Hunter Marine Factory Tour

A Visit with Hunter Marine
By Gary Wyngarden

Defying a relatively benign weather forecast, the wind has piped up to 30 knots with gusts to 40. The nasty six-foot chop on the water is alternatively slamming into your bow or dropping you off a crest into a trough with a resounding thud. With the main reefed down all the way and just a scrap of genoa unfurled, your Hunter is still heeled over more than you'd like, and the windward shrouds and the sheets are bar taut.

You've an hour and a half to go to reach a protected anchorage, and the sailing is taking all you've got. It's about this time that doubts begin to creep in -- doubts about your own ability to handle the conditions and doubts about the ability of your Hunter to handle the pounding.

The words of the opinionated loudmouth down at the marina echo in your mind: "Your Hunter is like all production boats: poorly made with inadequate design, cheap materials and unskilled labor. It will come apart when the going gets tough." You begin to wonder if the money you saved buying a Hunter was such a good idea after all.

If you are like me, you are a happy Hunter owner who has a great deal of fondness and appreciation for the qualities of your boat. If you are like me, you also get an earful of opinions expressed by people with varying degrees of knowledge who say that Hunters, along with other production boats, aren't seaworthy.

I sail our 1992 Hunter 37.5 to places and in conditions where my life and that of my wife are dependent on our sailing ability and on the integrity of our boat. Given plans to do more wilderness cruising in still more remote places, I decided it was important to have a first-hand look at Hunter Marine at their factory in Alachua (a-LA-choo-a) Florida. This article records my observations from that visit.

Let me first qualify my credentials. I am neither a marine engineer nor a surveyor. I don't understand fiberglass technology well enough to be able to discriminate between various resins or the most effective methods of applying them. I have had some experience in manufacturing in the health care industry. I've had extensive business experience at relatively high levels of management, and I consider myself a very knowledgeable sailor and boat owner. With those caveats, here are my thoughts.

Tour of Hunter Marine

Hunter Marine's factory is located inland in a small town about 20 miles north of Gainesville, Florida. It is a very clean, well organized, and presentable facility that is not showy in the least. There are no boats on display, and there is no huge atrium lobby with marble floors. The facility seems very businesslike and well designed for its purpose.

I was actually taken on two tours of the plant. The first was the normal customer tour, and my guide was a knowledgeable member of Hunter's R and D department. Hunter says they use employees as tour guides to help instill a sense of pride in their work and their company. The second tour was conducted (after lunch with the sales staff) by Greg Emerson, Hunter's Market Development Manager for the northeast region of the country. The second tour was very valuable as there is a great deal to absorb in a single walk through.

  After an incoming quality check of the resin, the process begins with a female mold unique to each model of boat. A gel coat layer is applied to the mold and after an appropriate curing time, a layer of chopped fiberglass is added for protection against osmotic blistering. Then layers of glass are hand applied. Certain areas of the hull are significantly reinforced. An important addition in recent years is a layer of Kevlar applied to the hull between the stem and the forward edge of the keel. Other areas such as the chain plates are massively reinforced with additional layers of glass. Below the waterline, the hull is solid fiberglass. Above the waterline a balsa layer is sandwiched between the fiberglass layers for added stiffness and to reduce weight. Once the hull form is completed, quality checks are made to ensure appropriate thickness has been achieved.
  At about the same time, a grid, also unique to each model, is fabricated in a similar fashion over a male mold. The grid includes structural support members, both lateral and longitudinal which add considerable strength to the hull. Structural members are holed to allow for hoses and electrical connections, and the grid is used as a base for constructing internal modules.
  In a separate area of the plant, fiberglass and wood components are cut out and labeled by computer controlled saws that significantly reduce labor costs and ensure consistency in part dimensions. Other plastic components are similarly manufactured off line using, for example, mold and thermoforming technology.

Modules of below decks sections such as galleys and heads are separately assembled into hull forms again unique to each model. The hull forms are identical to the final hull but with cutout sections to provide access for the workers to install wiring and plumbing connections and to permit quality checks after the installation is completed. The finished modules with the grid are then inserted into the hull.

  The final assembly area is a large and busy place with seven production lines operating simultaneously, each involved with a different model of boat. The engine is inserted at the beginning of the final assembly area.

The separately fabricated deck is brought in just behind its mating hull, and deck fittings such as stanchions, cleats, and winches, are through-bolted to it with aluminum backing plates and marine sealant. When the deck is completed, it is lifted onto the hull to check for final fit and appropriate last adjustments. The hull and deck flanges are covered with copious amounts of 3M 5200, through-bolted and secured.

  The completed hull/deck assembly is then taken outside where the keel is bolted and bonded on. The boat is then moved to a covered staging area for final cleanup and quality checks including immersion in a small pond at the facility for leak testing.

At that point, the boat is married up with its mast and standing rigging and prepared for shipment by truck to the dealer.

This is obviously a gross oversimplification of a highly complex manufacturing undertaking. Doing it justice would take a book in itself.

Observations

But let me give you my observations on what I saw.

First of all, the place is clean, well organized, and the workers seem conscientious. Hunter makes a big deal out of being an employee-owned company, and I think this is an effective way to motivate employees.

My visit also reinforced to me just what an incredibly involved process it is to manufacture an auxiliary keelboat.

While the production process is highly organized, Hunter remains dependent on the skills and the focus of their employees to manufacture quality boats. More auxiliary keelboats are manufactured in Alachua than anywhere in North America. Nonetheless that will only be 800 or 900 boats this year, so the plant is not like a Ford assembly line. Workers have multiple tasks, and may not return to the same task for as much as three days. Some of the workers have been with the company for 20 years or more. Others have been on the job just a couple of months. Hunter stresses that each new employee goes through a two-to-three week training period in which their work is very closely supervised.

Numerous quality checks are built into the process. For example, the final assembly lines not only have line supervisors but lateral foreman as well, for a double check on quality. But with the complexity of the process, it's not surprising to me that some problems will make it through to the finished product. I don't necessarily fault Hunter for this though I don't have a statistical basis on which to grade them.

In comparison, I do almost all my own work on my boat. Frequently, when I'm done with a fairly complex project like a radar installation or an upgraded alternator and voltage regulator, I find things I need to fix after the fact. And I'm pretty knowledgeable and highly motivated. Given the complexity of building a boat from scratch, I think it's a fact of life that there are going to be some problems with a boat the first time you put it in the water.

It also struck me that these boats haven't been sailed when they leave the plant (though Hunter says this is available as a special order option). They've been immersed in water and component systems have been checked. But (except for occasional tests on vendor quality) the mast hasn't been stepped and the standing rigging secured . The sails haven't been bent on, and the boat hasn't been sailed. This puts a heavy responsibility for final boat preparation on the dealer. Hunter provides for dealer training with financial incentives for participation and also has mechanisms for customer feedback on dealers. Nonetheless there are obvious opportunities for variability.

It was just a reminder to me that final responsibility for boat prep resides with the skipper, and to assume that the manufacturer and dealer are delivering you a perfect boat is a delusion. In my opinion this would be as true of Hinckley as it would be of Hunter.

So going back to my original premise, what are my thoughts about the seaworthiness of Hunters based on my visit to the manufacturing facility? I've already admitted that I'm not technically competent to make evaluations of hull thickness, construction methods, ability to withstand stresses, etc. Given what I've read, boat design is partially calculation and a whole lot of real world experience. With 30 plus years of manufacturing experience and leading market share in North America, Hunter has more real world experience than most. It's also encouraging that Hunters are NMMA certified using ABYC standards which some sailboats are not. Hunter is also a CE certified manufacturer, and all boats 33 feet and up are built to CE Category A standards. But how well do they hold up out on the water?

Real World Testing

Enter Steve Pettengill. Steve has been Hunter's Director of Offshore Testing for nine years. He has a job that might be my fantasy career goal--sailing Hunter sailboats and getting paid for it. Though I'm not sure I'm prepared to earn the credentials though that qualified Steve for the job. Among numerous other sailing accomplishments, he finished second in the BOC around the world race in 1994 and 1995 and also had the harrowing experience of being rescued off an 85 foot trimaran when it capsized off Cape Horn. In our telephone interview, Steve reported that his mother said he was the only one of her seven children who was conceived on a boat. I guess the seafaring life comes naturally to him.

Steve is a part of the Hunter design team and spends two to six weeks with the prototype (hull number 1) of each model of Hunter when it comes off the line. He evaluates everything from clean flow of the running rigging, to livability of the boats, determining whether interior lights illuminate otherwise dark corners, etc. He also abuses boats for a living.

He told me he has a favorite gravel beach on which he likes to deliberately run the new Hunters aground at low tide. And not gently. He runs them aground at full power. Then he floats them off and does it all over again with a combination of full power and sail. He checks for any damage, and Hunter makes adjustments accordingly.

Once he's comfortable with the boat he also takes it offshore from St. Augustine, Florida out onto the Gulf Stream in difficult conditions, testing the boat for undue hull flexing by measuring any dimensional changes in bulkhead doorways as the hull is stressed. Weaknesses are corrected through design and/or manufacturing changes as appropriate. He also described for me some rigorous pull testing of the chain plates under extreme loads.

I found this testing process performed by someone with Steve Pettengill's credentials very reassuring. Hunter has only just begun to publicize this aspect of their testing. I think the publicity will serve them well.

Business Issues

One aspect of my visit that I particularly enjoyed was the opportunity to discuss business philosophy with Hunter management. It's obvious to me as an owner that Hunter makes a quality product. But why not even a higher quality product? Hunter's competitors advertise features such as carbon fiber masts and all epoxy hulls. How does Hunter decide what features to add and which ones not to?

John Peterson, Hunter's Director of Sales and Marketing, explained to me that Hunter aims for the 85% of the market that is in the middle of the classic bell-shaped curve. They recognize there is a segment of the market that is capable of and willing to spend several hundred thousand dollars for a new boat. But that's not Hunter's target market. When evaluating new features and designs, they have a multi-disciplinary group that ultimately asks the question "is this an added cost that our customer will want to pay for?" If the answer to that is "no", as it might be for a carbon fiber mast, the feature will likely not be included in the boat.

The price of Hunter sailboats relative to the market was another issue of interest to me. Is the lower price reflective of inferior quality or other issues? It's not a simple question to answer. Clearly Hunter makes some conscious decisions to leave out certain costly options. By the same token they are very quality conscious, though this has to be tempered by economic reality to keep their price point where they want it.

But strong market share, particularly strong relative market share compared to some of the much smaller, much more expensive brands provides huge cost advantages to someone like Hunter Marine or Group Beneteau. The learning curve gain of turning out several hundred boats per year compared to only 20 or 30, the ability to invest in technology to cut labor costs, and purchasing leverage all have a significant impact on costs.

These cost advantages are instrumental in allowing Hunter to keep its boats in a price range affordable for its target market, an important aspect of Hunter's strategy and a key reason they are still in business after 30 plus years with leading market share in North America.

Design Issues

A last issue I want to touch on relates to design. Much has been written about the design compromises of production sailboats that render them inappropriate for offshore use in the minds of some. The Technical Committee of the Cruising Club of America published a book in 1987 entitled Desirable and Undesirable Characteristics of Offshore Yachts. It was edited by John Rousmaniere and included articles by industry luminaries such as Olin Stephens II.

In one article called "Modern Yacht Construction" James A. McCurdy writes that "the structural arrangements and scantlings of the hull must combine to produce sufficient strength to survive the stresses of intended service. For an offshore racing-cruising yacht those stresses are not limited to those resulting from weather and sea conditions that the boat may be expected to encounter during her useful life. Rather they are stresses caused by conditions rare enough to be met by the one boat in a thousand that is in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Other writers in that book and in other books such as Peter Bruce's updated version of Adlard Coles' Heavy Weather Sailing criticize some modern yachting design trends toward lighter displacement, broader beams, fin keels, unprotected balanced rudders, absence of inner forestays, larger portlites, high cabintops, lack of good sea berths, etc.

In my view the most important criteria in yacht selection is intended use. Many of the design criteria that make a boat more seaworthy as described in these books, make a boat less fun to sail and less fun to cruise on.

Heavy displacement and a full keel provide comfort, strength, and directional stability in high winds at sea. They also make for sluggish boats in light to moderate winds and difficult maneuvering in and out of marinas. Inner forestays are terrific for flying a staysail close to the mast in heavy weather. They are also an obstacle to contend with in tacking a genoa. Small portlights and narrow beams make for good defense against breaking waves and better ultimate stability. Pilot berths and quarter berths are snug places to sleep in a rolling seaway. But these features also make for dark, cramped quarters down below that many families don't want to go cruising in.

Design is ultimately a compromise. My take is that Hunter designs boats that 85% of prospective customers want to buy and sail. For the most part they don't design boats for people who actually cross oceans. Indeed in the CCA book on offshore yacht design Karl Kirkman and Richard C. McCurdy say "People who race or cruise in bays and sounds or who sail in the ocean close enough to shore to find shelter when needed have little reason to concern themselves with this work."

This isn't to say that Hunters aren't blue water capable (particularly the larger models). But it is my view that Hunter's business strategy is to design, equip and build boats that meet customer preferences in the largest segment of the market. Inevitably that will result in design decisions more optimized for coastal cruising than for ocean passagemaking, and that will leave some blue water purists dissatisfied.

Conclusion

This summer my wife and I will sail our Hunter 37.5 on an 800 mile cruise around Vancouver Island through some very windy places and rough waters. The Environment Canada weather station off Vancouver Island's Brooks Peninsula has recorded hurricane force winds on average twice a month over the past 30 years. Other places along the way encounter tidal currents of up to 16 knots. Next year we're planning a 2000 mile cruise to Alaska and back.

Importantly, we'll have secure anchorage options almost every night and will be able to choose our weather for the most part. But I'll be like the sailor at the beginning of the article who inevitably gets caught out in 30 plus knots of wind and likely much greater than six-foot waves.

We're knowledgeable sailors. We have a customized sail plan with a deep third reef and a 100 square foot Gale Sail that hanks on around our furled genoa. Our boat is extremely well maintained.

She's also in my view very well designed and built for our intended use, and we bought her at a price point that makes this all work for us. Thanks Hunter Marine.

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