Custom boat builders are becoming increasingly difficult to find, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay area. Despite the trade significantly falling off throughout the years, Steve Zimmerman followed his passion for boat building and built a successful, growing business along the way.
After a bold move of deferring his acceptance to UVA’s law school, Steve headed north in search of a simple life rooted in craftsmanship — one where he would put his tools away every day when the whistle blew and head home feeling like he accomplished something. Steve spent a year apprenticing alongside a crew in Maine to learn the craft of boat building. The experience of taking a vessel from plans on paper to under sail was enough to steer Steve in an entirely different direction. Needless to say, one year turned into two, two years turned into never going back to law school, and Steve set out in the boat building and repair industry in Mathews County, VA.
We had the chance to chat with Steve about how he ended up in the industry, some of his favorite aspects of owning a boatyard and successfully expanding his business in an economy that has shifted drastically.
Why did you get into boat repairs in addition to boat building?
Initially I wanted to be a boat builder - that was my passion. But I knew that it’s very hard to survive doing that. It’s risky, and it’s very unsteady. You finish a boat and then what do you do? So I felt like I needed the boat repair business to make it more stable and sustainable.
Are you still building boats?
Officially, yes. But really we’ve shifted away from it. We finished our last boat about 3 or 4 years ago when the economy was really in bad shape, and we did have a boat to build. And then there were no boats to build at all, but there were some opportunities to expand the services because we had built a good reputation. At the time, we were only in one location which is really in the middle of nowhere. (Matthews, VA) We were there in the first location for 28 years, then expanded to Deltaville. That was a nice opportunity because it was nearby - we could move people and equipment between locations pretty easily since it’s only 20 minutes away by car. So it was like expansion 101 with training wheels. We learned a lot.And then the opportunity in Maryland gradually unfolded. While the economy had shrunk, there was opportunity there, so we jumped in and did that. And then a few years later the location in Southport came up.
Have you been on a long-term sailing trips before?
I’ve done a lot of cruising under power boats that we’ve built. I’ve been to the Bahamas several times. I’ve been all the way up and down the East Coast to Maine and Nova Scotia. I’ve gone up to Montreal and come down through Lake Champlain. And I’ve cruised down the side passage through Alaska on the West side.
What do you love most about what you do?
Many of these people are living out a dream. We have a program where we actually represent boat buyers. There’s a trip called the “Great Loop” that's very popular among retirees. The Great Loop is a circle where you go up the East Coast, through the Eerie Canal, into the Great Lakes, through the Mississippi, out to the Gulf, around Florida and back up to make a circle. So we meet with these people and help them find a boat. Once they buy the boat, we help them get it registered for cruise. And once they’re cruising we provide support. So if they’re on the waterway and need something they can call us and we walk them through it. And in general, it’s really gratifying to help somebody realize their dream. And they are finally living it. You get to follow their blog or get emails and pictures of what they’re doing. It’s really fun to support that.
Zimmerman Marine has been building custom sailboats, powerboats and yachts for over 30 years, ranging from 16′ sailboats to 60′ custom cruising yachts inspired by Maine lobster boats. In recent years, Steve has expanded the business to provide service and repair at four boat yards spanning the East Coast from North Carolina to Maryland. His dedication to pursuing the life of a craftsman has fulfilled his own dream, as he helps others live out their own dreams on the water.
Photographs courtesy of Steve Zimmerman and Adam Ewing. To start planning your own trip around the Great Loop, visit Zimmerman Marine.
October 02, 2015 — Mel Calabro