Issue: July 2001
Fast Company

When they were racing sailboats and hydroplanes, Chris and Earle Hall knew how to bring home the silver. The same seems to be true of their yacht sales and service business.

 

    Valhalla is the name of Viking Yachts’ in-house publication, and if you’re a sportfishing zealot, paradise may indeed come to mind as you walk the docks at the company’s mid-Atlantic dealer, Bluewater Yacht Sales in Hampton, Va.

    Aluminum tuna towers and flybridges gleam and sparkle in the afternoon light. Vast, uncluttered plains of pure white bows stretch over the water. The boats are quiet, but it’s no strain to imagine the thundering horses, stabled in perfectly Awlgripped engine rooms with more standing headroom and workspace than most people’s kitchens. Hard to believe that all this began with a Cal 29. As in a really little sailboat. True enough, though.

    In 1968, Chris Hall, who was already sailing a Cal 25, ordered a new Cal 29 from a group of friends in Virginia Beach, who were bringing the hot little boats from California. When he bought the new boat, the friends asked Chris if he wanted in on the dealership. At the time, he was a full-time food broker in Norfolk, and taking on a line of boats wasn’t exactly in the plan. But boats were nothing new to him - he’d grown up boating and sailing in Portsmouth - so he did it anyway, and from that humble beginning emerged what is now one of the preeminent powerboat dealers on the Chesapeake, with offices in Hampton, Annapolis and at Pirate’s Cove in Manteo, N.C. The Hampton facility is also home to Bluewater Yacht Yard run by Chris’s younger brother, Earle. The yard fabricates dozens of parts including tuna towers, hard tops and flybridges, rehabs boats from the keel up and even builds new boats - three, so far. This month the company is opening its newest marina and yard, Hampton Roads Marina just down the creek from Bluewater Yacht Yard, which will be able to accommodate boats up to 150 feet and will offer the boating gamut, from do-it-yourself service to a waterfront restaurant.

    It’s always interesting to trace the roots of a marine business, and Bluewater’s dig into some fertile boating soil. Though 15 years apart, the Hall brothers spent much of their time growing up hanging out in the Portsmouth shop of Henry Lauterbach, one of the country’s legendary hydroplane builders and drivers [see “Rocket Man,” Bay Window, April 2000]. Along with Lauterbach’s sons, who were the Halls’ peers, they learned a great deal about many things, not the least of which was what it takes to make a boat fast and beautiful. To this day, the Halls are quick to attribute much of their knowledge and craftsmanship to their time spent in Lauterbach’s shop. Bluewater’s woodshop, for example, is located on the second floor of one of the service buildings, just as Lauterbach’s was, says Earle. “I couldn’t imagine standing on a concrete floor all day,” he says. “The wood floor feels better, and you can screw jigs to it when you need to work on something.”

    Lauterbach’s influence also led Earle Hall into hydroplane racing. With Chris helping support the team financially, Earle became one of the best hydroplane drivers the Bay has ever produced - he was inducted into the American Power Boat Association’s Hall of Champions in 1982. Chris, meantime, pursued yacht racing, winning the Annapolis–Bermuda Race in 1982 and Annapolis–Newport in 1985, as well as several Bay high point championships. They were fun hobbies, but both forms of racing also served a business purpose. It was well rounded know-how, gleaned from slogging in the proverbial trenches, that let the Halls know what their customers would want and need in a boatyard and in a boat broker.

    In the 1970s, Chris Hall bought three separate waterfront facilities on the Hampton River near the Hampton Yacht Club. He developed them into one service and sales yard and called it Bluewater Yachting Center. Along with the Cals, he took on O’Days and began catering to the community of sailors and racers based at Hampton Yacht Club. From the beginning, he pursued the idea of a one-stop shop - a place that could sell you a boat and then service it in every way it might need. Earle, who was still going to school, started working for his brother part-time.

    In 1980, the company bought a four-acre boatyard on Sunset Creek off the Hampton River, where a dealer was selling Pearson and Uniflite boats. They bought the yard and the dealership and merged it into Bluewater, then started developing it into Bluewater Yacht Yard. With the new yard, the company took on more new boat lines, eventually selling, at one time or another, Topaz, J/Boats, Boston Whaler, Mako, Hatteras and Seacraft. Bluewater also started doing much of the warranty work on boats built by Viking Yachts, the New Jersey company owned by the Healey family. “Their dealer down here didn’t have any service,” says Earle, “and we were working hard to develop our name as a well known boatyard.” By 1985, Pat Healey, now Viking’s executive vice president, suggested to the Halls that they start selling Vikings.

    “That was a big change to our business,” Chris says. “It was high sales, high dollars per boat. . . . We saw an opportunity in the power market and we made the decision that our future would be best served by concentrating on large powerboats.” The Halls also liked the idea that Viking is family owned, just like Bluewater, and that common ground has helped cement a friendship and partnership. “It’s really very important how close the Healey and the Hall families are,” Chris says. “It’s really what makes it all work for Bluewater and Viking.”

    The company decided to prune its lines to two: Hatteras and Viking. And since the two were head-on competitors, it became a little awkward. “It was a difficult balancing act sometimes,” Chris acknowledges. “Kinda like taking two dates to the prom,” adds Earle. It worked okay for a while, they say, but two years ago the company decided to refocus again, this time selling Viking only. Bluewater recently took on Tiara as well. “We thought it would give us service for the boats, and we could meet a quality boat buyer at an earlier stage of buying,” Chris says of the Tiara line.

    Along the way, the business opened up a sales office in Annapolis in 1991 (its new Annapolis office is opening this summer on the dock at Yacht Basin Company, overlooking the harbor), and in 1995 opened a sales office at Pirates Cove in Manteo, N.C., which is run by Chris’s son, Chris Jr. Last year, Chris finally took on two partners: his brother Earle, who is Bluewater’s vice president and head of service, and Jud Black, who is vice president and sales manager.

    In 1996, the company bought Hampton Roads Marina, with more than 200 slips and a mix of power and sailboats. Bluewater has rebuilt the entire marina, which will have 208 slips plus T-heads for boats up to 150 feet, indoor and outdoor dining, a pool and a 45-ton lift. The marina will retain its name, as well as its tradition of being a yard for do-it-yourselfers. About half of the yard is full service, Earle says, and the other half is for DIY boatowners. “We’re actually designing the building to support the do-it-yourselfers,” he says. “There really is a need for it down here.”

    “It works out,” Chris says. “[Bluewater] is a real focused yard and the other yard is more all things for all people.”

    Bluewater Yacht Yard can do just about anything to a boat, include build one from the keel up. (In 1983, the yard built a 37-foot Bill Shaw-designed sailboat that went on to win the Annapolis–Newport Race. The yard has also built a 25-foot center-console, as well as a 30-foot sportfisher). They see their mission, Earle says, as being an extension of the boatbuilder - fabricating and adding anything an owner wants, from tuna towers and hard tops to cockpit extensions and interior redesign. “Our biggest competitors in this are the custom builders,” he says. “So much of what our service does is part of sales. It’s a good mesh.”

    The yard has a 100-ton lift and 35 slips, all for older boats getting service or new boats being customized. To a new Viking 61 in one of the slips they have added flawless teak covering boards to the cockpit coamings, and a fishbox at the transom that’s so subtly done it looks like it’s part of the cockpit mold. The yard also built the boat’s hard top and gleaming towers. Molded hard tops and towers have in fact become a Bluewater specialty, Chris says, and much of the fabrication knowledge comes from the Halls’ work with sailboat spars and aluminum extrusions. 

    The docks are full of head-turners, most of the sportfishing variety, and one sure to provoke some whiplash is the Bluewater 30. The yard built this gorgeous little boat - designed from the waterline down by Lou Codega and by the Halls from the waterline up - as something of an experiment. The overall look is of an open express sportfish, with all the rakish sheer and flared bow that calls for. Powered with twin Volvo 375-hp diesels, the boat is a study in elegant fishing minimalism. “Earle wanted to build the thirty on a limited basis, but the way he wanted to do it is just so costly,” Chris says. “In a sense it helps your credibility with your customers when you have a complete boat instead of just building part of a boat. It’s kind of neat, but I don’t think we want to get into that business.”

    Four buildings, including the sales office and a huge service bay that can handle two 80-footers with towers, consume a large chunk of the yard. Another building has a series of bays and work areas, with a separate wood shop, welding shop, fiberglass lay-up area, engine shop and machine shop. “We probably have a hundred and fifty different molds for things that go on the boats,” Earle says. “Everything is built with Divinycell foam core and vacuum-bagged.”

    Hidden among this warren of work areas is an immaculate engine shop called the Bluewater Racing Room. The walls are covered with photographs of Bluewater Special, the name of the inboard hydros the Halls campaigned on the hydroplane circuit until a few years ago. (“We’re not done. We’re taking a break,” Earle says.) With Chris running the team and Earle driving - “I steered. He paid,” says Earle - Bluewater moved from stock outboards to 2.5-Litre modified inboards to 7-Litres (now called the Grand National class). Earle went on to become one of only two Bay drivers to race Unlimiteds, from 1983 to 1985. In 1991 he went to Formula One boats, until he decided to take some time off in 1996 after he won the Formula One nationals.

    “We had seven consecutive national high points when we were doing our own program [from 1977 to 1982],” says Earle. “And we set two world records in the process.” (Chris hadn’t given up his sail racing, though. The same weekend Earle set a record in Essex in the 7-Litre, Chris won the Annapolis–Bermuda on a Pearson 40.) “It was a hobby, but it was a full-time hobby,” Earle says. “We could shut the doors and work on race boats until we needed some sleep, and then we would become a service yard again.”

    The Halls may have put their racing on hold for a while, but the business Chris Hall started on the side more than 30 years ago - with a really little sailboat - is showing no signs of slowing down.