Over four decades, Alan Steiger watched as his boatbuilding competitors got out of the business — leaving Steiger Craft as Long Island’s last large-volume boat maker.
While there are still a handful of boat manufacturers left on the Island, Bellport-based Steiger Craft, founded in 1972, is the only one that continues to produce 100 or more vessels a year.
“We got offers to go to North Carolina,” said Steiger, 62, of Bellport. “We had offers to go to other places, but we love New York.”
Steiger Craft is among the exhibitors at the annual Long Island Boat Show, which opened Thursday and runs through Sunday at Grumman Studios in Bethpage.
The Island’s tradition of large-scale boat building dates to the mid-19th century, when major shipbuilding centers were located in harbors such as Port Jefferson and Greenport, and craftsmen were turning out vessels in every deep harbor in Suffolk and Nassau counties.
After World War II, the use of fiberglass made it possible to construct boats that lasted longer and required less maintenance. And they could be produced cheaper and faster than those made from wood.
“Boat building is alive and well on Long Island,” said Kevin Weeks, 55, third-generation owner of Frank M. Weeks Yacht Yard in Patchogue, a marina that also services and builds boats. “But the days of mass-production of boats are gone.”
The energy crisis of the 1970s and several recessions also pushed some Long Island boat builders out of business or forced them to convert their shops to more profitable marine-related operations.
Al Grover, 88, of Vero Beach, Florida, whose family built fishing skiffs from the 1970s until about 1990 in Freeport, said his customers were middle-class Long Islanders, and when their ranks shrank, so did his business.
“Our volume was a husband, wife and kids who bought a house and had some money left over for a boat,” Grover said. “That group is gone. They can barely cover their car payments. They’re getting squeezed pretty hard.”
Today, Al Grover’s High & Dry Marina is run by Dante Grover, one of his sons.
Steiger, once a clammer, began building wooden clam boats in the 1970s for the men who dredged the Great South Bay for the mollusks — plentiful back then. To meet the demand of thousands of clammers, Steiger switched to fiberglass.
As overfishing caused the decline of the clam population, so did the demand for that type of work boat, he said.
“Then we went from there to making offshore fishing boats,” Steiger said.
Today, Steiger Craft has 30 employees who build a range of fiberglass boats for commercial and recreational fishermen as well as families looking for pleasure crafts. They come in six different sizes and various models, ranging from 21 to 31 feet. Steiger’s boats are also used by the U.S. Coast Guard, state Department of Environmental Conservation and bay constables.
The factory sits on about 4 acres that remain of a larger tract Steiger said his grandfather, Santo Mannino, bought when he, his wife and their 14 sons settled in Bellport in 1880. Mannino’s 15th child, his only daughter and Steiger’s mother, was born in Bellport.
“This was where everything ended,” Steiger said. “There were no roads east of here.”
Connor Brogan said Steiger Craft has remained competitive and thrives because Steiger, his stepfather, has adapted to the changes in the market that have taken place over the decades.
“The reason Alan has been so successful is because he offers a diverse line of boats, and he changed with the time,” said Brogan, who helps run the company.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose administration has worked to keep small businesses in New York, visited the Bellport factory twice, Steiger said, and urged him to keep manufacturing boats on Long Island.
“It’s nice when the governor calls you up and visits you,” Steiger said. “Connor will be taking over the business, so he’ll continue to build them here.”