PUBLISHED: 2:57 PM on Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Juneau boat manufacturers build on own experiences
Black Feather Boats, located in Juneau on the banks of the Mendenhall River, is the only fiberglass/composites boatbuilding shop in Southeast Alaska, and the only shop in Alaska utilizing the Vacuum Infusion Process. Black Feather Boats was started in 1989 in Homer. The emphasis of Black Feather Boats has is in three very different types of watercraft technology: new boat construction, local boat repair/shipwright services, and further study and development of the many styles Native watercraft.

Courtesy photo
  From left, Chad Cordener, David Lesh and Gregor Welpton with the newest edition to Black Feather Boats, the ChilKat 30 Cruiser.
Company founder, Gregor Welpton had a vision of building boats and kayaks that were unique to Alaska's heritage and coastal conditions. During it's early years, the company did commercial vessel repair, built skiffs and also built baidarkas for several museums and private owners.

Black Feather Boats relocated to Juneau in 1996 and was Incorporated in 2003.

How did you begin boat making?

As the founder and President of Black Feather Boats, Gregor Welpton has been instrumental in bringing Vacuum Infusion technology into the Alaskan manufacturing marketplace.

Gregor brings a wealth of experience and energy into his business. Professionally trained in the intricacies of wooden boat building and wooden boat repair, Gregor spent many years rebuilding decks, sterns, pilothouses, driving steam bent ribs and replanking older boats.

His fascination with many different types of watercraft led him to study many of the traditional vessels of the Pacific, and eventually led him to work on several large dugout canoe projects and also build many of the traditional kayaks that are found throughout Alaska. Many of these boats can be seen hanging in museums, though he freely admits that his favorite ones are the working boats, the ones which still see water day to day.

Gregor ran the Marine Technology department at the University of Alaska, Southeast. As a teacher, Gregor's enthusiasm spread to his students who took on many varied projects - from rebuilding masts to building fiberglass boats and rowing shells to lofting and developing new skiff designs that run particularly well in Southeast Alaskan waters.

Courtesy photo
  Black Feather Boats of Juneau is the only munufacturer in Alaska to use the vacuum infusion process for manufacturing purposes.
Upon leaving the university, and after taking some time off to sail with his wife, Gregor returned to school in Kennebunkport Maine where he earned his Yacht Design degree from the Landing School. Upon completion of the program he took his skills to Italy where he worked for Victory Design, a small design house in Napoli, working on many different types of craft there. Customers he worked for there included the Ferretti Group, Cabi Cattaneo and Azimut.

Returning to the States, Gregor began working for the Coastwise Corporation, helping to design larger aluminum power catamarans for Allen Marine of Sitka. He has many varied hobbies, is a certified diver, a sailor, and loves outdoor activities, including hunting, fishing, camping, snowboarding, mushing and dogsled building, although most of his time these days is spent over seeing production of Black Feather Boats ChilKat 30.

What is your best selling boat and why?

Our best selling boat is the Walk Around Pilot House model, a boat ideally suited to the demands of Southeast Alaska. The Walk Around features an enclosed pilot house capable of seating up to eight adults comfortably along with a separate head, small galley and navigation station. The Walk Around model also comes equipped with 20-inch walkways on either side of the Pilot House, perfect for whale watching or reeling in the big one. Like all of our models the Walk Around is capable of speeds in excess of 50 mph with twin 250 hp engines. Being a catamaran, stability is inherent in the design. Five-foot seas quickly turn to one-foot chop as the twin planing hulls skim across the top of each wave. All of our models are constructed of vacuum infused fiberglass utilizing the highest grade cloths, resins and cores available. This process makes for a lighter, stronger and faster vessel, attributes often lacking in conventional aluminum catamaran design. Each Walk Around model is designed according to the customer's specifications and individual requirements and interior arrangements can be tailored to any taste. We do expect however that both our Trunk Cabin Models and Commercial models will soon rival the popularity of our walkaround, especially with the upcoming release of our Coast Guard Inspected Passenger Vessel, which should be capable of carrying up to 18 passengers.

What are the costs involved with this kind of business in Juneau?

Boat building is not an inexpensive business and Black Feather Boats is no exception. We build here because we live here and we love Juneau and the community here. Besides the obvious costs of time and materials to produce a quality product, our location makes it difficult for suppliers to ship to us. In addition, boat building is a skilled profession often times requiring months of in-house training at the expense of the company. The costs of manufacturing here in Juneau are lower than in other areas of Southeast, however, there are no incentives to encourage local manufacturing as there are in Anchorage or the Kenai Peninsula area. Luckily, local support and dedicated employees have made the process as affordable as possible. Despite the costs our boats are priced far below that of comparable aluminum catamarans thus allowing us to retain our competitive advantage.

How did you come to be the only boat builder in town and what do you feel is your importance to the Juneau community?

Being the only boat manufacturer in Juneau definitely has its drawbacks, however we feel that what we bring to the local Southeast community is enhanced by our capital location. We are creating jobs here in Juneau. We are one of only a few companies in the community that successfully exports its product and creates a net cash inflow into Juneau and recycles those dollars with local business who supply all of our fabricated pieces and many of our supplies. We are also the only manufacturer in the state of Alaska that uses the vacuum infusion process for manufacturing purposes. The vacuum infusion process is best exemplified by its uses outside of the marine environment.

Manufacturers such as Boeing use the vacuum infusion process in the construction of their new Dreamliner Aircraft taking full advantage of the process's ability to deliver an extremely light, yet exceptionally strong product. Eighty-foot wind turbine blades are another product that uses vacuum infusion in their construction. There are many applications of this process, which could be picked up and utilized by other manufacturers here in Juneau or elsewhere in the state. This process has endless applications however few are as ideally suited as the marine industry. The community of Juneau has allowed Black Feather Boats to successfully advertise itself as the premier vacuum infusion manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest while at the same time allowing our customers to see the boats in action throughout the area. Local support and enthusiasm for a Juneau boat builder is evident every time Black Feather Boats comes up in conversation and we appreciate the community's backing.

What is the busiest time of year for this business?

In the past, the busiest time for us has been from December through late June. This is due primarily to the demand of our customers who often times don't decide to order a boat until early winter and often times need that boat no later than June in order to take full advantage of their commercial obligations. We encourage anyone who is thinking about ordering a boat from us to come in and get on our build list as soon as possible thus eliminating any unforeseen time constraints. A typical Walk Around model takes roughly two and a half months to build and our newly expanded Mendenhall River location allows us to build two boats at once, greatly accelerating the process. Besides being a fully operational boat manufacturer, we are also capable of marine repair, rigging, engine installation and design engineering.