The pungent tang of fiberglass resin fills the air at a four-acre complex in Bellport that was once redolent with the aroma of baking Italian bread.
The former site of a wholesale bakery founded by his grandfather is where Alan Steiger now operates Steiger Craft, the largest remaining boatbuilder on Long Island.
In the late 1800s and early 20th century, when fishing and marine transportation played a much bigger proportionate role in the regional economy than today, vessels were constructed in dozens of yards all around Long Island, particularly in the protected deepwater harbors of Port Jefferson, Greenport and Northport. Almost all of the yards have been replaced by other commercial enterprises or residential developments. Or they have switched to selling boats built by other companies or only handle repairs, dockage and storage.
The 45 full-time employees who work for Steiger, a former commercial baymen and fishermen, build more than 120 boats a year. A handful of other remaining companies produce a small fraction of that number.
Like the rest of the boatbuilding industry, Steiger Craft saw its sales plummet during the 2008 recession and for about three years afterward.
“In 2007, I was building about 120, and 2009 I was building about 25 boats a year,” Steiger said. And like other companies, he diversified to survive, including doing Navy contracts, until business picked up again.
“We build between 120 and 150 a year now,” said Steiger, 66. “We build three boats a week. Many years ago, when we were building 16-foot boats and we could build 10 a day,” the company was turning out about 450 boats a year. But he noted “the boats used to be $800, and now they’re $300,000.”
Creating the business
“My grandfather Santo Manino came from Italy and bought this place in the 1800s,” said Steiger, a resident of Bellport and Montauk. Located on a larger tract than the property the family retains, his grandfather's business was Manino’s Bakery. Downstairs was the bakery, and his second-floor office is where 14 sons and his mother were raised.
Steiger, an only child, eschewed working for the family business.
“When the bakery was going on and I was growing up, I was a commercial fisherman on the bay — clamming, crabbing, scalloping. Once I got into high school, I started designing boats,” he said, “and I had a little woodshop in the back of the property and we built commercial fishing things,” such as wooden clamming boats and clam rakes.
“I love the water,” Steiger said. “I always loved the water. When I wasn’t commercial fishing, I was recreational fishing.” But in 1972 he gave up working on the bay “because I couldn’t make enough money.” He began selling supplies to other clammers and constructing wooden boats when he had time before transitioning into a full-time boatbuilder.
Initially, all the watercraft were wood. But by 1975 he had switched to fiberglass construction all done by hand — no robots or machines involved. These days, the only significant part of the boat that contains wood is the transom, the back wall of the hull.
Although Steiger Craft boats were originally designed for the shallow waters of the bay, in the mid-1990s Steiger developed deep-V bottom boats for recreational ocean fishing.
The company offers about 15 models but generally builds only about five of them: 21, 23, 25, 28 and 31 feet, with several variations in layout. The 25-footer is the most popular model, selling for about $120,000. The top-of-the-line boat starts at $225,000.
An erasable board behind Steiger’s elaborate desk — made by a company carpenter years ago — lists completed boats in inventory awaiting shipment to dealers. Besides sales through Great Bay Marine in Babylon, Steiger has six regional dealers around the country who each own multiple locations, for a total of 16 shops.
Steiger says annual sales by the privately owned company are $8 million to $9 million, an amount he expects to increase to $10 million to $11 million next year.
To keep the company competitive with larger manufacturers, “we’re always making changes every year to all of our boats,” Steiger said. “We recently changed the freeboard [the distance between the top of the side of the boat and the water] on the 21, 23 and 25 and now we’re changing the freeboard on the 28 and 31,” to provide space for a dinette set and other new options in the cabin. The company is also rearranging the interior and deck layout on the 31-footer. And on the 28-footer, air-conditioning and heat will now be an option while the cabin is enlarged to add more luxury features.
Most of his customers are “family fisherman so they also use the boats for going to the beach or Fire Island,” Steiger said. “We focus on well-built, good-riding, low-maintenance fishing boats.”
One customer was clearly not a family fisherman. Billy Joel had a one-of-a-kind 23-foot Steiger Craft among the more than 20 boats he’s owned over the years. “Billy Joel had the only Steiger Craft inboard that we ever built and used it to commute back and forth to the city,” Steiger recalled.
Joel told an audience of naval architecture students at Webb Institute in Glen Cove last fall that he wished he hadn’t sold the boat and would like to replace it.
“I did enjoy using the inboard-engine Steiger Craft,” Joel recently told Newsday. “It was a very good boat for all purposes. Those boats are a lot tougher than they look.”
Steiger and his employees are proud that almost everything that goes into the boat is made on-site. They also make the molds used to create the hull and other components of the boat.
“We buy the motors from Yamaha, Suzuki and Evinrude, and we buy the stainless-steel cleats and things, but anything that’s wood or fiberglass we make,” Steiger said. Local vendors supply canvas, cushions, bowrails, swim ladders and other components.
His workers are native Long Islanders as well as immigrants from Haiti and Central and South America. “A lot of them are here 30 years, 40 years,” Steiger said.
His wife, Erin Taca, 60, works at the company occasionally as well. Their relationship began when she bought her second Steiger Craft from him around 2003.
Production manager Bill Rufer, 60, of Medford, who oversees the fiberglass work with skills learned on the job, has been with the company for 25 years.
“I enjoy what I do, and it’s a great place to work. It’s an awesome boat,” Rufer said.
He said he feels proud to be working for the last large-scale boat manufacturer on Long Island — one that still uses mostly hands-on construction techniques. “A lot of the other companies — I would say 95 percent of them — use machines. We do everything handlaid here, and everything’s done on the premises. There’s a lot more work to it than if you’re using the machines, but the end result is a lifetime-guaranteed product. You can’t beat that.”
The construction process
While Steiger calls it “a pretty simple process,” building a boat takes four weeks and about 400 to 500 worker-hours.
The factory is a compound with a half-dozen buildings. Steiger starts a tour in one behind the main building that contains large fiberglass molds for different hull models currently in use. Working under a clear plastic roof, workers wearing protective suits are beginning construction of a new craft.
Colorful unused molds are scattered in the tall grass in a rear corner of the property as if in a sculpture park.
“A set of molds for any boat costs about $1 million,” Steiger said.
First, wooden molds are handmade, then used once to make a fiberglass mirror-image version before being discarded. The fiberglass molds can be used indefinitely — until a model is redesigned.
“The first step we do is to wax the mold and then we spray it” with colored gelcoat pigment, to create the outermost layer of the finished boat. Then about 20 layers of fiberglass cloth and resin are applied over the gelcoat working from the outside of the hull in.
Fiberglass cloth is stored in a shed in the rear of the property where, Steiger noted, he was born.
In an adjacent white building, which also has a clear plastic roof, employees install a set of fiberglass stringers, or ribs, to reinforce the hull, then inject them with foam to help keep the components in place, keep the boat quieter and prevent it from sinking if it fills with water.
Steiger explained that he invented the fiberglass stringer system in 1990 to make the boat stronger.
In another building containing the woodshop, hatches and other components are made out of starboard, a type of plastic.
“I started the company using a pencil,” Steiger said, but today much of the design and fabrication work is computerized for speed and to ensure interchangeability of parts.
The final assembly shop shares the main building with office and sales space. There, the screech of power tools fills the air as employees attach rails, cleats and other fixtures to the nearly completed boat.
“Steiger has a great reputation and they have a really nice following of loyal customers,” said Chris Squeri, executive director of the New York Marine Trades Association, the Long Island boating trade group.
Why stay on Long Island?
Most of the remaining boatbuilding companies once situated in the Northeast have relocated to the South, particularly the Carolinas, to take advantage of lower costs.
Steiger Craft won’t be joining them.
“Long Island is wonderful!” Steiger exclaimed. “There’s no place like Long Island.” He added that “we’ve owned this property for 150 years so we have a fairly low overhead for New York.”
He said he gets a higher caliber of worker on Long Island, although even those require a lot of on-the-job training. “We’re smart here,” he stressed. “We do a better job. The average New Yorker works three or four times smarter/harder than a Carolina guy. Even though I pay more, I get more. The people are nicer. There’s more diversity.”
Still, National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thomas Emmrich said Steiger’s decision to remain on Long Island makes him an outlier in the industry. “We do tend to see boatbuilders cluster in certain parts of the country and their supply base then does tend to cluster around them. So you have a cluster in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Washington State. But you also have some very successful builders like Steiger Craft who are not part of these clusters.”
Alan Steiger may not work on the water anymore but “I get on the water in the summertime as much as I can — three or four days a week.” He has sold his own 31-foot Steiger Craft but is building a new one.
“He loves coming to work every day,” his wife, Erin, said. “It is a lot of fun. Every few years we talk about retiring or getting a place in Florida. Nope. We like doing this.”
Long Island's other boatbuilders
A few other companies on the Island are still making a small number of boats every year. They include:
Hustler Powerboats, formed in 1979, fabricates about a dozen boats a year at its Calverton plant, said owner Paul LoGiudice. The company offers 16 high-performance speedboat models ranging from 21 to 50 feet.
Superboat Inc., in Copiague, was formed 50 years ago by John Coen, now 75, in his garage. The company is known for its high-performance racing powerboats and was building 25 to 30 year in the 1980s. Having broadened its line to include center-console and fishing boats, the company now builds about 10 a year. Coen is assisted by two employees. He sells them directly without going through dealers.
Coecles Harbor Marina & Boatyard, a historic facility on Shelter Island, has been owned since 1973 by the Needham family. Its boatbuilding division, CH Marine, is best known for building four boats for Billy Joel, including Alexa, made famous by his song of the same name. The yard builds one or two boats a year, either the 38-foot Shelter Island Runabout or 30-foot Shelter Island Nomad.