“Happiness is 50 Years of Stur-Dee Boats”
Tim E. Santon, Staff Writer, Soundings, June 1997
Jack Dowling of Fire Island, N.Y., needed a new centerboard trunk for his catboat. The part arrived a few days after placing an order with Ernie Gavin, the owner of Stur-Dee Boat Co. in Tiverton, R.I. Dowling, who sails his 20-year-old boat on Great South Bay, was surprised by the way the transaction was handled. Gavin sold him the part at cost and even covered the shipping fee. “Most companies seem to be out only to make money, but he seems more concerned with keeping his customers happy,” says Dowling,65, who was inspired to send a letter of thanks. “It’s not the type of thing you’d expect in today’s world,” he says.
Gavin fell into the boatbuilding business in 1947. After serving two years in the Army, he traveled about 20 miles from Tiverton to attend Brown University in Providence through the GI Bill of Rights.
Gavin’s business acumen is one of the biggest reasons his company, known for its well-built 8-foot dinghy, 12-, 14- and 16-foot dories, and 14-foot catboat, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. “It’s a big wow,” says Gavin, 71, who lives with his wife, Bernadette, in Tiverton. “We’ve come a long way and it’s nice to do something you actually have fun at. There’s a certain amount of independence and it’s a good feeling when your customers are happy with your product.
Collegiate life wasn’t for Gavin, who began working part time building wooden dories. He left Brown after a semester to start Stur-Dee Boat Co. and though he jokingly says he should have taken a government job and lived off a pension, he has never seriously second-guessed his decision to build boats.
Gavin cleared two acres of woods and eventually built three 4,000 square-foot sheds by the early 1950s.
At the time, he and nine employees were building wooden prams, skiffs, dories and what he named the Viking Bass Boat, which came in 12-, 14-, 16-, 18- and 20-foot versions.
Gavin not only helped build the boats, he delivered them to dealers, mostly around New England.
The boatbuilder doesn’t appear to have lost his vigor for his business, which produces about 100 boats a year.
He continues to arrive at his family run operation at 7:30 AM, seven days a week. He works until around 5:30 PM. during the week. On Saturdays, he mostly cleans the shop. On Sundays, he reads a newspaper with coffee, and does some varnish work.
Gavin’s brother, Bobby, 56, lays up boats, and his daughter, Heidi Reid, 39, has done everything from varnish work to billing since age 17. Two other employees work part time.
Though Stur-Dee has mostly stayed the same over the years, the company has faced challenging times, says Gavin. An electrical fire in 1988 claimed two of the company’s three 4,000-square-foot buildings, including many molds.
However, Gavin remained undeterred from his craft. “What was I going to do then?” he asked. “I don’t know what retirement means. If you relax too much, you don’t want to get up.
”On a mid-winter morning, Ernie Gavin and Heidi were enjoying a coffee break in a cramped office in the corner of the shop. As the fan of a space heater spun away, the two interacted more like friends than family. Heidi often called her father by his first name, and smiled admiringly whenever he broke into a story about the old days.
How has the company survived for a half-century? “He’s always given whatever he does 150 percent,” Heidi says.
The atmosphere at Stur-Dee speaks of the 1950s. In the once, there is no computer, fax machine or push-button phone. Ernie Gavin believes a rotary phone and the postal service are sufficient means of communicating. Shelves are filled with dusty books on such subjects as history and evolution – Gavin is a voracious reader. Logbooks with transactions dating back to 1954 also can be found on the shelves.
Gavin grabbed the 1964 edition, blew a thick layer of dust off it and turned to a page filled with scribbled notes that only he could decipher. One transaction, the sale of a 16-foot dory was for $195. Outside the office, the 12-footers, which cost $2,095 each, 14- ($2,295), and 16-foot dories ($2,795) are stacked high. There are several 8-foot dinghies, called Harbormasters ($895), in various stages of construction. The mold for the 14-foot, Edson Schock-designed catboat ($7,900) hangs from the ceiling. In the background, Mackenzie Reid lays up another 14-foot dory to the sound of big band music.
As far as challenges to the business of selling boats go, Gavin says the only way to overcome tough times is to work harder, rather than increase prices. He says that companies such as O’Day folded because of the struggle to balance overhead costs with prices. “We’re a small business so we can keep our hands on things,” says Gavin.
Another reason Stur-Dee has survived a half-century is the quality of its product, say customers. Gilbert Pritchett went to the 1974 Annapolis Boat Show with a plan to buy a boat stable enough to teach his wife how to sail. He found Stur-Dee’s 14-foot catboat with a 7-foot beam. “I’ve sailed the boat hard in all kinds of weather ever since and it’s still like brand new,” says Pritchett, 68, a retired steel worker from Fort Howard, Md. “Since the original purchase chase I haven’t had to contact the company about anything. In fact, we still have the original sail.”
So is Stur-Dee planning a 50th anniversary celebration? “We celebrate the fact we’re still here every day,” says Heidi Reid. “It’s been quite a thing to stay in business this long and still feel happy to come to work.”