Nordlund Boat Company of Tacoma, Washington, is one of the few remaining family-owned yacht builders in the U.S. When I was researching the story of the two pilot vessels the yard built to a Tim Nolan design for Jacobsen Pilot Service of Long Beach, California, principals Paul and Gary Nordlund made time for an informal chat in their conference room. In this exclusive interview, they remember their father, the yard’s switch to fiberglass boats, some of the successful partnerships, the changes that have occurred over the past six-plus decades, and what it takes to survive in a drastically altered business landscape.
Professional Boatbuilder: Your father was a boatbuilder before he went into business for himself. When did he make that move?
Paul Nordlund: The yard was founded in 1958. Norm, our dad, had worked for Martinac and did ship repairs for the Navy in WW II. Our mom, Phyllis, was doing the books. When he came back and worked for Martinac they were building [wooden] minesweepers for the Korean War.
Gary Nordlund: But dad then went straight to pleasure craft. The story was that Martinac had some patterns for small pleasure craft, 26-footers. So he and another guy, Walt Silva, left Martinac and brought with them these patterns. They built in plywood, but as the boats grew bigger they planked them [and marketed them under then SoundCraft brand—Ed.].
PN: Everything or almost everything in those days was for clients in the Puget Sound area, but dad also was building commercial fishing boats out of Westport, Washington.
When did Nordlund start with fiberglass?
PN: The last wooden boat was built in 1972, a 53-footer for a car dealer in Olympia. They laid up the hull and planked it upside down and laid up a 53’ split fiberglass mold off that hull. That started the fiberglass era for the hulls; the superstructures were still wood. But at some point he started covering them with fiberglass cloth and painted them. After he built a few 53s, somebody wanted a 60, so dad started building 53s that he extended to 60’ with all the running gear in the proper place.
How did that transition go?
PN: It’s funny because when dad made the switch, it was kind of a slow transition to an all-fiberglass boat. We would use wood bulkheads for years. But then it got to the point where if you even mention that you’re going put in a foundation for a piece of equipment and the captains go, “Oh no, we can’t have any wood on the boat.” Wood went from being a really good material for boats to something like putting a piece of cardboard in there, until they started coming out with products with a wood base and epoxy.
GN: It was the same thing with the hull. The tipping point was when dad couldn’t get either Alaskan cedar or mahogany and just getting [the right wood] was so hard. And then the labor, obviously, once you start looking at planking and fastening, plugging and wedging all the seams. Even back then, it was resources, making sure am I going to be able to get them next time? [With fiberglass] it was like, “Oh we build one mold and then you just keep repeating.”
PN: The type of labor you need to build a wooden boat requires a lot more skill. At least when we first started building fiberglass boats, you needed at least one person knowing what they’re doing and others who were willing to learn, and you could go a long ways. Nowadays with infusion, that’s not as common [because] building fiberglass boats has become pretty technical.
GN: A lot of times you do something like infusion and when you started it’s like oh, it’s a pretty big learning curve, and a pretty big mistake curve, too, once in a while. We had both, but I guess you learn from mistakes.
What types of glass do you use for standard construction in your yachts?
GN: We use up to 108 oz in infusion, which you can’t do and hand layup.
PN: You’re doing two 24s, which is the limit on hand layup, E-glass.
GN: You have this learning curve, and it’s a little tough getting into it, but pretty soon our guys were not just upside down in a hole with resin all over them. They’ve become technicians, not just glass guys, and that’s good for everybody. People get a little more skilled and they have a little more technical [knowhow], the styrene fumes are way down, that’s all good. Sometimes you don’t even understand all these advantages until you get into them.
Are your customers concerned about weight?
PN: Most of the time the owner will say, “Yeah, I want a lightweight boat for efficiency,” but then they’ll come in and put in marble countertops and marble throughout all the showers. We did one boat and spent a lot of money on [cored] cabinetry, trying to keep it light, and then the owner spent equal amounts of money or more on marble and more equipment.
GN: Part of the issue is that Ed Monk’s hulls are very efficient. When we tank-tested the mold up in BC —and they test all kinds of different tugs and all kinds of weird shapes—our new hull for that style of boat was the most efficient they’d ever tested. At cruise speeds, let’s say 10, 11 knots, they’re so efficient. You could add a lot of weight to them, and it really doesn’t make a difference. So sometimes when you look at that and let’s say we could save 10,000 lbs in something, you’re [still] going the same speed while you you’re at 300,000 lbs versus. 310,000 lbs. We had a customer go out on the first boat coming out of this new mold. The next guy who was going to get a 106’ from us also went out. At the time, he had something like an 80’ Hatteras. So he’s standing in the pilothouse and asked how much fuel they were burning, and they said how much. “For both engines,” he asked. “Yes, that is for both engines.” And he said that on his boat one engine would burn that amount of fuel for the same speed. People say you need to save weight, but if the boat isn’t designed real well and efficient, it doesn’t matter how much weight you put on. If it’s not really efficient, it’s not going to go very well anyway.
Tighter emission rules pose challenges because exhaust treatment is expensive and space-consuming. Do you get inquiries for hybrid propulsion?
PN: The Jacobsen pilot boats were limited to 800 horsepower to stay within Tier 3. If you go to a [larger] Tier 4 [engine], the boat would need another engineroom.
GN: We’ve had a few people talk about diesel electric.
PN: I don’t really understand diesel-electric for pleasure boats.
GN: You can store some energy if you have enough. We built a new boat for a gentleman whose previous one was built in Asia. He brought it over and it suffered an electrical fire during sea trials. So he made them take it all out and put conventional [diesels] back in. If you hear a story like that and don’t have all the R&D, [it’s best] to wait until there’s plenty of experience out for that.
PN: There was a point when everybody thought that the waterjet propulsion was going to be the next alternative, because it could get up to speed pretty quickly, but what many builders failed to recognize was how weight sensitive waterjets are.
Nordlund is inextricably linked to the designs of Ed Monk Jr. How did this relationship start?
PN: That first main shop dad and Walt built in the port was where Ed Monk drove up one day. He was in the Army Reserve. He and a friend of his decided to drive around and see what was going on in the Port of Tacoma, and he saw dad‘s sign and pulled in and that started that relationship, back in 1964. As Ed tells this story, he was working for his father [Ed Monk Sr.], who was a naval architect. But he also wanted to get a few of his own customers, and that’s when Ed started drawing for our dad.
And Monk also brought with him the partnership with Tim Nolan?
PN: Not in a formal sense but in an informal sense. Ed did what he did best, and starting in 1989, Tim, who had his own NA firm, became part of the team.
GN: Ed was a stylist and an architect, and then Tim came in for the structural and the engineering side and the details. Where Ed left off with the design and the drawings, Tim detailed them out further.
How many boats have you built thus far?
PN: We don’t have detailed records that go all the way back to 1958. We don’t know how many, but dad built some 26-footers, some 33-footers under the Soundcraft name. But that got dropped after dad purchased Walt’s half of the company, in the late 1960s, while Walt continued to work for him.
GN: We’ve probably done 40 boats with Tim and, I would guess, close to 85 or 90 with Ed.
PN: We used one other naval architect the owner had already selected. We won’t mention who it was, but we’ve learned to appreciate Ed.
You often collaborated with other builders. What were some outstanding ventures?
PN: After the 53 mold in 1981, dad had built a boat for the Russell family, a 60-footer. And Tolly [Robert Merland] Tollefsen saw that and decided he wanted a 61-footer. Back then, Ed Monk was the designer for Tollycraft and he also was designing for dad. So through that connection [Nordlund and Tollycraft] got together. Dad built the hull mold and the superstructure for Tollycraft. We co-owned the mold with Tollycraft for a number of years, and we built hulls for them and at one point they’d [also] built hulls for us. They built a good boat, but after Tollefsen sold the company it went downhill and out of business, eventually.
You were partners but also competitors?
PN: We had one customer who wanted “something just like the Tollycraft.” We told him, “You should buy a Tollycraft.” No point for us to copy another boat. Turned out that he wanted a bigger engineroom and things they couldn’t accommodate. So we ended up building a boat similar to it, but we stayed strictly in the custom market, and of course they were strictly in production.
Tollycraft went under in the 1990s when the industry had to cope with an economic downturn and the luxury tax. How did you weather that?
GN: In the 80s there was a period when there was no work, no new builds. So the new 61 mold led to a kind of new design and it took off. They built a few of those.
PN: I’d say our dad was a little bit of a contrarian in that way. We didn’t have very many employees, but rather than saying, “Well, we’re going to just close down till this thing blows over,” he said,” Okay, we’ll start a new mold so that when we come out of this we’re ready for new clients.” And that’s exactly what happened.
GN: Tolly had a good design, so this competition helped a little bit, because some people would see a Tolly and then want something similar [but bigger] and they’d call Ed [for a custom design]. So it worked out well. The disadvantage of custom builds is that they take longer with all the one-off molds and the other things you have to do, but that also helps you ride through slower times.
A bit of good fortune at the right time helps. And what else?
PN: The one thing that might differentiate us from people who don’t make it is that we’ve always been very conservative. I don’t know that dad ever borrowed money to do anything, and we pretty much stayed along those lines. He bought this property, wasn’t even sure what he’s going to do with it at the time. He’s had several different places and they’ve always been in the port, except for a short period in the early 1960s when they built in a barn up at Walt Silva’s place just outside Tacoma, because of a fire at the company that was next to the building they were renting. The blaze destroyed everything, so he and Walt moved to the barn to build boats while at the same time also building a new shop down here in the port.
What other collaborations came after Tollycraft?
PN: After we built the Tollycraft mold, dad purchased this property and then we went in a joint venture with the McQueen Boatworks up in Canada, another client of Ed Monk’s who did a lot of boats for them. George McQueen was a wooden boat builder, so he really didn’t want to get into fiberglass. But his son Doug did, but they didn’t have room to build a mold. So we did a joint venture, and then we built a mold for ourselves and hulls for them. I think we trucked up like a 90’ by 21’ hull from here to Vancouver, a couple of them at least. But later we launched the bare hulls here and towed them up.
There is a big adjustable mold next door. When and how did this come about?
PN: We built a number of boats anywhere from 84 up to 100’, but then a client wanted something bigger, so we built the new hull mold, back in, oh, ’96 or ’97. The first boat that came out of that was 106‘. We eventually topped out at 115’.
What plug did you use?
PN: We didn’t build a plug, only for the bow section. Ed designed that.
GN: Tim [Nolan] designed the mold. It was CNC-cut with a steel frame and put together.
PN: We built some other molds for the guards. Then we put cored panels on the inside up to the bow, and then we did separate molds for the bow section and keels for hull widths of 22’, 24’, and 25’.
Would you call it a Monk hull?
PN: Oh yeah, it’s a Monk hull all right. And Ed Hageman also had a lot of input.
How many of your boats were built for commercial clients?
GN: Two, three, not very many.
PN: Dad did some charter fishing boats before the fiberglass boats. He also did a seiner for Alaska and a bait boat for catching herring. Then he did a boat for the Seventh Day Adventists. That was a missionary vessel that went up to Alaska and would pull into small villages, services off the back, with an organ on board and pews. Off that 53’ mold he did a tour boat for Alaska that until a few years ago, as far as we know, was still running, out of Homer.
So when did Norm hand over the reins to the next generation?
PN: Well, he didn’t really. I came in 1978, after graduating from Washington State University in ’74 and working as an engineer for four years. Gary came in 1982 after graduating from WSU in engineering and working for a structural consulting firm out of college. Dad was actually going to close the business down. He was tired of it. But now it was all three of us working.
How did that go ?
PN: For the most part it went well.
GN: He liked to work, not talk to people.
PN: He said one time, “You guys can do all the things I don’t like to do.” And mom, of course, had always done the books and did the books even after dad passed away. And Gary set up the accounting system when we switched to computers.
GN: He didn’t really want anything to do with that. He just liked to work.
PN: Gary and I started doing a lot of things, that environmental stuff started coming in and business just keeps getting harder. He had some health problems, had his first bypass, a triple bypass, just before I got married in 1980.
GN: He would have been about 58.
PN: He had some more health issues in the late 90s. It wasn’t that he couldn’t work down here, but he couldn’t do the things he loved to do. I would say he [retired] for health issues. I hate to say “forced out,” because a lot of people would have just stepped back and said, “Okay I can’t work on a boat, but there’s other things I can do.”
GN: He didn’t like the idea of not being able to do everything that he’d done before.
PN: I don’t think dad ever showed he was depressed. I think he was angry with us for a short time, but I wouldn’t say that he was depressed.
So when did he step off for good ?
GN: I can’t remember the moment, but he had to step away for about six months for health and then he came back for how long, a year?
PN: Six months to a year. It wasn’t just a physical diminishing. We got increasingly concerned about him either hurting himself or hurting others, so we finally told him what he couldn’t do anymore and that prompted him to say, ”Okay, I’m not going to do anything.”
GN: When he turned 65 he said, “I’m going to retire,” which lasted, I don‘t know, for two days. He died when he was 77, so 12 years before he passed away, he said, “I’m going to retire and you guys have it” and turned over the reins. But…
PN: It didn‘t stick.
GN: I think to himself he made that commitment: “I’m 65. I’m retiring.” But then he was picking and choosing what jobs he’d like to work on.
And what was that?
GN: He liked repair jobs and extensions, a job that would last three, four months, you know, then move on to the next one.
PN: We bought the travel lift. We had this property, but we kind of slowly moved on to it. We put up one building and still were launching over in the Port of Tacoma. But we realized we didn’t want to do that anymore. There were a lot of issues dealing with the port and the truckers. So dad said, “Okay, we’ll going to put in a travel lift. He took over the project and did a lot of the work himself, and one of our customers, a Weyerhaeuser engineer, did all the design.
GN: Dad brought in contractors and…. He loved these types of projects where you just work.
PN: What drove him nuts really, was the detail stuff, both in the business and in the projects. I remember he was finishing up a boat and coming home he was so upset. He said, “You know, the owner…can’t even hang his own pictures.” Mom probably made him do it at home, but that was pretty low on the priority list that a person should have to do.
GN: He didn’t mind giving up dealing with customers and salespeople and insurance people and Department of Ecology and whatever else.
PN: We would call him when a customer would come or we had a meeting. I think he really enjoyed coming when customers would be talking about their project and he felt like he was part of the team again.
GN: We had a guy who worked for us for quite a few years, a good carpenter, really talented. Somebody asked him if Norm is very hard to work for. “No,” he says, “not really. As long as you do it perfectly his way, it’s all good.”
Now you are approaching the age that Norm was when he officially retired. What does the future hold?
PN: Well, we’ve transitioned to a lot of repairwork and remodels. [A new build] at least for me is a three-year commitment. That’s what I felt like, that if you’re going to take on a project like that, it can be a little dicey because, you know, we don’t have any immediate plans.
GN: It’s a little hard to say, “We’re going to, or we want to…”
It is also a matter of finding new and younger clients who want to play in that niche?
P: Looking back, we got busy right after [the recession of] 2008. We had a project in the shop and then we took on three more almost right away and one more after that. But since 2008 it never completely regained [that momentum]. We kind of thought it was just our niche, but we go down to the Fort Lauderdale boat show, and the whole market changed. The really big stuff, for a while they couldn’t sell enough of it. Over 120’ or 130’. Delta was really busy.
GN: 250s and up are still busy. The Europeans are still building.
PN: If you look around the U.S. right now, even before the pandemic, about six months ago there wasn’t anybody who was really busy. Westport is moving along, but Christensen and a number of other companies went out of business for lack of work. Viking was fairly busy for a production builder, but after the recession the whole boating industry never came up to a level that was close to what it was before.
GN: Well, for a while there was so much [product] on the used market. After the recession a lot of people decided they can’t do this anymore. They can’t have the house and the condo and whatever and the boat. So when they got out, there was quite a bit of product out there. It’s hard to compete when a two-year-old boat is just a percentage of a new one. That made it tough and then I think people just kind of get out of it for a while.
PN: I don’t think the younger crowd is getting into boating.
GN: Our owners have had boats for 30 or 40 years, and part of the reason for going up in size was that they were tired of maintaining the boat.
That’s a bit counterintuitive, isn’t it?
GN: They wanted crew so they needed a slightly bigger boat and they said, “Well, I’m done changing oil or crawling in my engineroom. My back doesn’t let me.” You know, all of that. Someone asked me if I change the oil in my car. No, I don’t. You can’t hardly get to anything and then you have to figure out how to do it. It got complicated. You go down the street and get a change for less than you can buy the oil and the filter. The idea of people working on their boats, I’m not sure young people nowadays get that.
PN: Dad once built a boat for a wheat farmer who would come over with his wife on weekends from eastern Washington, and they would stain and varnish the cabinetry and do all kinds of work. And that grew to a point where people wouldn’t even hang their pictures on the boat.
GN: It is a little bit funny, because they hire crew, but when you talk to the captain, he’s having to find somebody to change the oil. The owner tells the captain and the captain tells somebody else to do it. It’s just different, and it gets the owner one step away from being independent.
PN: It loses some of its attraction.
GN: And part of it is for most people, the more complex it is, the less enticing it is. My kids go, “You need a newer phone.” And I say, “No, I don’t need a newer phone.”
Planned obsolescence did not exist 50 years ago, but it’s shaping the younger generations’ thinking and behavior. Did you notice that?
GN: When we were kids, if you bought a washing machine that died before 30 years, there was something wrong. Now, it’s more like 30 months. You know they’re just not made [as well] anymore.
PN about timeless design: One of our employees who follows the high-end car market explained what makes Ed Monk such a remarkable designer: He’s just like Porsche, who always made really subtle changes. Ed has done that over the years. His changes are subtle enough that they’re there, but the boats that he designed 20 or 30 years ago are not as recognizable as most other boats of the same vintage. You can’t look at an Ed Monk boat and say that’s a 1984.
GN about repeat business: One thing that happened in our market as we were building, I don’t know how many repeat customers we had. First a 63, then they go bigger. It was great business for years with repeat customers, but once you’re in that 95 or 106’ range there’s not many people. That gets to a limit where the size is really about as big as people want. If you have a 53, you’re thinking well, I’ll do a 65 or then one day a 75 or 80. I don’t think there’s many people, at least we haven’t had many people, who said well, I’ve got a 95 or 106 or a 115, I want a bigger boat. At that point they’re usually saying, “I think I need a little bit smaller one.” Or because the crew, the moorage, all of that has kind of hit a limit. So for years in our business, the length was always growing—53 to 61 to 63 to 68 to 70, and once you get to these 100-footers, that next step up is too big.
PN: We have one customer who built a 67-footer for us. Then he came and said, “I want to do something about 120.” And we said, our facilities wouldn’t handle it, and so he went up to Delta. Well, he ended up building a 140-footer. He came down at one time and I ask how it is going. “Just great, but you know, I think I made a mistake. It should have been 146.” There was one room in there that wasn’t big enough. Like Gary said, he went from 67’ to 140’. We have another customer that we had built two boats for. The second one was right at 100’, actually 97’. And he was he was talking about a 120‘, and it was just too big for our facilities. So he went to Delta and he ended up building about a 130’.
The story of survival is a story of adapting to changes. With climate change and the environment in the headlines, how does that affect Nordlund?
GN: Years ago we heard that they’re going to go to closed molds, where there’s no open resin. It was pretty daunting the time: how is that going to pan out? And we just started dabbling in it and experimenting with things and developing and work it. In a couple of different areas we try not to wait to get told to do it. [Instead of] being out of compliance, we would rather get ahead of the game a little bit.
PN: Gary’s really been on top of all of that over the years.
GN: It’s easier. We have to treat all our rainwater before it goes in the bay, and we installed a system that treated like 6.5 million gallons. When the Washington State Department of Ecology saw it, they asked why we did it. We didn’t have to. We knew the regulations and that they were…making them more stringent. So we just went ahead and figured we probably weren’t going to make it [with the old system]. We were compliant, but they were lowering the copper standards and zinc.
PN: One of our favorite pictures is of a guy who’s painting the side of a hull long before Gary and I were involved with the company, probably in the ’60s. He’s got a mask on; you know, similar to these [points to his coronavirus facemask]. He’s spraying paint and he’s got a hole cut in the mask for a cigarette.
—Interview by Dieter Loibner