Editor’s Note: The following article first appeared in Professional BoatBuilder issue No. 126. It is one of a series we’ve published since the Great Recession of 2008, profiling boat builders who have managed to stay in business despite challenging economic circumstances.
On a recent tour of marine businesses in the greater Los Angeles area, I stopped in to visit with Dennis Choate, a longtime boatbuilder in Long Beach. Operating under the name Dencho Marine, he’s located in an industrial zone a few miles from the water. In business since 1973, Choate has built an enviable list of boats large and small, sail and power, working mainly in glass, but adept as well at metalwork, wood, and, today, advanced composites like carbon fiber.
He’s also a longtime sailor, having skippered the 48‘ (14.6m) Arriba, which he built, to victory in the 1979 Transpac Race. When he was younger, Choate enjoyed great success in local and in what he calls “the Mexican races,” and once was named Yachtsman of the Year by One Design & Offshore Yachtsman magazine (which over time morphed into Sailing World).
A list of his past projects is impressive: numerous well-known West Coast raceboats like Pelegroso, Cottontail, and Magnitude 80; five Robert Perry designs, including the 59‘ (18m) high-performance sailboat Starbuck and the 75‘ (23m) motoryacht Victoria; powercats from 22‘ to 75‘ (6.7m to 23m); a wet-preg carbon Andrews 70 (21m); plus transom extensions, hard dodgers, and cockpit expansions on all sizes of boats; numerous refits and repairs; and a variety of other work. Choate also showed me photos of large floating foam-and-wood docks he’d recently built for a Long Beach business.
In this difficult economy, you take what you can get and are happy for it.
At the time of my visit, Choate had a half-dozen projects under way—enough to keep about 12 employees busy. That number’s down from the 25–30 crew he had for 30-plus years. Some workers have been with him 20 years and more. Surprisingly, he said he has never had to lay anyone off, and only reduced his work force through attrition.
Dencho Marine’s property amounts to 20,000 sq ft (1,860m2), about half inside and half outside. The pad is all concrete with removable sections over which Choate can position sailboats with their keels in the pit, thereby lowering the height of the hull and deck for easier and safer access.
Over one pit was a 20‘ (6.1m) gaff-rigged sloop—essentially a daysailer—that Robert Perry designed for a New Orleans physician. All the doctor wanted was a portable toilet in the small cabin, but Perry decided to add V-berths, “a rack for binoculars, ChapStick, flashlight, and a corncob pipe or two, and some lockers for the Dinty Moore.” Auxiliary power is a Torqeedo electric outboard motor.
The fiberglass hull was laminated over a male mold. To save money, Choate lofted the boat manually—“though,” he says, “most builds today are done from computer offsets. It’s been maybe eight years since we lofted a boat. We didn’t ask Bob [Perry] for offsets, because we were looking for a job and trying to save the customer some money. How many people are looking for a 20‘ custom boat?” Both Choate and Perry were happy to get the work.
“It’s always fun to work with Dennis,” says Perry. “He has a lot of experience and contributes ideas to the project.”
To save weight, the spars and bowsprit are carbon fiber, made by Dencho Marine in two halves. A master of improvisation and flexibility, Choate modestly explains: “We’ve made a couple of carbon spars. The quotes we were getting [from sparmakers] were for spinnaker poles; we could go only so far, so we said, ‘Hey, we’ll make it ourselves.’ Because if it gets to be a science project for somebody, it’s not cost effective. Our preference is always to buy from a specialist like Hall Spars. But this particular spar was only 27‘ [8.3m] long. You can get a really good spar for a Santa Cruz 70. But if you have a 56‘ [17m] cruising boat, they’re not out there: either too big, too small, too many spreaders.… In those cases, including this little gaffer, we’ll just make a mold and make our own.”
Carbon prices have been coming down a bit, Choate says, and he’s using carbon for applications other than spars. “We haven’t put a foot of metal chainplate in a boat in five years. Now it’s all composites.”
Dwarfing the little daysailer, a 62‘ (19m) Doug Peterson–designed cruising sailboat sat alongside it in the yard. Originally built by Southern Ocean Shipyard, in the United Kingdom, Dencho gutted her interior and extended the transom 3‘ (0.9m). To improve performance, a Dencho crew was fabricating a new keel with a steel fin, lead bulb, and fuel tanks inside. Keels, Choate says, are the biggest metal jobs he tackles. For such work, a trailer at the back of the property contains a small machine shop, equipped with a lathe, drill press, and other tools.
To reduce costs, Kevin McCarthy, the owner of the Peterson, was assisting Choate’s crew as he hustled in and out of the shop with drawings in hand. He and his wife hope to head for Mexico later this year. Not many yard owners agree to have customers working on their own boats, but if you want the work, why send them somewhere else?
On the opposite side of the building was an old Cal 36 (10.9m) that had undergone a total refit. The owner loves the boat and decided to invest in a new interior and paint job rather than buy a new yacht. The bulkhead and other tabbing were in poor shape, so Dencho had removed, remade, and reinstalled all the plywood parts.
Choate can set up a spray booth anywhere in the yard. He works with all the major brands of paint, noting that Awlgrip, Imron, Sterling, and others seem to age differently. One might have the highest gloss when new, but after five years might fade more than another brand. Choate takes special pride in paint jobs, and if the Cal 36’s deep-blue Imron coating was representative, then he has every reason to be proud.
In one corner of the yard was the tooling for a 22‘ (6.7m) power catamaran, and next to it the first hull taken from it—unfinished. The customer ran out of money.
Nearby was a Phoenix sportfisherman whose diesel fuel tank had ruptured and caused a mess inside. Choate was critical of some of its systems and construction: automotive hoses, undersized rudders, coarse chop in the laminate that wouldn’t wet out. In fact, Choate sees a lot of substandard work brought to his door, and while it provides him work and income, he’d prefer to see builders do better by their customers.
Another example lay on a table in the shop: a broken daggerboard from a catamaran. On inspection it was easy to understand why: no stiffening structure inside, just the thin fiberglass skins and high-density foam. Under load, the daggerboard sheared. Choate shakes his head. He’s critical of inexperienced customers who go to inexperienced builders to save money, and then have problems. “A new builder takes on a project he doesn’t know how to do,” he says, “and everything is an adventure.”
By “adventure” Choate doesn’t mean fun.
Suppliers, Then and Now
Choate talked at length about changes he’s witnessed in the way suppliers support customers like Dencho Marine. The rise of the Internet, and the determination to cut expenses, have led many companies to eliminate field reps and pull those duties in-house, often relying on their Web sites to approximate the same job. To listen to Choate, that isn’t working.
“We used to have the Barient rep in here all the time,” he begins, “and the Barlow rep. All our suppliers. They’d ask, How’re you doing? What do you need? What can we get you? Let me help you.
“We got help from our suppliers. I can’t tell you how many boats that Barient people like Don Vaughn laid out, or Dick Sea when he joined Lewmar. When Harken started making hardware, Don Whelan would come up. Those days are gone.”
Choate appreciated the reps because they’d show him the latest gear, recommend models based on calculated loads, order everything needed to rig the boat—including the right size fasteners—and then deliver the order themselves. They’d bring the box on deck, show Choate every part, and help him determine where every one should be mounted, taking into account critical factors such as proper line leads.
“Building a boat then was a collective effort,” Choate continues. “Even the engine people would come to the shop to help solve problems: ‘Let’s try this shaft, or modify the beds this way.’ The sailmaker would say, We gotta do this, we gotta do that.
“It’s all in-house now. If we have a technical question, no one can give us an answer. We order off a Web site and then wait to see what we get. We can’t get all the pieces of hardware together at once, even for a little 20-footer. It comes in dribs and drabs. We have to check to make sure each block is what we ordered. Each comes in a plastic bag with no instructions; they don’t even tell you whether the fasteners are metric or SAE. Before, we’d say to the rep, ‘When you get all the hardware organized, bring it up here.’ We’d have a day together when we put it on the boat and place everything and decide where to drill.
“The fiberglass suppliers, the carbon suppliers, they used to be here all the time, too, explaining their products and how to use them. We don’t have that anymore. Just to get the materials to do a repair job, I could spend three days on the phone trying to locate what I need.
“We used to have electronics reps helping our customers. Now we’re sourcing out electronics, trying to get the best price. You order off the Internet, a box arrives, and you open it to see what you got. Is this five prong or three prong? You spend two days trying to find an adapter to make the five prong fit the three prong. Nothing is complete. Say you buy an engine. Where’s the harness? Didn’t it come with it? You call the company and they tell you, ‘Well, you didn’t read the paperwork.’
“It’s like a surprise. We got the resin, but where’s the catalyst?”
On the Economy
Choate, his customer Kevin McCarthy, and I are standing in the shop talking about the state of the economy and the marine industry in particular. The word is, I say, that boat owners may not be buying new, but are investing in upgrades to their existing boats. Choate acknowledges that this is the conventional wisdom, but with few exceptions he isn’t seeing it. “Here on the West Coast,” he says, “if you go to Ventura, you don’t see any refurbishing. Same in Marina del Rey. I was in Driscoll’s [a San Diego yard] the other day, and everyone is saying what you just said, but our answer is the same: ‘Where is it? It’s not here.’ Owners are keeping their boats but not spending any money on them, not even on electronics.”
It’s so bad, he says, that owners are abandoning their boats, often in the water, and walking away from them because repair costs are prohibitive. At one local marina, Choate says that leaky diesel fuel tanks have caused a toxic situation that the city wants cleaned up, but the owners have no money, so the boats sit there continuing to leak.
Choate had an old abandoned boat on the roof of his building and the city ordered it down. “We cut it up,” he said. “It would have cost more money to have it shipped away to a hazardous waste yard than for us to cut it up.”
“City personnel drive by every day,” McCarthy chimes in.
“I mean every day,” Choate repeats. “Every time it rains, some guy in a white suit comes over to measure the runoff. It’s part of what we do.”
But I think he means: part of what we put up with.
Doing jobs you don’t like and putting up with regulators come with the territory—the territory of a builder still in business.
And yet, there’s a lot to admire and respect in that.
About the Author: Dan Spurr is Professional BoatBuilder’s editor-at-large.
For Further Reading:
Survivor II: James Betts in Professional BoatBuilder issue No. 129
Survivor III: Mark Bruckmann in Professional BoatBuilder issue No. 139
Survivor IV: Precision Boat Works in Professional BoatBuilder issue No. 164