YEAR IN REVIEW: Southwestern N.S. boat building looks to alternate business to keep busy

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With fishing vessel orders down LeBlanc Boat Builders eyes pleasure crafts

As the year 2008 draws to a close, the Sou'Wester and NovaNewsNow.com take a look back at some of the events and news from the past year.

By Tina Comeau

SOU’WESTER (STORY ORIGINALLY POSTED IN JUNE , 2008) Neil LeBlanc says his family has been building boats since he was 14 years old.

He doesn’t say how old he is now, but he does say his family isn’t building as many fishing boats as it used to.

It’s not an unfamiliar tune being sung at many boatbuilding companies in the Atlantic region.

Which is why companies like LeBlanc Brothers Boatbuilding in Wedgeport, Yarmouth County, N.S. are looking at other building opportunities for their encore performances. And LeBlanc, manager of the family-operated business – which includes his brothers Leo and Kevin – feels confident they’ve found one.

For the better part of the past year the company has been building a 50-foot pleasure craft for a customer from Newtown, Pennsylvania. Pleasure boats aren’t unusual for the company – some of its pleasure craft projects have included 29, 32 and 45-footers.

But size aside, the Mai Pehn Rai is over and above any boat the company has built before. “It’s a Nova Scotia-designed lobster style hull,” says LeBlanc, adding the interior feels more like a house than a boat. “This guy, our client, he fell in love with our fishing boat, he just wanted something a little better than our fishing boat. Well, guess what? We went three times better than our fishing boat.”

The yacht, with its oak flooring throughout, has two full bedrooms (one with a king-size berth, the other with a queen), two full bathrooms with full showers and a side-by-side stainless steel fridge and freezer. An electric stove, trash compactor, dishwasher and cherry cabinetry and woodwork, storage closets and a picture window over the sink round out some of the other amenities.

The design of the boat also incorporates a helm station, cockpit salon, flybridge and swim platform. Particular detail has been spent on things like a built-in settee, a widescreen TV entertainment unit and a computer desk. The craft also features a 21 kw Genset and large engine room. “We made the couch, we made the tables, everything we could make here he did not want us to buy,” LeBlanc says.

Although this is the first vessel of this size and scope the company has built, LeBlanc hopes it won’t be the last – particularly as word gets out about it.

Which would be music to the ears of LeBlanc Brothers Boatbuilding.

LeBlanc admits these are challenging times for boat building companies, who can no longer rely strictly on fishing boat business to carry them through.

It wasn’t always like this. Years back LeBlanc says they were “busy, busy, busy.” Up to as recently as two years ago the company had so many orders that it was refusing 10 or 20 building requests a year. “But as those orders got filled you could tell there was not as much inquiries. They were going down and down and down. In the past two years, they have dropped down to a crawl,” LeBlanc says.

Why? He figures it’s a combination of factors ¬– the higher price of fuel, the higher price of bait, less people chasing fish in the summer months.

Then there’s the quality of the work. “The replacements of the old boats, they’re filled, and they’ve got fiberglass boats that are good for 30 years,” says LeBlanc. “So the old boats are not going to get replaced unless the fishermen really see something going their way, and right now it’s not.”

But moving into the pleasure craft business – vessels of luxury, not necessity – is not without its risks. “Since we got into these pleasure boats we were faced with the first war in Iraq, then we had 9-11, then came the second war in Iraq, the price of the U.S. dollar, the stock market, the economy,” LeBlanc lists off. “So since we’ve been at it, we’ve been fighting obstacles all the way up to now.”

But obstacles can be overcome and LeBlanc Brothers Boatbuilders has had a 50-foot pleasure craft in its yard to prove it. In this case the customer had first made inquiries about three years ago to the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association looking for a boat yard to build a vessel for him. “About a year and a half after he came and looked at three boat builders, he decided to stick with us,” LeBlanc says. “He gave us a down payment not evening knowing how much the boat was going to cost. We didn’t even have a plan to work with yet because we were building faster than the designer could plan the boat.”

The Wedgeport company has been tracking the construction process with photos on its website, and the pleasure craft has attracted more than its fair share of curiosity in the community, with people stopping by to have a look.

The construction – when they haven’t been involved with other work at the yard – has meant steady work for about six to eight people, and an extra person as well if you count in the customer who has been very involved throughout the project.

In early June, the boat was put in the water for sea trials and LeBlanc and another worker from the company were to be part of the voyage to the boat’s homeport to ensure that the new owner is familiar with its operations.

As for what other work is on the horizon, LeBlanc says the company has a fairly big refit on a Quebec boat coming up, along with three or four local steamship inspections. They’re also working on a house.

As for what’s next? “We’re open for business for anything that is available: houses, wharfs, pleasure boats, fishing boats, sail boats…” says LeBlanc.

Organizations: LeBlanc Brothers Boatbuilding, LeBlanc Brothers Boatbuilders, Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association

Geographic location: Wedgeport, Atlantic, Yarmouth County Newtown, Pennsylvania Nova Scotia Iraq U.S. Quebec

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