Murder at the Docks


Ships and the open sea have inspired any number of memorable icons and motifs: the grizzled sea captain, the enterprising stowaway, the stormy below-deck love affair, among others. But consider a less-recognized character: the maverick yacht builder, who shirks classrooms and takes his skill straight to the water.

Phil Bolger has been designing and building small vessels for 50 years, in the Massachusetts port town of Gloucester. He doesn't have a license or a degree, just a reputation for seaworthy boats of ingenious design. But a movement toward specialized licensing exams could limit his access to an industry that's traditionally been open to anyone with the talent and dedication to learn through informal, though exacting, means.

The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) began working to develop a national test for nautical engineering licensure almost a decade ago. They've now persuaded 40 states to offer it, though so far only Washington state requires it. Most of the stated motives for creating the exam involved practical concerns: SNAME reps say that, among other things, a nationwide test eliminates the problem of patchwork state rules and helps speed up the Coast Guard's design review process. The Coast Guard must approve the plans of all vessels licensed to carry passengers for hire.

But such concerns are alien to small-boat designers, those who work on vessels far smaller than naval destroyers and gargantuan cruise ships. They live on their reputations as reliable builders. Nevertheless, if licensing becomes mandatory—an end Bolger and others suspect SNAME will seek—small boat designers could be penalized.

Susanne Altenburger, Phil Bolger's wife and design assistant, notes that public safety has been more than adequately protected by regulating the product end of the industry. She stresses that boat-building isn't like other industries: "Very little can be hidden buried under concrete, inside tires, or in food-processing."

There's one possible silver lining: The one state that has such a law seems queasy about enforcing it. In Washington, many unlicensed designers are still working without reprisal. The law makes no exemption for those who build small boats, but not every state regulator classifies their work as "engineering."