The marine hardware guy next door

R.E. Thomas owner Ben Dinsmore talks to customers regarding his line of marine hardware. Photo by Bob Muggleston

One of the many compelling things about the WoodenBoat Show at Mystic Seaport, which this year took place June 28-30, is the number of interesting personalities you encounter while walking around there. The boats are beautiful, of course, but the men and women who build and sail them, and supply them with parts and instruments, might be the real stars of the show.

Take Ben Dinsmore, for example. The unassuming 42-year-old from Brunswick, Maine, was a neighbor of mine the day I manned the Points East booth. Dinsmore was there representing the small company (six employees) he’s owned for the past year and a half, R.E. Thomas, which manufactures – mostly in bronze – heavy duty marine hardware and running gear. However, a casual conversation with him revealed that, until fairly recently, he was the captain of an 830-foot “drillship” in the Gulf of Mexico. (For anyone interested in what such a vessel looks like, Google “West Auriga Flyby” to see a short YouTube video regarding the West Auriga, the sister ship of the one Dinsmore captained.) He assumed the captain’s role at age 31, after entering the oil and gas exploration industry right out of Maine Maritime Academy.

As captain, it was Dinsmore’s responsibility to not only get the vessel where it needed to be, but then, once there, to keep it from moving. Assisting him were six azimuthing thrusters – propellers in the hull that can be rotated to any horizontal angle – controlled by a computer. The computer relied on coordinates supplied by extremely accurate GPS and radio beacons anchored on the sea floor. It also compensated for wind and sea state.

They drilled as deep as 30,000 feet. Often they’d hover – not moving more than a few feet at a time, of course, thanks to those super-smart thrusters – over a hole in the seabed 10,000 feet down. Ten thousand feet of drill bit in the ocean, 20,000 feet into the earth – that’s over five and a half miles!

And, of course, it being the Gulf of Mexico, Dinsmore was always looking for hurricanes. His ship’s top speed was 15 kts. Outrunning or outmaneuvering storms wasn’t an option. You cleared out well in advance, he says, or made the ship as safe as possible.

Overall, Dinsmore really liked his work. “It was a very exciting and dynamic environment. There were all these great people you got to work with from all walks of life. We’d have people aboard who were fresh out of high school, along with Ph.D.-level paleontologists, whose job it was to look at fossils brought up in drill-bit cuttings.” Dinsmore explains that they’d do this to figure out what prehistoric era they were from in order to more precisely determine where the oil was.

Dinsmore is proud of the fact that, in his 10 years as ship’s captain, aside from “the occasional laundry room fire,” there was never any drama. He decided to leave the industry because of all the time he was missing with his three kids, as well as myriad other life events, like holidays and weddings. He started researching business opportunities in Maine and found R.E. Thomas, which had a great reputation. Dinsmore gave himself a week off between retiring as a ship’s captain and throwing himself into the business.

Shaft seals, stuffing boxes, rudder ports, stern and skeg bearings, propeller shafts and tubes, line cutters – this is Dinsmore’s world now, and the majority of these U.S.A-made components find their way into the commercial lobster boat fleet in Maine.

R.E. Thomas has been in business since 1973. In early 2001 Ron Thomas, the company’s founder, added a line of marine hardware to the components he made for other industries. Around this time, Dinsmore says, “Downeast-style boats – lobster boats, picnic boats, offshore fishing boats – were being outfitted with higher-powered engines, and the boats were experiencing a lot of failures in their drive-line components. Ron designed enhancements into his hardware so that fishermen could safely use their boats.” That said, R.E. Thomas components aren’t just for commercial boats. It’s a point Dinsmore was trying to make at WoodenBoat Show. “We’re starting to expand, making other boat builders aware of our products.”

A collection of beautiful boats? Yes, the WoodenBoat Show at Mystic Seaport is certainly that. But it’s so, so much more . . . .