Riding the waves: Canadian boat builders are on the rebound

Boat show season

This story has been updated from an earlier version that refers to “the late George Rossiter.” In fact, Mr. Rossiter, founder of Rossiter Boats, is not deceased. Cottage Life deeply regrets the error.


One way cottagers endure the long winter off the water is to plan how they’re getting back on the water. Enter the annual winter boat shows, where daydreams often start. From January through March, there are major shows in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax—plus Cottage Life’s own shows in April in Toronto and Edmonton, which include cottage boats. These shows are a chance for Canadians to satisfy a particular waterborne craving: to not only own a new boat, but a new boat built locally in Canada.

When it comes to recreational boats such as canoes, kayaks, rowing shells, sailing dinghies, small powerboats, and cruisers, Canadians enjoy a long tradition of design innovation and manufacturing quality. These days, the most common powerboat at the cottage is a basic runabout—a multi-tasking workhorse for hauling people and gear, for watersports, and for fishing. Cottagers who want to buy from Canadian manufacturers won’t be disappointed. An armada of small powerboat designs in aluminum, wood, and fibreglass carries a “Made in Canada” label, though the line between domestic and foreign is increasingly blurred, and we don’t have as many high-volume manufacturers to choose from as we did a decade ago.

Canadian builders had been through choppy waters before, but they experienced a Category 5 storm with the onset of the financial crisis in 2007 and the subsequent recession that affected consumers and manufacturers alike. Most of the major Canadian names in production fibreglass powerboats, such as Grew and Doral, have since been swept away, joining other shuttered companies, such as Cadorette and Thundercraft. While BRP of Valcourt, Que., survived the downturn, in September 2012 it announced its exit from the sport-boat sector
in light of what it called a global decline in marine industry sales. Meanwhile, a weakening market saw the end of Naden Boats, a long-standing manufacturer of aluminum outboard-powered fishing boats whose production had been moved from Dryden, Ont., to Temagami in 2012. The major American manufacturers were hardly spared, but Canadian builders were additionally hobbled by a soaring exchange rate as the loonie reached $1.09 U.S. in late 2007. While that made the purchase of foreign materials and components used in domestic manufacture cheaper, the rate was devastating to Canadian exports. (See “The Loonie Rules,” this page.) Now, a lower dollar promises a resurgence in Canadian manufacturing, but John Peak, the capital markets business development leader for GE Capital’s Commercial Distribution Finance in Chicago, a leading player in marine-dealer financing, says that only one in six motorized recreational vessels sold in Canada today is made here.

In an integrated global economy, it’s not always easy to decide how “Canadian” the products of a Canadian company are. To determine product origin, we tend to focus on manufacturing (as opposed to research-and-design and sales-and-marketing jobs), which is hideously complicated in an industry like boat building. As in the auto industry, finished products are an assembly of sub-assemblies of components that are made all over the world. For example, while Campion Boats makes all its fibreglass components and does final assembly at its plant in Kelowna, B.C., company president Brock Elliott notes that, in Canada, “we don’t make any vinyl fabric, stainless steel fittings, engines, Sunbrella canvas, steering systems, gelcoat…”

Campion Boats was the only major Canadian builder of production fibreglass powerboats to come through the crisis. “Our industry fell 80 per cent,” says Elliott. “We pulled our reins in. We went from 200 to 42 employees. It was very hard.”

Outboard-powered aluminum fishing boats and pontoon boats became the leading products in cottage country, supplied by manufacturers in Canada and the United States. Canada’s largest production boat manufacturer is now Princecraft, which produces wheel- and tiller-steered aluminum fishing boats, deck boats, and pontoon boats at its plant in Princeville, Que. Despite an ongoing drop in sales, Princecraft’s president, Donald Dubois, says all-up weight is one reason for the strength of production aluminum boat sales compared to fibreglass. “People realized running a lighter boat will cost you less money.” He says that there has also been a shift to outboard from heavier inboard-outboard power as increasingly stringent emission standards fuelled innovation. “The engines are built better, and they run more efficiently. The industry has done a good job,” says Dubois. In 2009, Princecraft began to see significant growth in pontoon-boat sales and responded with more luxurious models.

The popularity of pontoon boats benefited Legend Boats in Sudbury, Ont. “The hulls are not like they used to be,” says its creative director and marketing manager, Maurice Beland. “They now allow performance similar to a fibreglass V. People want to fish and ski and have the looks of a fibreglass boat, and they can get that with aluminum.” Legend produces boats for the Canadian market using pontoons and hulls supplied by American manufacturers.

Alone among the large production fibreglass boat builders, Campion survived, according to Brock Elliott, because the company had insignificant debt, and it had management with experience in finance. The Campion lineup includes more than 50 models. Its Allante and Chase lines run the gamut of recreational designs from bowriders and wake and ski boats to a 30-foot express cruiser, while the Explorer line is dedicated to fishing. After the downturn, Campion became a consolidator, acquiring distressed boat builders and moving their production to its Kelowna facility. Among its acquisitions were Svfara-SV3 (wakeboards), Infinyte (utility dinghies), and Reinell, which it maintained as a separate brand of lower-priced bowrider models with its own network of 15 dealers. A few years ago, Campion also signed a licensing agreement with an American company, Biltmore Marine Industries, to build a line of Fibertoon composite fibreglass pontoon boats, which Elliott calls a “disruptor” in a sales category defined by aluminum.

“We’re now seeing growth and a comeback,” Elliott says of the market in general. “We feel we’ve made it through the worst. We now have 64 employees, and our sales are 14 per cent higher this year and up more than 37 per cent from the bottom.” The company exports to more than 30 countries. “We just shipped our first two boats to South Korea,” he reported in June, and recently shipped one to Bahrain, with another on order.

While large-scale production fibreglass builders were devastated by the credit crisis and recession, much of the Canadian industry never went away, including some small, specialized builders. Rossiter Boats is one such company, a rare Canadian survival story in fibreglass production. President Scott Hanson considers his company to be a semi-custom builder, even though Rossiter turns out up to 175 boats a year in Markdale, Ont. About a quarter of them are recreational rowing craft—skiffs, tenders, shells, and rowboats—the product line with which George Rossiter launched the company in 1974. The other three-quarters are powerboats of 14, 17, and 23 feet. Hanson, having been trained at The Landing School of boat design and construction in Kennebunkport, Maine, and his wife, Cindy Hayhurst, took over Rossiter Boats in 2007.

Almost all of Rossiter’s sales are to waterfront property owners in Canada and the U.S., with about 75 per cent going to cottagers. “We build a traditional recreational runabout,” says Hanson. “We don’t build a fishing boat.” The attractions are “versatility, big-water performance, confidence, and comfort. We offer a big-water ride in something smaller and more efficient, with quality,” Hanson says. Rossiter has a dealer network, but the boats are built to buyer specifications. “As a builder of a semi-custom product, we need to provide a surprise in terms of quality and performance. As a Canadian builder, we need to offer something superior to our North American counterparts if we’re going to be competitive.”

Hanson’s designs are very much in the tradition of the late Ray Hunt’s classic modified deep-V New England runabouts, which also inspired the Limestone series, designed by Mark Ellis and built by Medeiros Boat Works of Oakville, Ont. The original Limestone 24, commissioned from Ellis by Fredrik S. Eaton in 1985 for his Georgian Bay cottage, now anchors a line of big-water-capable models at Medeiros ranging from 17 to 26 feet.

Big-water ability is what Canadian products like Rossiter and Limestone share with the output of many smaller Canadian shops—such as Connor Industries in Parry Sound, Ont., which makes Stanley Boats, and Silver Streak Boats in Sooke, B.C.—that turn out custom and semi-custom welded aluminum boats. These companies have been able to weather the downturn in part because their customer base is diversified, including anglers, cottagers, contractors, jet-boat racers, utility companies, police forces, and government departments. And as welders, these shops have an endless list of items they can craft in cottage country rather than depend exclusively on the vicissitudes of boat sales. The Ironworker in Pointe au Baril, Ont., is a textbook case. In addition to boats, notes Scott Kemp, the company’s president, the Ironworker builds boat trailers, steel tube docks, shore dock structures, and custom framework for cottages. He’s even built bear-proof trash containers.

As for boats, The Ironworker has produced them from 14 to 30 feet, with the most popular size range being 16 to 18 feet. “We custom-build to the specifications of the customer,” says Kemp. “Our interiors can be modified.” Landing-craft models, which feature a drop-down bow, are popular with contractors and cottagers who like their load-carrying and planing ability. Cottagers use them to move everything from ATVs to refrigerators.

KingFisher of Vernon, B.C., is the largest manufacturer of heavy-gauge welded aluminum boats in Canada, according to Mark Delaney, the director of sales and marketing. The company produces 38 models and is best known for serious sport-fishing and jet-drive river racing, but Delaney says the company (which has a cross-country Canadian dealer network and sells internationally) attracts buyers who own waterfront cabins and cottages. One trend the company is seeing among cabin owners is a desire for protection from the elements with cabin models, which range from 20 to 33 feet. “We build for the practical outdoorsman,” Delaney says. The hulls are tough enough to be driven right onto shore and come with a 20-year warranty.

KingFisher’s production volume (including that of its American sister company, Renaissance Marine Group, which produces the Duckworth, Weldcraft, and Northwest lines) makes it the largest such manufacturer in the world, according to Delaney.

For many discerning cottage-country customers, wood is still good. Giesler Boats in Powassan, Ont., is on its third generation of craftsman-owners turning out truly classic cedar-plank, outboard-powered open boats. “I build the same way as my grandfather Barney did in 1927,” says Gerry Giesler. “We sell all over the place, and I do mean all over. Two years ago we sent boats to Brazil. We’ve sent them to Germany and England.” Giesler produces about 40 boats a year with six employees in a 6,000 sq. ft. shop. The most popular model is the 18-foot Lake Nipissing, which typically is powered by tiller-steered outboards from 9.9 hp to 20 hp and up to 40 hp with a wheel. Customers like the weight and the durability of the cedar construction, Giesler says. “They’re here until you give up on them. The average life expectancy is 15 to 20 years, but you can get many decades more out of them if you take good care of them. And people just like fishing out of wood boats.”

Giesler might be the best example of why Canadian builders endure, and why Canadians still turn to them. A cedar-plank boat that looks like it has planed out of a 1920s postcard, powered by a fuel-efficient four-stroke outboard, perfectly sums up the combination of tradition, reliability, and innovation that has kept this industry afloat.

The Loonie Rules

The single most important factor in the health of the Canadian boat building industry, after a thriving economy, is the exchange rate. In 2007, the Canadian dollar was valued at $1.09 U.S., which had repercussions on multiple levels. Virtually all the materials and components that go into a Canadian-built boat are imported, and the cost of those goods went down. But for builders looking to export markets for growth (or simply for survival), Canadian finished product was at a price disadvantage. Meanwhile, Canadian consumers could use their strong dollar to buy imported boats built with American dollars at a discount.

The recent depreciation of the loonie has paid dividends to Canadian boat builders, whether they build for export or for the home market. While components and materials sourced outside the country are more expensive, Brock Elliott of Campion Boats notes that there are many other costs that go into building and operating in Canada, so he can hold the line on pricing to domestic buyers. At the same time, Canadian-built boats can be far more attractively priced in export markets. John Peak of Commercial Distribution Finance foresees additional growth opportunities with declining energy costs that reduce plant overheads and a general repatriation of global manufacturing to North America.

A weak dollar works to the advantage of small Canadian companies in complex ways, as the case of Giesler Boats illustrates. “The dollar exchange has helped bring the Americans back,” says Gerry Giesler of the demand for his cedar-plank open boats. With better purchasing power, Americans are ordering boats to take home with them or to use at the cottages they own in Canada. As well, the U.S. dollar’s premium and a rebounding American economy have increased business for fly-in fishing camps in Canada that represent 30 to 40 per cent of Giesler’s boat sales. “Tourist camp operators are buying like crazy,” he says.

Scratch My Back

If you’re buying Canadian because you want to support the local economy, you might want to go really local to your friendly neighbourhood marina, even if it doesn’t sell Canadian-made boats. The local marina is an irreplaceable community anchor and sometimes provides the only access point for reaching a cottage. Unfortunately, local marinas are facing threats to their survival, whether it’s because they’re being lost to real estate developments, competition from big-box retailers is cutting into their sales, or a new generation of family owners isn’t keen to take on the challenges. Selling and servicing boats (and especially engines), regardless of where they are built, is the lifeblood of some marinas. Taking your business to them can help ensure their long-term survival.

“Not only is it important to the marine industry in Canada but especially to the marinas in cottage country.  Without cottager support, the industry will lose marinas, and this will have a negative effect overall,” says Richard Carroll, the owner of Little Gull Marina, a family-run business on Mississagua Lake in the Kawartha Highlands, and the president of Boating Ontario. “Without marinas, cottagers will have no outlet for sales and service of boats. Cottagers must understand that marinas need their support, creating a win-win situation.”

And who better to turn to when the transom seal in your new boat springs a leak than the marine mechanic at your cottage lake?  


Douglas Hunter has written extensively about boating, plus hockey, history, politics, and the coffee business. He wrote “The MacCallum Champlain” in the Summer ’15 issue of Cottage Life.