A welding torch flashes. Machines whirr. A forklift backs up, beeping. Into the workplace walks a tall, slim man with light brown hair and a beard. He approaches a worker who eyes him warily. “Hello,” he asks in an English accent, “I’m Tim from the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association.”
“Oh. OK,” says the worker, relaxing, “I thought you were with the government.”
Tim Edwards is visiting the boatyard from Halifax, where he is working with Dalhousie naval architecture students. They have a new towing tank, refurbished and ready for hydrodynamic testing. Tim and the naval architecture students want to use it for something new: to help design boats.
Tim Edwards came to Canada from the U.K., where he studied naval architecture. He started visiting boatyards. “I learned early on,” he says, “rule number one is: never wear a shirt and tie when you’re visiting a boat shop.” Workers might think you’re a government agent on the lookout for violations.
Tim is one of the founders of the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association, the only association of its kind in Canada.
“I saw, looking around the province, there’s some great boat builders and a great history of boat building,” he says, “but no cohesion in terms of marketing the industry or representing the industry in the eyes of government, or providing support to the industry in the form of training, education…and very little engineering content. And being a professional engineer as I am,” he continues, “that really bothered me.”
The first goal was to help boat builders diversify into other markets. “One of the markets identified was the custom pleasure boat market,” says Edwards, “so that was one thing.”
The second goal was to make engineering a more central step of the boat building process.
The third goal of the NSBA was to establish a training curriculum for boat builders and apprentices. There was no paper trail yet, anywhere in the country, to demonstrate the real skills a boat builder is capable of. “That resulted over the course of the next five years in signing an agreement with New Zealand for use of their apprenticeship program,” says Edwards.
The agreement between the Nova Scotia boat building industry and the New Zealand marine industry was a first.
The fourth goal of the fledgling NSBA was to achieve a presence representing the industry to government.
Edwards had the four pillars of the NSBA. After achieving government funding it was tenable. But to boat builders he had to prove the association was worth joining. “Among the boat builders there was a lot of skepticism to begin with by some,” says Edwards.
Arthur Theriault was one of the first to sign on to the idea of a boat builders association. Now retired, he is the former president of A.F. Theriault & Son Boatyard, where over 1000 vessels have been built since the company started in 1938.
He says it was good timing when he met Edwards.“We just needed somebody to represent us because we couldn’t leave our business and pass our time in Ottawa,” he says, “it was a good opportunity to have somebody to represent us.”
About nine boatyards and nine marine suppliers signed on for membership. In May of 1998, the first Annual General Meeting took place at the Nova Scotia archive building. The membership attended and elected the first board of directors. The NSBA was finally official.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” says Edwards, “it took two years.”
In 2023, the NSBA counts 40 members and 45 associate members who build and service custom sailboats and motorboats, fireboats, fishing boats, ferries and just about anything else that floats. The apprenticeship program is going strong, certifying new Boat Builders and Marine Service Technicians every year.
Edwards retired after 21 years. Searching for a new Executive Director it seemed they might not find someone. “Then, at the eleventh hour,” he says, “in walked this person holding a brown envelope.”
The person was Jan Fullerton. The envelope held her resume, which was full of all the right experience and education. “She was way more qualified to do an Executive Director job than I ever was,” he says.
Fullerton can remember an early site visit to A.F. Theriault & Son where she witnessed the “soft launch” of the Vincent Coleman, a ferry to transport people between Halifax and Dartmouth. “It was a beautiful, cold, crisp winter day,” as the ferry approached the water, she recalls, “I remember the royal blue and the deep yellow against the solid blue sky…it’s a good way to help get you hooked.”
2023 marks Fullerton's fourth year as Executive Director of the NSBA.
The goals of the NSBA have evolved based on what boat builders report. In addition to the original goals, attraction and retention and training are now a focus.
“Addressing labour market shortages has become an increasing focus of our work,” says Fullerton, “because that has become a significant pain point for a lot of companies in the industry.” But the NSBA is still essentially the same: helping boat builders do great work and share their results with the world.
Jan is very happy to be a part of it all. “I really like the people that I work with in the industry,” she says, “to me it’s one of the things that appeals to me and makes me stay in the industry more.”
“Every boat builder has so many wonderful stories that average people would find fascinating if only they knew about it,” Edwards says, "where they’re located, what it means to their community, the stories that they have, the frustrations they have with the regulators, how they get around it, the successes, the disasters, all those things. Wonderful stories.”
The NSBA formed 25 years ago. We are looking forward to many more years working with the boat building industry and the amazing people who work in it.