Ken Fickett of Great Harbour Trawlers inspects a hull section just released from the mold at a factory in the Dominican Republic.
Group Fickett Rumbles in the Dominican Jungle (Gallery, Video)
By PETER SWANSON
Ken and Travis Fickett, father and son, took a little trip recently to the Dominican Republic to advise a fellow boatbuilder down there. The Fickett family builds boats in North Central Florida under the brand names of Great Harbour and Mirage. Lucas Guessard builds boats for the Caribbean tourism industry on a jungle hilltop in the D.R.
Fickett’s company began in 1971 with canoes and kayaks, graduated to sailboats (more than 1,000), went onto build a lightweight sportfishing boat, and, as most readers know, the Great Harbour line of trawlers.
Guessard, whose company is called Aventura Boats, is a phenomenon. “Wanna make a million bucks in the Dominican Republic?” begins the joke. The answer: “Start with 10.” Maybe Guessard, 52, is still working on that first million, but he has somehow grown over 20 years to become the biggest builder in the Caribbean, and in a very unlikely location. His factory is in the jungle hilltown of La Culebra (The Snake) on the North Coast of the D.R., and not exactly near the water.
Start-up boatbuilding is a tough business anywhere in the world no matter how good the product, but for a foreigner to succeed at bootstrapping any enterprise in the Dominican Republic — that is a truly remarkable achievement. The sheer numbers of entrepreneurs who have been bested by various combinations of employee lethargy, official corruption and imaginative skullduggery boggle the mind.
The Aventura Boats crew poses with the boss atop the red dive boat.
His story has been exaggerated, Guessard complains, particularly the sack of rice bit. When he and his brother Frank sailed their trimaran from Brazil to Luperon 24 years ago, they were not down to their last sack of rice, he says. they just didn't have a whole lot of cash.
The brothers had flown from their native France to Brazil and built their trimaran of strip-planking and epoxy. It was a childhood dream made real. The boys from Montpelier had spent their childhood cheering for France’s elite multihull racers the way American boys follow the heroes of NASCAR. They named their little tri Guara and she sits on the water like a tethered bird of prey.
While Frank took hotel guests on trips aboard Guara, Luc built boats. He developed a 30-foot catamaran that a major dive company said was perfect for ferrying 14 tourists and their gear to the dive sites. Guessard hired local teenagers to help with the building. Eventually Frank moved on, but Luc put down roots, crafting one hull at a time, then two, then three, etc.
He made molds for the hulls and used fiber-reinforced polyester resin construction just like the big boys back in France and in the States. He got better at reading in English so he could keep up on boatbuilding trends in the trade magazines. He tooled up for greater efficiency by building more and more molds for the smaller parts of his boats. At this writing he had eight boats up to 44 feet under construction, two more on order, and no end in sight.
The teenagers who had apprenticed with him at the marina are skill with him as team leaders and the workforce has swelled to more than three dozen.
Unlike in a boatbuilding hotspot such as Florida, though, Aventura’s growth had been organic. There was no competition from which to “steal” talent. The kind of industrial cross-pollination that, for example, had benefitted Great Harbour did not exist.
And now comes 2020, and Aventura had a problem. The little company in the hills had succeeded too well. They needed to be build boats faster and smarter if they hoped to make good on delivery promises. The company needed more modern equipment and new processes, so Guessard turned to the Ficketts. He had met Ken and Travis years earlier while they were visiting the D.R. and would reunite regularly when Guessard attended the annual IBEX boatbuilding trade show.
Before the trip Ken Fickett had recommended that Aventura Boats purchase a combo gelcoat-resin spray gun, which Guessard promptly did. That way part of the consulting visit would be to train Aventura’s crew on how use the sprayer; this would be Travis Fickett’s main mission. Ken would oversee the training on actual hull parts and advise on process improvements and a host of tricks to make the work go faster and improve quality. For Ken Fickett, it wasn't enough to advise, and on more than one occassion he grabbed a worker's roller and showed the crew how to properly spread that resin.
After returning to his Gainesville headquarters, Fickett wrote a six-page report putting his advice down on (electronic) paper and sent it to Guessard in time for his 52nd birthday. A good time was had by all. I know. I was there.