The Jock Williams imperative

Lyndsy Clough, operations manager, and Jaime Weir, general manager at John Williams Boat Company. Photo by Tim Plouff

June 2023

By Tim Plouff

Hall Quarry, Mount Desert Island, Maine: All along the rockbound coast of Maine one-of-a-kind boatyards are tucked into small coves, nestled up against fishing villages, or, in the case of John Williams Boat Company, are set up in an abandoned quarry in the middle of Somes Sound, the fjord dividing Mount Desert Island (MDI).

On a recent mild spring day, I sat down with Jaime Weir, general manager of the yard, and Lyndsy Clough, operations manager, to talk about Jock Williams, founder and president, and his yard as this summer it celebrates 50 years of serving recreational mariners.

Tim: Give us an overview of the boatyard’s history.

Jaime: Jock purchased 10 acres of the quarry, with help from his dad, in 1973. The site used to be a busy quarry, with large docks, several loading derricks, and, at one time, almost a thousand people lived and worked around here during its peak. The small cottages up and down the sides of Hall Quarry represent the old village.

Jock had been working at Hinckley, in Southwest Harbor. He’d met Lyford Stanley, as Stanley’s wife also worked at Hinckley. They started laying up 36-foot Stanley hull designs for local lobstermen. Jock and Lyford had immediate success, selling to fishermen in Bass Harbor and Southwest Harbor, and they quickly became busy, as the hard-liners all wanted their boat.

That brought demand for a larger 44-foot layout. Lyford would actually carve his designs out of a large piece of wood. He had an incredible eye for design. Then the crews would set about to lay up the hull.

In the early 1980s, they were approached by a family from Northeast Harbor to build a recreational 36-foot boat, which the family still owns to this day. And then another family wanted a larger version of the 36-foot Stanley, so Jock and Lyford stretched the mold to a 38-footer. That transition to recreational boats from fishing boats in the ’80s is almost complete, as the vast majority of our work is on recreational boats.

We don’t build many boats now, but Jock and Lyford built close to 200 boats right here. A lot of them are still in service, from Bar Harbor to New Bedford. Many of them are still fishing.

The Stanleys are a very stable, seakindly design; that is the allure for yachtsmen. This rugged, stable boat could take fishermen to sea in any conditions, and was a safe boat to work on. That translated into a nice recreational yacht. We’re more of a storage and service yard now. Well over 200 boats are here in the yard and in the four or five storage buildings we have around the island that we truck boats to.

Now Jock is in his mid-80’s and not as hands-on as he used to be. He spends June to December here at his house up the road in Somesville, the village at the head of the Sound, and the rest of the year at his home in Hawaii.

Jaime: Lyndsy has been here 18 years; I’ve been here 16 years; and many of our crew has been here over 20 years. Once any of the crew finds their way here from other boatyards, they tend to stay, which is a credit to Jock and the culture he has built here. He’s boat crazy and has passed that attitude on to everyone.

Tim: Since 1973, what have been some of the biggest challenges the yard has faced? People, the economy, changing boat tastes, local issues?

Jaime Weir: The biggest challenge was the fire in the early 1980s that leveled several buildings and destroyed a number of boats under construction. Jock had to rebuild, and that was a difficult period. Now our biggest challenge is people. It’s really hard to find talented people to fill in for the older guys we have now, which is typical for Maine and around the country. We just don’t have enough younger workers willing to learn a craft, or a trade, and are willing to work.

Tim: Do you sense a backlash to the decades-long emphasis for all students to pursue four-year degrees, and the marginalization of hands-on careers?

Lyndsy: Yes, very much. I’m 40. When I was in school, trade schools were not promoted, the four-year degree was pushed on students, and now we have a significant gap in employment needs. Every hands-on trade is short of people.

We go to career fairs and work closely with the local tech center in Ellsworth, and we tell candidates they can still learn and have interesting careers on the side, working with boats and with a nice salary. Then they can leave school with very little, if any, debt with the various aid programs, and control their own destinies.

Jaime: There used to be a great one-year boating school in Eastport. A lot of guys in the industry went there, but they are starting to age out, and few candidates are available to replace their skills. It’s a shame that door has closed. There is still the Landing School, in Arundel. However, their focus is more on engineering and design rather than core boatbuilding skills.

Another challenge now is housing on MDI. There is no affordable housing here on the island. So, the vast majority of our crew must travel from off-island to work here. This is difficult in the summer, with our heavy traffic, being right in the middle of Acadia National Park.

Tim: What have been Williams Boat Company’s greatest successes over the past 50 years – enduring virtues that set you apart from other yards?

Lyndsy: Returning customers is a tribute to our relationships and our culture. Relationships are key. The people that Jock built boats for in the 1970s are still customers and friends today. Their kids are calling for advice, wanting to buy a boat.

Jaime: Our boatowners know the guys who work on their engines, who did their woodwork, who installed the new stern-thruster, who did the painting. Part of the process, part of the fun, and owners want to be a part of that. They get to see everybody, not just Lyndsy, Doug and me in the office.

Lyndsy: Many of our customers are here for such a short amount of time. It’s their time to relax and get away from the craziness of their work lives, so we want to ensure their time here is a top-notch experience. During recessions and other times when people weren’t buying boats, or using their boats, we might not have been as busy, but we were there. Jock made sure the crew had jobs, and got paid for 40-hour weeks, even when we weren’t busy. He’s been adamant that his people are taken care of, regardless of external situations out of our control. People still want the release, the joy, of using their boats, even in difficult times, as we experienced during Covid. It’s so important to them – and to us.

Tim: What are your favorite projects?

Lyndsy: It’s really neat when someone has a far-fetched project, and you scratch your head thinking how to approach it. But the group comes together, shares ideas, and creates ways to expand upon and complete the customer’s ideas. It’s challenging for us, and it gives the crew pride for creating special boats.

Jaime: A 44-foot lobsterboat project is one of these. The owners want to retain the open transom, keep the trap racks, so it will look like a working boat. But when we’re putting down teak decks below, new benches up, plus a full custom yacht down below, as well as a new pilothouse, that’s special. It will look like a working boat at the dock, until you step aboard. The crew gets excited about these types of projects.

Lyndsy: The crew wants to be involved with decision-making. It’s what they do. The owners then get more excited with the expanded ideas – the relationship piece again – and it becomes a win-win for all of us. Fun, too.

Tim: Jaime, you’ve worked in lots of maritime scenarios, from tugs and larger vessels on rivers and big lakes. What made MDI and Williams Boat the right option? And for you, Lyndsy?

Jaime: I grew up in Camden, and every job I’ve had since I was nine has been on the water. Messing around with boats with my dad, working three or four years at Wayfarer Marine; I loved it all, loved the size of the boats, loved the atmosphere. It was a perfect time in my life.

I then got out and about and traveled, saw work on commercial boats and yachts – all sorts of disciplines. I always remembered the boatyard atmosphere; and, when this opportunity came up with Jock, I jumped on it. And living on Mount Desert Island is terrific.

Lyndsy: I grew up in Trenton, on the other side of the causeway. I didn’t have a boating background. After graduating from college, I had a job I didn’t love, and I started here through a temp-agency.

The yard had two big boat projects underway in 2005, and it needed more administrative help. I remember one of my first crew meetings, when Jock said, “You guys spend more time here than with your families, so we need to make sure you enjoy that time.” That was his culture, and it instantly clicked with me. My first day here, I had no idea where I was going – to Hall Quarry. I’d lived here all of my life and never knew of this special place.

Jaime: We’re surrounded by the National Park, the mountains here in the sound; it’s part of the whole experience. Part of my job is to deliver boats, retrieve boats, and I just pinch myself being on the water from MDI and Williams Boat, up and down the sound.

Lyndsy: In the summertime, the IOD (International One Design) racers will come up the sound, and work just stops. We all stare at the beauty sailing by. Jock does, too. We maintain and store many of them in the winter, so it’s special to see them.

Jaime: Our boating season is so short that many of our customers have just a 10-week season, from start up to shut down. It’s pretty intense.

Tim: Is the yard primarily sail or power?

Jaime: It’s 60 to 70-percent powerboats now. Over the last five years, we’ve taken over the local fleet of IOD boats – after another yard closed – that race out of Northeast Harbor. Eighteen boats are active, and we take care of 14 or 15 of these classic wooden boats here, with a special storage building for them. We probably have a total of 40 wooden boats we care for, so we’re not just a fiberglass yard. Wooden boats are a big part of our service component.

Lyndsy: The wooden boats require their own maintenance plan each year.

Jaime: A specialized crew helps work on them. When the other yard [where the IODs used to be maintained] closed, we were able to get many of its skilled employees – some with 30-years of experience – to come here to continue that special maintenance plan. Just tons of institutional knowledge that’s invaluable. We’re trying to share that knowledge with our younger guys.

Tim: What designs or changes in customer tastes and patterns will impact future boating?

Jaime: One design we are working on is a planing hull with outboard power – a first for us. Our boats have traditionally been inboard gas- or diesel-powered. That’s a shift for us. Foiling hulls are definitely on the horizon.

Lyndsy: Engine missions will be a concern and create changes. We’ve noticed that boat speeds have increased, that boaters want to cruise faster. People’s schedules today don’t permit weeklong trips. They are doing more day trips, trying to accomplish more in a shorter time period.

Jaime: People used to cruise for a week or the whole weekend. Now, younger boatowners have a day or only a few hours to get out there. They want to go Point A to Point B quickly.

Lyndsy: A lot of them aren’t able to devote as much time during their visits to the island as they used to. We’ve noticed that these customers want a less-maintenance-intensive boat – less wood, less paintwork. Their return on investment has to be more productive on the water. That’s a shift. I like my 15- to 16-knot cruise in a Stanley that allows me to enjoy my surroundings. But many boaters nowadays want to leave here and go to Camden or Rockland for lunch in an hour. That’s a different experience.

Tim: Jock has created a wonderful resource, including building boats again. Will custom construction become more popular – even necessary?

Jaime: Good question. In certain niches, it will always be necessary. But the production-boat lines are expanding in capability.

Lyndsy: We have found with the brokerage side that the older Stanley’s are holding their values. Some customers may not want to wait a year or two for a new boat but will take a Stanley or other Downeast boat and modify it to their tastes over a six-month period.

Tim: What will the next 50 years bring for Williams Boat Company?

Jaime: Our family-owned yard is important to not only Jock, but to our customers. It is important to Jock to be a solid employer here on the island. He takes that very seriously. And we need to continue to do our part to make it a place where people still entrust us with their boats, but also makes us an attractive employer. The ground work is there – we only need to adjust to the times.

Lyndsy: The same core values go a long way. It’s how we started. Jock’s culture is our success. His faith in us is so important. Jock may not be physically here every day, but his presence exists everywhere.

Tim Plouff and his wife, Kathryn, the navigator, live lakeside in Otis, Maine, 30 minutes from Acadia, where they trailer-boat up and down the Maine coast with their 2000 Sea Ray 21-foot express cruiser Tegoak.