by Mary S. Landon
It seems fitting that Fred Shell’s boat-building company, Shell Boats LLC, is located near Lake Champlain’s Inland Sea — the expanse of lake between the eastern shore of the Champlain Islands and the Vermont mainland. He’s the grandson of a ship captain who owned and operated a fleet of sailing ships on the Great Lakes, and his mother and stepfather owned powerboats for fishing and recreation on Lake Michigan. As a young couple, they sailed yachts from the Michigan area to Florida for wealthy boat owners.
“Shell Boats’ intention has always been to provide safe and economical designs for exploration, relaxation, fishing, and good old family fun,” says Shell. “I design the boat prototype. After making patterns, I reproduce the parts and can manufacture multiples. When a kit is ordered, I first build the boat without epoxy; I then dismantle it, prepare it as a kit, and ship it off to a customer.”
The kits come complete with sails, detailed instructions, and all necessary hardware, he says. Boats may also be purchased completely finished, and several models are available as plans, for the confident builder, but most sales are kits.
Born in Detroit in 1941, he built his first kit boat — a 10-foot Chris Craft pram — at age 12. He studied architecture for two years at the University of Michigan. Then, following a lifelong desire to head west, he moved to San Francisco and worked for a year at Bechtel Corp. as a draftsman on large hydroelectric projects.
He entered the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated in 1968 with an architecture degree. Three months after joining an architecture firm, he realized that he wasn’t earning adequate money. He left for a job as a city planner in nearby San Jose.
After two years as a planner, Shell began attending night classes at an art cooperative in Berkeley. He quickly realized that pottery was a better outlet for him than city planning. Thus began an eight-year period during which he made and sold pottery through local art galleries and the art cooperative.
Shell was “kicking around Berkeley, singly,” he says, raising a son and daughter from a first marriage, when he came across an article in the Whole Earth Access Catalog that piqued his interest in building boats. It was on the now-revered magazine Wooden Boat — new at the time. It spoke to a growing audience of back-to-the-land, self-sufficient types who wanted to learn how to do and make things for themselves. For Shell, the magazine planted a seed that would mature and grow as the years passed.
In these lean years, Shell was able to buy a small house in Berkeley, rooms of which he rented to other students. One tenant, Deborah Stieglitz, was a struggling potter just like Shell. Their relationship developed romantically, leading to “a kind of Berkeley wedding,” Shell says, “with a block party and a minister with a $5 ordination from an ad in the back of Rolling Stone.”
Eventually they moved north to Forestville and built a home. “Pottery was our income,” says Shell, “and for a while, business went very well. We were poor, but we felt rich because we were doing something we loved.”
Shell and Deborah stayed in Forestville for three years until moving to rural Colville, Wash., with a desire to be “out in the woods and self-sufficient.” Here, they built a bigger house to accommodate their growing family, which now included four daughters of their own (Shell’s first two were living in Berkeley by then). They were, “in a way,” home-schooled, he says, adding that they were “pretty much at loose and educating themselves, with no real classes until they entered junior college.”
It must have worked: One is a post-doc at Harvard in microbiology; one is a writeer; one is an R.N. at Mass General; and the youngest enters law school in the fall.
Shell learned much of what he knows about boat design and construction from reading. His first designs were based on the Dutch vlet and the Norwegian holmsbupram. “My real interest and focus in the boat business has been using whatever ideas I could find to make modern designs work well.
“I design boats by eye, much in the same way as the Norwegians,” he says. “I combine trial-and-error with my knowledge of historical craft.” Among models with names such as Swifty, Leif, Lucky, and Great Blue Heron, customers can find a shape and size to fit their needs and budget. The boats range from a 7-foot Leif kit at $1,075 to a 21-foot CrabClaw catamaran kit at $9,975. Finished boats run from $2,525 to $17,400.
“Fred is near genius,” says fellow boat enthusiast John Freeman, owner of the Small Boat Exchange in Shelburne. “I first met him about 20 years ago when he invited me out to try his boats. I couldn’t believe how well they performed. Fred has been so successful because he makes functional wooden boats that are really affordable. Not only does he design boats that operate well and simply, but he’s a designer who has made his living from this very niche market.”
Shell and Deborah were living in Colville when, during a family trip to Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho, a fellow sailor was admiring Shell’s boat and expressed an interest in buying it. A sale was arranged, and Shell’s thoughts of making a living at the boat-building business began to grow.
In 1983, he officially launched Shell Boats, with the intention to design and sell 8- to 12-foot boats, fully built. He made and sold a few, but when business slowed, he realized he could better maintain a year-round business selling the boats as kits.
To be closer to family in the East, he and Deborah moved to St. Albans in 1985, and built their Georgia home in 1988. His workshop is adjacent to the house.
“Most of my sales now are from Internet contact,” he says. He has sold about 800 kits and finished boats in the last 25 years of business, to locations all around the United States, including Alaska. Kits have been shipped to Bermuda, Canada, Moscow, and Japan. One kit for a CrabClaw catamaran was shipped to a customer in Thailand. Shell received a letter from the boat owner following the December 2005 tsunami, who wrote, “The catamaran fared well for itself. The boat traveled with the tidal wave 150 meters from the beach side of our property to an inland canal and docked in some trees. The damage was so minimal,” he wrote, that after minor work, his son and a friend took off for a seven-day cruise.
“With every project, I keep improving and getting faster,” says Shell. “I want to continue to develop my craftsmanship. I do amend plans as I see the need. The customers really love the personal attention they receive from us.”
Patterns for boat components hang from the walls of Shell’s workshop. Sail patterns, drawn on the concrete floor with thick black marker, enable him to roll out wide bolts of Dacron sailcloth and easily cut the proper shapes. “My next project is a catamaran, fully constructed, to go to Flathead Lake, Mont. It will take me three months to make. Last year I did one finished boat and 35 kits, although I can do a kit a week when it’s particularly busy.”
Before shipping a boat kit, he makes sure that all the pre-beveled and pre-drilled components will fit properly and that nothing is left out. The only tool required by the new owner is a power screwdriver, and construction can be completed with limited woodworking experience. The wood used for the side planks is marine-grade Philippine mahogany plywood; other materials may include Vermont pine or ash. Fastenings and hardware are stainless steel or bronze. Shell boats are equipped with folding masts, using a proprietary sleeve-and-hinge system. Most sailors can manage the mast setup in a few minutes, and boat transport is very easy.
Steve and Anne-Marie Hulsey of Williston are happy owners. “We love our boat,” says Steve. “We love the fact that we built it ourselves. We couldn’t have done it without the fine craftsmanship of the Shell kit and the assistance of Fred.”
The Shells are now empty-nesters. His son and one daughter live in California. Three daughters are in the Boston area, and one is in Cleveland. Although none of them has shown an interest in continuing the boat-building legacy, they do gather at least once a year for a week of sailing and family time.
During the lean years, Shell has built houses, including two neighboring Georgia properties. When their children were old enough, Deborah returned to school and is now a psychotherapist practicing in St. Albans. She continues to enjoy making wheel-thrown pottery, selling her wares at Rail City Market.
Shell has no outside employees. He occasionally runs a classified advertisement in Wooden Boat magazine and advertises in a small publication called Messing About in Boats.
“Currently, the only segment of the recreational boat market that is growing is sales of yachts over 200 feet,” he says. “That’s part of the irony of this recession: The money for boats is there.
“I happen to have a very unique business. It’s unusual for a boat designer to sell most of his boats as kits and also to include homemade sails as part of the package. I can arrange for a customer to find the perfect trailer; epoxy kits are sent directly from another factory; we make oars if needed. It’s a relatively easy way to get yourself onto the water.”
Shell is a pioneer of sorts. His worn hands are testament to the fact that he is an artist in wood. His graying beard gives him a salty, windy look befitting a captain. He is, he says, determined to build boats that will help to pass the traditions of boating from one generation to the next. •