An American dream

August 2021

Story and photos by Capt. Michael L. Martel
For Points East

But it’s not fiction, not at all. German-born Jens Lange exchanged his three-piece suit for a woodworking shop apron, his fountain pen for a varnish brush and he has never looked back.

Jens Lange founded his dream enterprise, Baltic Boat Works, LLC, in a small, cold, Bristol, R.I., work shed in 2010, after walking away from a high-paying job in the automobile industry. This all unfolded just as he was finishing the two-year building and restoration program at IYRS, the International Yacht Restoration School, in Newport, R.I.

“I grew up in Germany, near the Baltic coast,” he says. “After high school, I went to college and earned my MBA and got hooked on the automotive industry. I spent almost 20 years in the corporate world, and the automotive industry brought me to the U.S., to southeastern Michigan, in ’98. And then, in 2008, I felt it was time to make a change and follow my passion, which I realized was boats rather than money.”

Jens signed up for the program at IYRS and loved it. While in the program, he began working on boats on the side. He began with a little bit of refinishing work, he recalls, and as he got into his second year in the program, he took on his first restoration, which happened to be a Herreshoff S-Boat, a much-beloved racing class in Narragansett Bay. “I began sailing on one,” he remembers, “and that’s how I got into that group.”

“One thing led to another, and, suddenly, somebody I’d briefly met on a Six-Metre called me up and said, “Hey, how about restoring an S-Boat?” And I took on the project. Even though I was still in school at IYRS, I hired two of my fellow classmates to work with me, nights and weekends, on that restoration. We launched that fully restored S-Boat 10 days after I graduated.”

Jens’ desire to work in wood-boat building and restoration did not, however, include a desire to work for anyone else. “By then, I knew a few people in the boating world, and I decided that, with a few clients already established, I could get started on my own. I rented a 2,000-square-foot shop in Bristol, and took in a few boats for the winter. That first winter was cold and lonely, as I was working for myself, but it was actually a dream come true. And, from there, that winter of 2010 into 2011, things just took off, and more boats and more projects and deeper restorations came my way.

“Fast-forward 10 years, and here we are in 2021. I now have a 12,000-square-foot shop, in a different location, but I’m still in Bristol, and it’s packed with wooden boats and a few fiberglass boats to work on in between.”

Over the years, Baltic Boat Works (BBW) evolved from simply wood-boat restoration, focused on sailboats, to an enterprise of much larger scope. Nowadays, Jens’ shop works on an almost equal number of sailboats and powerboats, and the contracts includes fiberglass boats as well. However, Jens has fine-tuned a mission to concentrate more on classic craft rather than simply “wooden boats.” After all, Jens reminds us, “There are 50-year-old boats out there that are built in fiberglass, and we consider them today to be ‘classic yachts,’ and we work on them as well.”

Also, BBW has expanded its capabilities to include mechanical, electrical and engine work, but the core is still restoring and maintaining traditional wooden vessels.

“But one-time jobs do not always pay the bills,” Jens says. “Thankfully, classic yachts are repeat offenders, as we might say. Nearly every boat that has come through our shop ends up returning. They come back for regular maintenance and upkeep, and then for additional repairs and modifications as we go along – a broken frame here, a hydraulic issue there, or a leaky whatever. And so, year after year, we get to work with these unbelievably beautiful vessels, some of which have been at the shop from day one. They come back every winter, and we think of them as family members.”

One BBW customer was starting a yacht club in South Carolina, and he needed a launch to shuttle people back and forth from the dock and their boats. In New England, one of the more popular and stable launches is the Oldport Marine 26. It’s been around for over 30 years, and Oldport Maine Services, in nearby Newport, has built more than 150 of these vessels, all out of fiberglass.

“We began looking around for used ones to rehab, but the ones we found were tired, a million miles on them,” says Jens. “So, ultimately, this client agreed to have a brand-new one built by Oldport, then transferred to BBW to be completed with full-teak sole, decks, cap rail, benches and transom. We’re keeping a very close eye on weight, because, as a Coast Guard-inspected vessel, it’s supposed to carry a certain number of passengers, and weight is essential. Before this boat is released to the yacht club, it has to pass a stability test, and more weight negatively impacts stability.”

Versatility is a solid asset during slow times, so when a potential client asked BBW to do a complete refinish job on his airplane’s interior parts, Jens accepted the challenge. “Business was a little slow during the pandemic,” he says, “and, as we’d just been doing a lot of fine finishes, using both traditional varnishes and paints, as well as more modern advanced formulas and multi-component finishes, we felt we could do it.”

The BBW shop is now, as a result, getting into airplane-part work, learning a lot about fire-retardant requirements, and how to spray these advanced formulas without overspray and other critical details. It’s a daunting project, the process being controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with the special documentation requirements it imposes. It’s a new area for Baltic, but one that Jens feels holds promise, given the similarities to boat refinishing. “There’s never anything wrong with learning something new,” Jens wryly observes.

Currently, Jens has a team of five craftsmen in the shop. Each craftsman brings one or more individual skills or specialties to the team – from expert carpentry, to skill with fine finishes, and to welding, work with composite materials and engine mechanicals. The crew was larger before the pandemic, Jens says, but, as business increases and restrictions are eased, he is bringing people aboard as needed.

The team works together seamlessly when solving simple problems. “For example,” Jens says, “one guy is doing all the woodwork on a boat project, and then he gets a piece of metal, and he just walks over to the other guy’s bench – the guy who specializes in metalworking – and says, ‘Hey, can you help me out here.’ And I have a guy who is excellent in prep and finishing, who loves that work and finishes topsides and brightwork to a T. He just has to come in on a calm day and lays on that ultimate final coat of varnish so that it looks a million bucks.”

About a year and a half ago, BBW ran out of space at their previous facility and had to find larger quarters. Jens went so far as to rent an additional 2,000-square-foot tent in which to store boats. That didn’t work out. “If you can’t walk through a shop with a plank on your shoulder because the place is too crammed, then it doesn’t make any sense,” he says. Ultimately, BBW found its current building, 12,000 square feet with space outside for long shipping containers in which to house spars, masts, sails and gear. “Everything is filling up nicely,” Jens adds, “but all of this was never the plan when I started out.

“In the beginning, I just wanted to work on boats. I wanted to work with wood and enjoy working at a bench. That purity, unfortunately, has changed a bit, and I’m spending more and more time managing jobs and taking care of clients. So, when I’m asked about the future, I seldom have a clear answer. No matter what we do at BBW, it seems like there’s always growth just around the corner. In the end, it’s more about looking for the right projects, and hoping to get the ones we’ll all love.”

The most fun is definitely doing full restorations, Jens says, adding that the crew loves it when a complete, derelict boat with a pedigree arrives. “We’re always living in anticipation of bringing that next unusual project through our door.”

Capt. Mike Martel, who sails out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton Master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine-industry enthusiast. He enjoys delivering boats to destinations along the U.S. East Coast and in the Caribbean, and writing about his experiences on the water and other marine topics.