Paul Fenn

The Fenn Family gets a Lesson in Boat Building 101

Take a stroll to the waters’ edge of any major harbor and you’re sure to see more than a few boats tooling around or sitting at the dock. And while seeing boats on the water is a common sight, seeing them in a production plant is a different story. So when my family and I found ourselves in Florence, SC for the night, just 40 minutes away from the factory that builds four of our boats; the Sun Odyssey 379, 409, 41DS and 44DS, it only seemed logical that we should swing by, say hello to the team and learn a few things about how these babies go together.

Located in Marion, South Carolina, BGM (short for Beneteau Group Manufacturing) builds both the Beneteau and the Jeanneau brand of sailboats. At one time pretty much 100% of the boats produced here were just for North America but today, a few of the models, such as the Jeanneau 41DS and 44DS are actually produced and exported for the world market.

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My wife Kim with my 3 kids, Graham, Mollie and Will in front of a newly moulded hull outside the cutting room.

 

Since every new boat begins by first moulding a hull, it seemed logical that the mould room is where we should begin our tour. The moulds themselves are extremely expensive to make, like several hundred thousand dollars expensive. The mould has to be perfect because any imperfection in the mould will show up in the finished piece, i.e. the hull. Step one is to coat the inside of the mould with gelcoat. The gelcoat is a very hard, high-quality finish that is what you see on the outside of the boat after the hull comes out of the mould. Once the gelcoat has been applied, pieces of fiberglass cloth and resin are methodically laid out, one on top of the other to form a solid laminate. Once dried, the hull is removed from the mould and voila, you have something that looks pretty much like the beginnings of a boat.

The finished hull is then moved to the cutting room where holes for such things as ports, windows, hatches and thru-hulls are precisely cut for installation of the actual hardware later on in the production process.

Mollie and Graham stand alongside a 44DS where the deck is all staged for being permanently installed.
Mollie and Graham stand alongside a 44DS where the deck is all staged for being permanently installed.

The boat really starts to come together once it moves onto the actual production line. Because it’s here where the real guts of the boat are installed. This includes bulkheads (for structure), plumbing lines, electrical systems, pumps, water heaters, fuel tanks, water tanks, the engine, sound systems, head compartments, galley compartments, and pretty much everything else. It’s a slick system because at this point in the building process the deck is still uninstalled making access into the boat incredibly easy. 20 years ago this was not the case. Back then the deck went on very early in the production process making installations difficult and slow and often resulted in the bulkheads getting damaged in the process.

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Will pauses to check out one of the work stations on the floor of the plant. There is still a lot of handwork done here that takes both skill and experience.

Something important to keep in mind and that we learned during our visit, is before any of the bulkheads can be installed, they first have to be cut, finished and assembled. This is all done on site with the help of some pretty impressive equipment such as the computerized, programmable table saw and automated varnish application machine. In addition, all the equipment to be installed, and I mean everything, has to be properly labeled and on site so the production stays on schedule.

The production line itself is always a beehive of activity with plenty of workers coming and going, installing this and that along the way. Once the installations are complete, the only thing left to do is to drop on the deck. “Wait a minute, where does the deck come from,” asks my 8-year-old son Graham?

Graham Fenn stands along side the computerized table saw that cuts all the interior wood with tremendous precision.
Graham Fenn stands along side the computerized table saw that cuts all the interior wood with tremendous precision.

OK, so while some people are moulding the hull, and other people are cutting and finishing the wood, and others are installing equipment, there are still others constructing the deck. The deck, like the hull is a moulded piece. But, unlike the hull which utilizes a system of “open moulding” the deck takes advantage of a more modern system of “closed moulding.” In a nutshell, the big difference between the two systems is that where open moulding uses just one mould and the resin applied for the most part by hand, closed moulding utilizes a two-part mould and a system know as resin injection where the resin or glue is injected into the mould at great pressure. Once the resin has cured or hardened, the mould is taken apart and what you have is a perfect moulded deck.

Once the deck is on, the boat is pretty close to being ready to go. Before it does that however, it first has to take a swim in the pool to make sure all the systems run correctly. It’s also here that we check for deck leaks by spraying the boat with water for several hours. The last step is to make sure the boat is clean and shines like new so there is a whole team who takes care of detailing the boat from stem to stern before the boat rolls.

One of the truly great perks that has come from working for Jeanneau for the past 17 years, has been exposing my young family to the exciting world of boats, boating, boat shows, cruising and sailing in general. We have sailed through the tropical islands of the Caribbean, cruised through the San Juan and Canadian Gulf Islands. sailed off the New England Coast, cruised through Key West and across Tampa Bay, and explored the unspoiled Apostle Islands on Lake Superior. We are lucky for sure. And now, thanks to the hardworking people in Marion, we also have a new appreciation of how these beautiful boats come together and all the care that goes into building them. To everyone at BGM, thanks for all you do!

On we go…

Underway on the Chesapeake Bay aboard the Jeanneau 41DS
The Fenn family underway on the Chesapeake Bay aboard the Marion built, Jeanneau 41DS.