and get it sailing again, so he brought it to us. When it came in it looked like a scrap of wood. When it went out, it was just beautiful. He sailed it that summer.
Of course, we’ve also done major re-fits. We did a 60-foot aluminum sailboat that had been owned by Tom Watson Jr., the CEO of IBM at one time. That was a major project that took two years. It’s hard to pick one that’s typical, but I think those two bracket it really well.
Are there any re-fits that seemed like they’d be an easy job at the outset but turned out to be significantly more complicated than you anticipated?
All of them [laughs]. They’re almost always far more complicated than you bargained for.
What’s your best boating adventure story?
Last summer my wife, Gwen, and I were on a boat named Bee Weems, up in British Columbia. It’s a 36-foot, two-person cruising powerboat that we’d built. I had seen whales before a number of times, but not orcas, and we were really hoping to see some orcas while we were out there. We were making a passage and spotted a pod of orca whales. We got ahead of where they were going and just stopped the boat in the water to let them come to us. We were right there. The male, the bull, came at us from the opposite side of the rest of them. Gwen was up on the bow, and he came right up to the bow, turned upside down, swam underneath where she was standing, came up and spouted. That was just phenomenal.
What’s the best thing about owning your own boatyard?
Well, I’ll pick two things. To see something in your mind—like the cabin of a boat—and then have it brought to life by really talented people who can make it better than you pictured it, because they bring their thoughts and creativity and talents to it. That’s really gratifying.
The other best part is getting to sail on spectacular boats that I couldn’t afford to own, but that I get to enjoy thanks to the generosity of some of my customers.
A lot of people fantasize about buying a boat when they retire. What does a boatbuilder fantasize about doing in retirement?
That’s a great question. Travel is very important to Gwen and me, and there are a lot of places we want to go that you can’t get to by boat. [Laughs.]