An interview with Bob Stephens & Paul Waring reveals the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their custom yacht design business and the world of custom yachts that they inhabit. We talked to them from a comfortably safe distance – a time zone away. Here is what they said:
Let’s start with location: Your business is headquartered in Belfast, ME. While not a virus hotspot like New York or Chicago, your state still has restrictions. What are they, and how have they affected your day-to-day operations?
Bob: Maine has been fortunate that the number of cases is lower than in more populated regions of the country. Belfast, home of our office, is located in midcoast Waldo County, only an hour or so’s drive down the coast from the urban southwestern part of the state, the area that has the bulk of cases, and yet it is relatively unscathed. Nonetheless, people are taking things seriously – stores and public spaces closed, many masks are seen, streets much less traveled, by both vehicles and pedestrians.
Our work is pretty transportable, so we have made the call to shift our team to home offices. We connect via video-conferencing regularly, and the ability to share screens is ALMOST as good as leaning over someone’s shoulder.
Paul: The real differences for our day-to-day are down to working remotely. This means we don’t rub elbows together over complex design solutions with our team — this feels like an essential piece to the collegiate atmosphere we’ve built in our studio. Because that is a priority over the long term, I wouldn’t propose working remotely as a permanent business model for us.
I live part-time in Chicago, and I’ve happened to have spent the first several months of the shutdown here where the restrictions are much more profound than in Maine. Population density drives this experience in a very different direction. Because of my multi-state living situation, I have been working remotely off and on for over 10 years. I’ve gotten very good at creating a routine with working habits to remain efficient and well-connected as possible. I noticed early on the changes for these daily habits are not easy for everyone, but it is eye-opening for many industries how working from home is very possible.
Have you found any surprising professional or personal benefits during this time?
Bob: I get to sleep later! But seriously, cutting out 90 minutes of commuting has added a good bit of time to my day. The odometer of my car has stopped spinning around at an ominous rate. I feel good about not burning that fuel, and the air seems cleaner, even at home.
Professionally, I couldn’t point to benefits. I miss the collaborative environment that comes from a concentration of creative minds in one space. We can recapture most of this virtually, but not the finest essence of it.
One of the most significant parts of our work is making meaningful personal connections with our clients. In-person meetings play a big part in that. Restrictions on travel have been particularly challenging to navigate.
Paul: There is a certain ‘stress’ to these times and many people are hurting. Current events are challenging to watch — there’s something that is maybe a little hard to put a finger on to describe exactly that feeling we’re all experiencing. This manifests differently for everyone, but I sense that we’re all carrying a burden of loss and emotional anxiety that can be difficult to express or reconcile. Personally, this has caused me to find a way to balance my days with focus on our business for the first part of the day and then turn to personal projects or work around the house for the second part of the day. I find this helps relieve some stress and make space to process the larger picture as I also focus on priorities in business and personal life.
Professionally, this time is confusing. Business development conversations are slow and pensive. Clients and other opportunities all have seemed to take a pause as we search for signs of the economy making new directions. It’s important to remain connected with our network, and I spend a good deal of time checking in with everyone to build positivity and reassurances that we’ll get through this.
A yacht on open water seems like the ideal place to get away from the congestion of life on land. However, those aboard are in close contact. It’s no problem for a family crew, but what about larger boats that require a good size crew to sail? Have you heard anything in the sailing community regarding this?
Bob: Regattas will be particularly hard, as boats often travel longer distances (across state lines, incurring quarantine rules) to attend. A regatta is often a great excuse to pull friends together from all parts of the country to sail together. These circumstances are too problematic for me to feel comfortable about, even if the shoreside festivities are curtailed or eliminated.
I have high hopes that this sailing season will inspire folks to use their boats in a more family-centric way – more cruising and daysailing. Let’s use it as a catalyst to get us back to what we loved in sailing and boating in our youth – the thrill of speed for its own sake, a connection with the weather and the water, the simple enjoyment of our close family and friends as crew.
Paul: If your only goal for owning a sailing yacht is to go to regattas, you’re likely going to be disappointed this season. We’re seeing most regattas getting cancelled, and for good reason — it’s just too challenging to operate a proper regatta with the social distancing challenges on board and state recommendations on shore. No regatta organization desires to find themselves in a policing role.
Larger vessels that operate with paid crew will likely look to industry standards and guidelines for their crew and guests. Then the owners of those yachts will have to decide how far to push for using their boats with family or friends — each is a case by case decision.
Many people seem to be looking to get their boats operational for the season with the aim that there’ll be time for daysailing, weekend cruising, water skiing, picnicking, etc, but I’m hearing many aren’t worried about the next yacht event. This year we’ll miss those boat shows, poker runs and sailing regattas, but most folks simply want time outdoors to enjoy the water, if possible, and with small groups of friends or family.
What are your local harbors planning for the summer?
Bob: Most are working on ways and protocols to open the waterfront while providing buffers between people. Simple rules limiting the number of people on floating docks, sanitation around water and fuel fills, etc. I’m glad to see dock teams working hard to provide ways for folks to get to the water and enjoy their boats– it’s important to have a way to get out.
Paul: We’re all awaiting decisions over restrictions for various marinas around the country. Particularly, marinas located in denser areas where it’s harder to mitigate the spread of COVID and where the foot traffic on and off the docks can be impossible to regulate. I know of many yachting centers wrestling with how they open, or not, and it is no doubt a confusing decision to make.
What, if any, Spirit-of-Tradition regattas are still being held this year?
Bob: Uncertain at this time. It sounds like the granddaddy of Maine classic regattas, the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta, may go on as scheduled, but with no land-based activities or facilities at all – show up with your boat, sail the course, anchor in the cove or head home to your mooring. I would expect reduced numbers on the start line due to crew difficulties and quarantine restrictions.
With all of that in mind, the Fifth Annual Camden Classics Cup has been postponed until July 29-31 of 2021. One of the casualties of the postponement is our event beneficiary, LifeFlight of Maine. LifeFlight is a non-profit organization that provides critical care transport for those needing emergency medical services throughout the state. We are hoping that everyone will rally to support LifeFlight and the important work they do. In the absence of a regatta, individual donations are crucial. Last year, CCC participants and sponsors raised $15,000. Please lend your support today: https://www.lifeflightmaine.org/Support-our-Mission/Donate.aspx
With fewer regattas in the near future, are there any distractions you’ve discovered and would like to share with those who are missing time on the water?
Bob: WoodenBoat magazine has been doing a great weekly series of video interviews on their Facebook Live feed: builders from across the spectrum, magazine founders, other influential folks in the wooden boat world. Worth checking out. Also, North Sails has been having weekly seminars online about various aspects of racing and cruising. And for those armchair navigators, try your hand at the Virtual Newport Bermuda Race – here.
Paul: Our friends at Off Center Harbor have been producing great videos for boating nerds and enthusiasts. Topics range from sailmaking to carpentry to mechanical. The videos are a lot of fun, and a big bang for the buck with a monthly subscription.
I have always been interested in cycling, and in recent years have become more enthusiastic about this as my exercise regimen. It’s fun to own more than one type of bicycle to ride different surfaces and terrain. I try to get out once a day for at least an hour or more, if possible.
If someone has been keeping busy by sketching their dream yacht and they’re ready to explore the possibility of making it a reality, what’s the best way to contact you?
Bob: What a great way to keep your mind busy during stay-at-home time! Nothing like a good doodle to take the mind elsewhere. Just give a call. I’ll be at home for another month, probably– my office extension is set to forward to my cell phone. Or email always works: email@example.com.
Paul: Dreaming, in large part, is what we do best! In the past several years our readers and connections have noticed our developments in the floating residence market. This excites us a great deal. In our efforts we’re aiming to make our approach to the design of these structures based more on sustainable materials and processes — this is something we feel strongly brings next level credibility and experience to any project..
We think it is time, not only for the floating residence arena to become more sophisticated with these ideas, but that it’s also time for our marine industry to shift more and more to sustainable practices in both manufacturing and design. It would excite us greatly to take on your project and to pursue ideas that explore the most current standards for craft built with sustainability in mind.
Until next month – from everyone at Stephens Waring Yacht Design, take care. We wish you well.