1994: Small is Beautiful at Nexus Marine P.Marsh

After a few years, I think all of us develop a system for viewing the Seattle Boat Show. When I finally reach the main floor, my plan involves dodging between glittering runabouts and towering cruisers to find what Nexus Marine has on display. I’ve never been disappointed because year after year Nancy Sosnove and David Roberts show up with a new wooden boat that is always a center of attention.

nexus 34 on_planeIt’s likely that most of those crowding around the 23′ Chinook at this year’s show had owned a fiberglass boat at some time or other, and would probably be in the market for another. But everyone, it seems is drawn to the wooden boats Nancy and David have been turning out for 23 years. And just enough of those showgoers will give wood a second thought to provide Nexus with a slow, but steady stream of clients.

Eventually, I found my way to their longtime base, a barn-like building on the Snohomish River at the end of a rather bleak, industrial street appropriately named Railway Avenue. It’s 100% pure, wooden-boat ambiance: delapidated on the outside, slightly cluttered on the inside and distinctly low rent. A barn door is the only entry. Yet somehow this couple, who still have a 60s-style approach to life, have stayed in business while many mass producers have come and gone.

Owners of the numerous Nexus boats on the water must, of necessity, be the type who aren’t impressed by sales talk, Euro styling or a cut price on last year’s model. In fact, they get together every August for a four-day, Nexus Owners Regatta in the San Juans. Around 10 boats and 30 people typically show up. The fun includes a fishing derby and an obstacle course. “Our customers have been wonderful,” says Nancy. “We’ve become very friendly with many of them who will take customers out for rides and even lend boats for shows.”

nexus dory at_anchor“You could say the boats select the right kind of clientele,” she adds. Like the muddy waters of the Snohomish that drift past the yard’s back door, work at Nexus proceeds in a smooth, but unhurried fashion. There is no showroom and no receptionist – you will have to go straight to the top of the organisation to order your new boat.

Yet despite everything I’ve said, Nexus isn’t really catering to the true “wooden boat enthusiast,” David points out. ” We’re not romantic about wood,” he explains. “We think it can really compete, that it’s the best material for the job.” They don’t want to exclude the majority of boaters from their potential customers, that’s why they go to the Boat Show, not Port Townsend for their annual promotion.

David Roberts has spent hundreds of hours explaining the virtues of wood construction. I put him at rest by explaining that I’ve never owned a boat built with anything else! I favor thin plywood that can be twisted to form the shapes suitable for fast, light sailing and paddling craft. At Nexus they’ve dealt with hard chine boats for many years; the flat panels used in their dories required the inherent stiffness that comes with thicker stuff – 3/8″ for the sides and 1/2″ for the bottom.

Actually, these days David is laminating hull bottoms from several layers of plywood, but before we get into the reasons for that move, let’s go back to Nexus’ beginnings in 1974. Nancy and David had both taken classes that involved some woodwork; Nancy as a theatrical set designer and David as a cabinetmaker.

nexus stringer1David drifted into the boat-building department at Seattle community College, liked what he found, and encouraged Nancy to join him in a woodworking business in 1974. They set up a small shop in Mukilteo doing wooden boat repairs, and landed the job of finishing a 40′ Ingrid design from a bare hull. That effort, along with a 13′ Glen-L sloop, and more referals, encouraged them to relocate to the Everett property they’ve occupied ever since.

Their next order was for a complex little boat, the 15′ Teach design, also by William Atkin. With a canoe stern, planked decks and gorgeous varnished coamings, the traditional style of the little Merrow provided an important lesson in the economics of wooden boatbuilding. They did a little better with a 20′, Columbia River, day sailer of unknown design which was revived with less effort. This was just as well, since those early years saw all kinds of dreamers turning up with their pet project, often a derelict that was beyond help.

They were enjoying themselves and getting a priceless, practical education, but the chance to go fishing in Alaska saw the couple quit Washington after their second winter of operation. They bought a licence to run a set net on a river running into Bristol Bay, the most productive salmon ground in North America. Unfortunately, most of the fish were caught long before they reached the river, but Nancy and David did enjoy working a small boat to harvest their (small) catch.

Predictably, that led to thoughts about a better boat, and before long David was sketching the first of many more to come. The second year he replaced their heavy planked skiff with a new 21′ X 7’plywood boat, whose 600 lbs weight made life much easier when the tide had dropped 25 feet.

Luckily, they sold their licence at a profit and went home with a marketable idea. By the next season, they had built and sold ten skiffs that were well received by set netters. The 24 footers could be easily moved empty yet carry 8,000 lbs of fish. Skiff building definitely sharpened the skills of Nancy, David and their former partner Martin. A sign on the wall of the workshop records the memorable day when two of the men planked two skiffs in an 8-hour shift.

Marketing their boats to hard-nosed fishermen demanded a new level of information, and led Nancy to design the first of their brochures. Aluminum was just arriving as the “new thing” for skiffs; explaining the virtues of old-fashioned wood and new-fashioned epoxy required a careful approach. The result is “Why Wood,” a fact-sheet that they are still using today.

Here’s a sample: “You’ll get the best of both worlds. Wood is the original high-tech material; wood is also warm to look at, warm to the touch, warm to the heart. Either this boat is everything you have always wanted in a boat, or it is not. Isn’t it time you had a boat that made you proud?” (Who could resist?)

It also talks about the amazing stiffness of plywood, the fatigue life of fiberglass and aluminum and the difference in weight between them. Unfortunately, it was puncture resistance that finally won out in the commercial-skiff business, and bullet-proof boats became fashionable.

David understands that attitude, but thinks it leads to poor seamanship. He knows that the increased hull weight causes excessive fuel consumption and hundreds of pounds of reduced payload. To further explore the properties of wood and epoxy, David built a mold for a round-bilged, 8′ dinghy and turned out a smart, little boat. That’s one of the few non-plywood boat they’ve built from scratch.

The next sailing yacht they worked on arrived as another bare, fiberglass hull. It was a Westsail 32 that the owner had tried to complete. “Everytime he reached a tricky point, he moved on to something else,” David recalled. “The interior was a sad site when we started.”

In 1980, they were approached by an Alberta family for a trailerable sailboat for outings on prairie lakes. The result was an 18′ Gougeon Daysailer that still brings a gleam to David’s eye. The dream of building custom, sailing yachts still exists in the Nexus keelboat logo, but future efforts went into refining the dory type.

In 1981, they briefly became franchised with Captain Jim Orrell’s Texas Dory plans. The model they specialized in was actually the Carolina Dory, a boat that sounded better than it actually ran. “The center of buoyancy was in the wrong place, there was no keel rocker,” David told me with the authority he’s gained from long experience. One owner of the 20 footer was actually thrown overboard by the strange antics of this design!

That was the incentive for Nexus to become designers; since then they’ve built strictly to their own designs. David decided to have a go at lines drawing. The result was the Nexus 16 and he must have learned enough by then, because his 16′ dory plans are now sold by Wooden Boat magazine!

“Dory design has very few variables, but there are still lots of ways to go wrong in flare, bow rake and chine angle,” he reflected. “The rules are simple but very strict.” The mid-80s saw the Nexus dory grow a cuddy on the 21 footer, then a small cabin on the 23. These were delightful, refined, little boats, good for fishing expeditions on Puget Sound or beachcombing in Alaska.

The Small Boat Journal voted the 21 one of America’s five best powerboats. With a growing reputation as a dory expert, it was inevitable that some enthusiast would want something “bigger and better.” Richard Fagen wanted a St.Pierre Dory, and went to Nexus because nothing else would do.

It wasn’t quite what David was planning, but it was a natural extension of the dory line, and brought him into contact with a traditional, Downeast working boat. The owner got what he wanted: a ballasted, displacement cruiser that turned heads where ever it went.

With a 30 HP outboard it had a top speed of 13 knots, and cruised at a gallon per hour at 6 knots. The two St Pierres, one inboard and one outboard, provided a valuable lesson in the theory and practice of performance. The St Pierre was at its best with plenty of weight in the bilges and a man hauling a net over the low center deck – not necesarily the best criteria for Puget Sound! And with 6 feet of overhangs, it was losing a lot of valuable length for the displacement mode.

The well-known Bartender is the late George Caulkins’ take on the dory theme, and when Nancy and David had the chance to build one it gave them one clue to a possible new direction. The genius of the Bartender is in combining a canoe stern with true, planing performance thanks to the unusual, lifting stern flats. David wanted to go a step further and combine the salty sheer and simple flat sides of the dory with a more refined, underwater shape.

Around 1990, he began to take a serious look at what his potential customers were telling him. They liked modern wood construction, wanted a custom boat from Nexus, but wouldn’t settle for a flat bottom. History tells us that dories were intended to be cheap, stackable fishing boats and were never intended for high-speed motoring. The answer to the quandary was the 23’Chinook, a sophisticated variable-deadrise runabout that vaulted Nexus into a different boating league.

The Chinook’s fine entry gave it an easy ride through the chop, and its weight of under 2,000 lbs gave an efficient 4.5 miles per gallon at 27 mph. The flatter aft lines gave more lift and stabilised the boat at rest. With their order book full for the next three years, it’s clear this new breed of Nexus boats has met a definite need. All that’s lacking is the time-consuming, all-varnish finish to make them as distinctive as the classic Chris Craft and Gar Woods of old.

Aluminum and plywood boats must, of necessity, have a constant V-angle, and modern fiberglass boats need a similar, beefy shape to carry all the weight that gets added in the form of bigger engines, fuel tanks and appliances. But water doesn’t necessarily want to flow around the shape that flat panels form. David’s approach represented a definite, hydrodynamic alternative to the have-it-all style of recent, mass-production. “You could say it’s still a workboat,” he suggested, “but now it has to pull a water skier or carry a family efficiently.”

The first one was shown at the Seattle Boat Show in 1992, and was followed by the 20′ Coho. This led to an order from Dr.Jerry Waldbaum of Mukilteo for a bigger version, with inboard power. (This is the boat that graced our January, Boat Show cover in a Neil Rabinowitz photo.) By now, David was using a computer and was able to run all the possible lines changes in minutes instead of days.

The 24′ Tyee was to become the flagship of the Nexus line. It would be 24 feet long and 8’6″ wide to provide enough space for an 800 lb, Volvo Duoprop, 4.2 liter, gas engine. The hull would consist of three, integrated elements: skin, stringers and frames. On the topsides 3/8″ sapele plywood over 3/4″ X 1.5″ stringers over I.5″ square frames; on the bottom two layers of 1/4″ plywood.

The bottom is actually traditional double-diagonal, and locks in the concave curve of the forefoot which gives the boat its easy transition to planing mode. The V then flows easily back to 10 degrees at the transom, an evolution of the shape that was used on the classic runabouts. The Tyee’s fine interior featured a teak cabin sole, extending to the cockpit and the U-shaped seat at its aft end. Louvered teak doors and a varnished finish with white ceiling make this a very desirable, personal yacht.

The owner reports that the foam cushion on the engine hatch and around the seat back is good not only for sunbathing, but also for cutting engine noise down to conversational levels. “The boat handles like a sport car and turns on a dime,” he reports enthusiastically. A happy customer is the best advertisement, almost the only promotion Nexus can afford besides the Wooden Boat listing and the Boat Show, and has seen them this far.

Nancy and David aren’t happy with being solely managers in the business they have built. Their great pleasure is translating cutomers ideas into reality, so they’ve vacillated between employing as many as five carpenters, and doing all the work themselves. “It’s hard these days to find people who can solve the problems that arise every day in boatbuilding,” Nancy told me. “We’ve had success lately with workers who’ve had some kind of college background with engineering or drafting.”

“It’s very gratifying for us that we have customers who will make an order and wait two years for their new boat,” she continued. There have even been inquiries about a 36 foot “picnic boat.” They’ve prefabricated as much of the next boat, another Tyee, as they can, but quality work takes time. “It would be better if they didn’t have to wait so long, but then we would risk lowering the standards they are expecting,” she concluded.

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