Boston Whaler's unsinkable legend isn't just a tale already spun. It's a story retold with each boat that comes off the line
Imagine the challenge. Boston Whalers have been famously cut in half; they’ve had thousands of rounds of ammunition fired into them; they’ve had massive earth movers parked on top of them; the’ve had their plugs removed and have been loaded way beyond capacity
All of this without sinking. Now, picture that your job is to build more than 30 models of this, ranging from 11 to 42 feet in length, day in and day out. That’s a lot to live up to.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” says Rebecca Crews, Boston Whaler’s director of manufacturing and plant operations. Rebecca has been with Whaler for more than 15 years, so she thoroughly understands what customers expect. But instead of causing panic or instilling anxiety, customers’ expectations deepen her sense of pride for what she and all the employees at Whaler achieve every day.
“We know how demanding our customers are,” Rebecca explains. “We know the pride they feel owning one of the boats we build, and so that pride crosses over to the employees. From hourly workers on the floor to managers to sales and support people, it’s all the same. Whaler gets under your skin and becomes a part of you.”
But still, imagine the challenge. It’s much more than living up to that legend or exceeding expectations. It’s also a manufacturing challenge. No other boats are manufactured like Boston Whalers; so the problems and solutions, the opportunities and successes, are singular, as well.
“Our UnibondTM construction process is completely unique, and that presents its own very specific manufacturing requirements,” Rebecca says. If you’ve been to other boat-building plants before, the first thing you notice at Whaler is that the molds for the hull and the inner liner are much larger and heavier. The reason they are so much bigger (i.e., stronger) is these two pieces come together while still in their separate molds, giving them the strength to stand up to the expanding foam that is shot into the cavity in between and fuses them into a single structure.
Unibond construction was the flash of genius that struck C. Raymond Hunt and Richard Fisher when they began building Boston Whalers outside of Boston in 1956. If you think of the hull and inner liner of each Whaler as pieces of bread, imagine the peanut butter and jelly being fired in between under pressure, perfectly filling the space and bonding the pieces together as a unified and delicious whole. Of course, it’s a great deal more technical than that. But just as PB&J are crucial ingredients to the sandwich, the foam is the pivotal component in a Whaler. How the foam goes, so goes that boat, and the seconds it takes to fill each Whaler with that expanding closed-cell foam is the single most crucial period in that boat’s production.
“The expansion of the foam displaces all the available space within the cavity,” Rebecca explains. “The result is an incredible cubic volume of closed-cell buoyant material, which is why Whalers are unsinkable. It also ends up denser than the foam placed in most other boats, which is why ours are so strong.”
Whaler uses a more environmentally friendly foam that doesn’t include HCFCs or CFCs as blowing agents. Whaler’s proprietary foam instead uses water, which, as part of the chemical reaction, creates the air bubbles that provide the buoyancy. The foam gun combines two different agents that react with each other just like an epoxy from the hardware store. There are only 45 seconds to fill the cavity inside the hull before the foam starts to rise. Most Whaler models are filled with a single shot from the machine, but some models over 30 feet in length require a “double shot.”
“The foam machine is programmed with the specifications for each of our models,” Rebecca says. “We know how much foam should go into that cavity, and if it measures out the right amount, we can be confident we successfully filled and joined the two halves. The amount of foam used for each boat then becomes a permanent part of its hull record.”
Inside the cavity where the foam is shot, other proprietary elements unique to Whaler tie the two halves together. Workers pre-place chases for wiring and reinforcement materials like Whaleboard, or “phenolic”—half-inch thick slabs of resin-impregnated material—where cleats and most hardware end up being attached on the finished boat.
Then, when the foam is shot, workers keep their eyes on vent holes in different parts of the mold assembly that allow the trapped air to escape. If the foam has filled and expanded correctly, foam snakes or buttons come up through the holes. After the foam cures and the boat is de-molded, they double-check for trapped air in the hull by tapping it with a hammer, much how you look for studs in a wall, except listening for the empty sounds rather than the solid ones.
So obviously Boston Whaler beauty is much more than skin deep, but oh what beautiful skin! Premium gelcoats and resins are used throughout, and Whaler employs a cold-press process on fiberglass lids, which provides a smooth finish on all sides. The hardware is 316 grade stainless steel, the same stainless used on luxury watches and to clad some skyscrapers. Stainless steel Whaler fasteners are triple chrome plated for additional corrosion resistance and shine. This splendid marrying of form and function extends into each of Whaler’s designs, where ergonomics, fishability and performance do their own shining. It’s not just for their unsinkability that Whalers are the first choice of countless government agencies when they contract for rugged, high-utility workhorses.
After more than 15 years at Boston Whaler, Rebecca knows company employees are up to the challenge of building these incomparable boats. She is proud of the results and proud of the plant’s incredible safety record, which boasts several million man hours without a “lost-time” incident. “We have the safest boat in the industry,” she smiles, “and I’d like to think we have one of the safest manufacturing facilities, too. It’s another challenge, but one more place where we set the bar for everyone else.”