Rising Tide: To build its world-renowned vessels, Boyne City’s Van Dam Custom Boats first builds its own craftsmen

For Van Dam Custom Boats of Boyne City, the quest to create world-class wood boats is perhaps dependent on one variable more than any other: the quality of its workers. The company doesn’t have a large work force — only 16 people are employed there — and to make sure it has the best workers, the company has embraced a system that began in the middle ages.

Company President Ben Van Dam created the company’s apprentice system based on all he’d learned, both in school and in the countless hours he’d spent working alongside and for his father, Steve, who started the company in 1977.

“Very early on, I was working in the shop every spare minute,” Ben said. He built his first boat with his dad at age five and went on to earn a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering at the University of Michigan.

Those thousands of hours spent sanding, shaping, gluing, and learning all the elements of building boats gave him the impetus to create an apprentice program specific to the company and its needs. And it’s worked.

“Our shop manager [Chad James] is the first graduate of our apprentice program,” said Ben. He’s one of three people who have completed the program now working at Van Dam Custom Boats, with more in the pipeline. “We have four in the program at various stages. We try to keep one on every level.”

As its name implies, Van Dam Custom Boats builds custom wooden boats. Ben said the styles run the gamut, everything from rowing shells to 55-foot sailboats to speedboats that can travel 100 miles per hour. “We’re not selling a Dodge. It’s a Ferrari or Lamborghini,” said Van Dam.

The company’s customers come from all over the world. The majority come from the United States, though Van Dam said one recent boat is a tender on a mega-yacht sailing the Mediterranean, and the company also has delivered boats to France and elsewhere in Europe.

While he was reluctant to discuss how much a custom Van Dam boat might cost, there are three used boats built by the company for sale on the company’s website: A racing runabout is listed at $115,000. A speedboat in “like-new” condition is for sale at $190,000. And a luxury cocktail cruiser is offered at $250,000.

Clearly, the boats the company builds require meticulous craftsmanship. Van Dam said the creation of the apprentice system to teach boatbuilding stemmed from the fact he and his father believed the company’s mission — “To design and build the world’s finest wooden boats” — was being tested by its shortcomings in hiring the right workers, training them, and instilling the values and skills they needed. “We were not having great success in hiring. That’s why it was born,” said Van Dam.

The apprenticeship is a four-year, 8,000-hour program.

“We take the long view and start with the basics: how to properly sand, how to properly apply adhesive. It’s the fundamentals of wood,” said Van Dam. Every six months the apprentice goes through a review. As long as the apprentice meets the pre-established criteria, he or she receives a raise. “It’s on-the-job training. We discuss it as we’re actually working.”

Justin Halteman has been apprenticing for four years and is nearly ready to graduate. He was studying archeology when he and his wife began restoring a boat they were living on.

“I was in graduate school for archeology and discovered I liked boats more than grad school,” he said.

When he and his wife found they were having a second child, they decided to move back to their home state. As it happened, Van Dam was hiring.

“I called Steve and sent a three-page cover letter. I convinced him to give me a slot.”

Halteman is nearing the conclusion of his apprenticeship, but he knows he will continue to hone his craft. “I’m right at the end of the program. The end seems more symbolic than anything. I’ll just keep learning. There are guys who’ve been here 20 years [and are still learning].”

Both Halteman and Van Dam say the apprenticeship is valuable, but it’s still a challenge to get the right people on board and teach them while continuing to turn out the quality boats the company has become known for.

“One of the hardest things with the apprenticeship is the pool of locals is small,” said Halteman. “And not everybody takes to it.”

Van Dam concurred, noting that Halteman was one of three people brought on to the program at the same time, and the only one to make it to the end. “One of the challenges is it requires such a skill level,” he said.

Van Dam added that it’s also difficult to try to teach skills and turn out quality boats without spending so much time on the instruction side that the costs outstrip the profit when they’re sold. “We have to stay productive while still teaching, and have to provide good quality and value,” said Van Dam.