Building a boat from the shop floor up at CH Marine

Surrounded by paint, power tools and platforms, three boats at different stages of construction took up the center of the CH Marine warehouse on North Cartwright Road. More rested on trailers in the gravel driveway outside, with the sparkling blue of Coecles Harbor behind them. 

Welcome to the workplace of Peter Needham and eight other employees, who make classic, wooden yachts. The warehouse leads to rooms where small, individual wood pieces are carved, polished and painted, before moving in to the large space to become part of the boats.

Most of the boats are 38 feet long, but the company has built boats up to 57 feet in length. It’s not just materials that make these boats special, but time, which allows craftsman working in a centuries-old tradition to build something beautiful and functional literally from the workshop floor up. The 38-foot “Runabout” is the “bread and butter” of the business, owner Peter Needham said, and takes a minimum of eight weeks to build. But before you rush down to place your order, be aware the base price is $594,000 — nicely equipped for about $670,000.

The custom 57-foot vessel took two years to build, the longest CH Marine has ever taken to complete a project.

According to Mr. Needham, none of those employed at CH Marine come from a boatbuilding background. The staff includes carpenters, electricians, mechanics, house painters and the newest recruit, a musical instrument repairman. Since Shelter Island is not a hot zone when it comes to boatbuilders, skillsets and mindsets are the primary factors in hiring a new member of the team, he said. Attention to detail, desire to do good work and the goal of “building the best” are just some of the attributes Mr. Needham seeks in employees.

In its long run of boatbuilding, the company has constructed crafts that now reside in Mississippi, Washington, Florida, and as far afield as Australia. Four are currently docked at Shelter Island.

In the workshop last week, Mr. Needham explained the story behind the company’s abbreviated name. The name CH Marine — its initials represent Coecles Harbor — came about because of practical necessity. Not only does the name differentiate it from that of its neighbor, Coecles Harbor Boatyard, and thus prevent mistaken deliveries, it also relieves the owner of constant correction of mispronunciations and misspellings of “Coecles.”

The boatyard next door is a Needham operation as well, a third-generation business founded in the 1970s after the family moved to the Island from Glen Cove. CH Marine came into being informally, since Mr. Needham wanted to build his own sailboat. From there, the family began to handcraft and create more wooden speedboats. After doing “a bunch of oddball boats,” the company expanded its facilities and opened the boatbuilding shop next door to the boatyard in 2000, where each new Shelter Island yacht now takes its form.

“It was a learn-as-you-go process,” Mr. Needham said.

Competition in the industry has been on the rise in the past decade, the boatbuilder said. Where there used to be one or two other boat-building facilities in the region, there are now 15 up and down the East Coast, Mr. Needham said, adding that The Hinckley Company of Portsmouth, Rhode Island of is one of the more formidable competitors.

Most of the yachts built by CH Marine are custom orders. Customers, often experienced boaters, can request anything from a particular boat length to specific details, such as carved filigrees, extra seating and wine racks.

The company has fielded orders from high-profile customers, building four boats for Billy Joel, including one used to commute between the East End and Manhattan. A traditionalist, Mr. Joel said he wanted his new boat to “go fast but look good,” according to a feature in Soundings Magazine. The entertainer helped design the company’s signature 38-foot Runabout, a vessel with a top speed of 48 miles per hour.

With the goal of giving the company a boost, Mr. Joel did multiple interviews in the 2000s, enhancing CH Marine’s presence in the media. Mr. Needham recounted appearances on CNN, 60 Minutes and multiple magazines. The company has done additional press briefings at boat shows, but word-of-mouth is still a significant marketing tool.

His favorite part of the job? Easy, Mr. Needham said. It’s the involvement with the customers starting when they’re “on the threshold” of ordering a boat, through the collaborative design process.

“I love seeing the smile on their face,” he said.