top of page

Meet Joe, Nova Scotia's first certified Boat Builder

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

“Building boats,” says Joe Dicks, “to me is a passion. It’s not a job.” He sits on the steps of ABCO Industries Inc. with one hand on his knee, soaking in delightful mid-May sunshine. “If you’re building boats,” he continues, “you gotta do it because you want to, because it’s not easy work. But it’s rewarding.”

Joe moved to Lunenburg from Cape Breton as a child in 1969 and grew up across the street from ABCO, his future workplace. “When I was 13, 14 years old I told my mother, ‘someday I’m gonna run that place,’” he says.

ABCO Industries Inc. is a fabrication company offering full engineering capability, specializing in the manufacture of welded aluminum boats up to 65’. The company has many standard designs that can be customized. Custom orders are also accepted. ABCO builds for marine industries including environmental response and research, aquaculture and fishing, regulatory, patrol, security, search and rescue, pilotage and other commercial applications too. 2022 marks 75 years in business for ABCO.

“Joe is a hard working, dedicated employee with a passion for boat building,” says Scott Robertson, VP and Engineering Manager of ABCO, “his real life education when it comes to fabrication is immense on many things, but specifically boats. I’ve had the pleasure to work with Joe for over 25 years, and his ABCO tenure goes back many more.”

Joe is an easygoing guy who likes talking about his passion. He loves the lifestyle of boatbuilding and the job makes you think. Joe enjoys fabricating most of all. “The welding comes alright but I think fabricating is always a part that’s a challenge. Tell me I can’t build something, and you’re in trouble.”

Joe has seen a lot in his years as a boatbuilder. He loves to be near the water and sometimes on it, since boatbuilders often test and deliver the craft they build. “Once I got into it, building them and seeing the end product…it’s always rewarding,” says Joe, “I was very fortunate I got to test them. I’ve been to Trinidad, I’ve been to St. Maarten’s to commission them so I got around that way also. I was involved from the beginning to the end with a boat.”

His favourite build ever was called the Garrett Cotter, a police boat named after the first Halifax Police Chief in 1864.

The Garrett Cotter, named after Halifax's first police Chief, is Joe Dicks' favourite build ever. (submitted)

[a]”That was the prettiest boat we ever built,” he says, “it was just sweet. The colours, the graphics, the lines of her…”

Joe Dicks greets then-Premier of Nova Scotia Jon Hamm aboard the Garrett Cotter (submitted)

[b]Joe Dicks is the first Nova Scotian ever to be certified as a Boat Builder. “I was part of the pilot program.” A certified New Zealander Boat Builder was certified first in the program, he explains, and then certified Joe under the umbrella of the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency.

He pauses as a coworker passes by calling, “what’s goin’ on, Joe?”

“Not too much, buddy!” Joe replies, waving. He turns back. “I guess knowing a few people in the organization, I got number 2!” he laughs.

Nova Scotia’s certification program is based on an internationally recognized curriculum from New Zealand’s Marine and Specialised Technologies Academy. The various skills a Boat Builder apprentice needs to demonstrate are observed and recorded by a mentor. Apprentices can specialize in one of three materials: wood, metal or composites (fibreglass is perhaps the most common composite). Anyone can become an apprentice if they get hired by a boatyard that has a journeyperson who agrees to be their mentor. It takes about 5,400 hours to become certified, usually completed in about three years of full-time work.

For builders who have the skills and experience already, there is another way to become a certified Nova Scotia Boat Builder: challenge the curriculum through a Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition(PLAR) process. When the Boat Builder Apprenticeship program was introduced, it was a perfect way for experienced builders like Joe to become certified without starting from scratch.

“[Joe]’s got well over 9450 hours of experience,” says Richard Lindala, NSBA’s Training and Certification coordinator, “you have to have that to apply to have the process done.” Then the candidate proves they are competent in the various techniques of boatbuilding. Like apprenticeships, a PLAR candidate has to demonstrate competence in at least one material: wood, metal or composites.

Many boatbuilders are hands-on people who like the job because there isn’t much paperwork. For them the PLAR challenge is great because there is no way to study for it. “You can’t, really,” says Richard, “You’ve just gotta know how to build a boat, and know how to talk about it. Your everyday work is preparation,” he chuckles. The big test is just a conversation. The candidate sits with NSBA’s Training and Certification coordinator another certified Boat Builder to lead the assessment, and a representative of the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency as a witness. Then, “you have a two to three hour discussion about what you know about building boats,” Richard continues, “and after that you become certified.”

It’s a proud moment when a boatbuilder becomes certified. “It’s a big deal to a lot of people,” says Richard.

Joe still carries his Boat Builder certification card in his wallet. A major benefit of certification, Joe says, is “recognition.” Certified Boat Builders have proven their abilities to a standard that a customer can understand. “if a company has certified people,” he says, “that makes it good for the company to be fortunate enough to win that contract. It benefits the companies very much to have the certification.”

Joe has worked at ABCO for decades. Just like he’d told his mother when he was a teenager, he ended up running things. “I was the manager for about 10-12 years,” he says. He stepped down recently to let someone younger take over, so Joe can “pass on as much knowledge and information as I can before I retire.”

As a journeyperson Joe has overseen the certification of several other people. “Seven [apprentices] we’ve put through the program since it’s come…that I can recall,” he laughs, “and we have one that’s enrolled in the program now.”

Joe Dicks plans to retire soon, but he’s made his mark on the boatbuilding industry. “Just to build them and go out and trial on them and deliver them is just a passion,” he says. “I just love it.”

The first Nova Scotian boatbuilder to be certified stands up, digs a mask from his pocket and puts it over his mouth. Salt-and-pepper sideburns bristle out through the sides. He walks calmly back into the boatyard, waving to each coworker he passes. The hissing and whirring and banging of tools mixes with the beeping of a forklift backing up. In quiet moments you can hear the sound of waves washing ashore.

In the early summer sunshine, under an airy blue sky, work continues at ABCO, a member of the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association.


bottom of page