Van Dam boats are not for ordinary people. Their unique styling demands a certain sensibility; their six-figure-and-up price tag demands a certain kind of bank account.
The wealthy and famous seek out this Boyne City shop, which along with a 34-ft. mahogany powerboat and a 44-ft. custom sailboat, is in the middle of building a hydraulic trailer for the Sultan of Johar’s 50-ft. gunboat.
And even as owner Steve Van Dam and his wife Jean slowly transition the business to naval engineer son Ben, there are plans to enter the notoriously viral Asian market.
Should that happen, it’s hard to imagine where Van Dam Custom Boats could go next.
BOATS FROM A SINGLE LOG
Although Steve Van Dam won’t disclose prices for his boats, which take up to 15,000 hours to build and are usually made from a single massive exotic log, online resale prices begin at $289,000 for a 26-ft. powerboat and $595,000 for a 31-ft. African mahogany day boat.
“No one does exactly what we do,” said Van Dam, who from the start has put in 60 to 80 hour workweeks. “We’re a start to finish operation.” When Van Dam began building custom sailboats in the 70s, he was following a childhood sailing passion that morphed into a trade.
After marrying Jean, a Northern Michigan native, the two set up shop in Harbor Springs.
Opportunities in the 1980s and 90s switched their building efforts to powerboats and prompted a move to Boyne City, giving them room to expand and water access to launch their boats.
And though their facility can handle up to 80-foot boats, so far the biggest the 13-person design, engineering and manufacturing team has made is 55 feet, Van Dam said.
Their clients, mostly from all over the U.S. and Canada, run the gamut. The one thing they have in common is money – lots of it.
“They’re self made or they’ve inherited it,” Van Dam said. “It’s a pretty diverse group.”
Since Van Dam began, most of the boats have stayed in the Midwest. Their first overseas client, from France, ordered a tender, or motorboat, for his Caribbean-based private yacht two years ago.
Although that boat was not Van Dam’s largest, it featured a complex automated deploying system for the anchor.
“That was probably the craziest thing we ever had to fabricate,” he said. “After it was done, we shipped [the tender] to them and they loaded it on the mother ship.”
15,000 HOURS SO FAR
Van Dam uses modern glued construction to make his boats, which feature quarter-inch veneer from a single log, in most cases Honduran mahogany.
Van Dam says he likes that particular species because it’s “dimensionally stable.”
“It’s wonderful boat-building material,” he said. “It doesn’t expand or contract with moisture and is relatively durable.”
He sources his logs from mills inCincinnati and Detroit, usually going down himself to open up the logs and inspect them.
One of his current projects, “Victoria Z,” is the second Van Dam motorboat for a client from Alabama. Its 26-ft. hull is African mahogany and features a special joint to appear like paneling in the interior.
“We’ll definitely get exposure with this one,” he said about the half-finished boat, which so far has taken 15,000 hours to build. “The owner’s into the details.”
Victoria Z’s classic shape, painted underbody, and teak decks will be finished with hand-tooled leather seats and custom stainless hardware.
The 16,000-sq.-ft. shop, a former marina storage business on 16 acres, houses metal fabrication, a paint area, and construction. The two-story construction site is littered with hand tools and some bigger machinery, all of which Van Dam bought used along the way.
Two apprentices in a four-year boatbuilding program through Cedarville’s Great Lakes Boat Building School work alongside the skilled tradesmen, sweeping, gluing, and doing “all the dirty work,” Van Dam said.
BOYNE CITY ‘GOOD TO US’
Despite its relatively remote location, Van Dam said that Boyne City’s location is ideal, especially with the access to water and room to expand on their current site.
“Boyne City has been good to us,” he said. When clients first approach the Van Dams, it’s usually through word of mouth. Projects take a year or longer, and all design work stems from a “mood board,” a composite of hand and computer sketches, preliminary design work, and other inspirational photos, eventually moving into the full design and engineering phase.
Though most projects have come off without a hitch, through the years there have been a couple of heart-stopping moments for the Van Dam crew.
“We had a trailer axle break on a boat delivery to Wisconsin,” he said, “and one time we dropped a boat on Zoll St. in Harbor Springs.
“That one closed the street down for a while.”
NEXT UP: ASIA (AND MORE BIKING)
Their marketing to date has only been through existing clients, some boat shows, and a website. This spring, the family hired a director of marketing to expand the company’s overseas exposure.
“We decided to really do need to market because of the ups and downs of this business,” said Van Dam, who says his memory of the 2008 recession remains “vivid.” “We’d like to even out the work schedule.”
Finding the right marketing vehicle is a concern for Van Dam, whose clients possess his inventory. Because of this and other reasons, boat shows have proven fruitless for the most part because Van Dam’s target market lies elsewhere, said Peter Bowers, chief marketing officer for the company.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of product to take off the shelf, so we have to rely on owners who are willing to show off their boat,” Bowers said. “We are currently deciding what the highest return on investment will be [in terms of marketing.]” While that phase is playing out, Van Dam says he will continue building the world’s finest wooden boats, riding his bike in his free time, and slowly backing down to 50 hours a week in retirement.
Not on the agenda? Boating. Van Dam owns zero boats bearing his name. “I love it and want it in my life, but not be my life,” he said. “There are lots of other things I like doing, and I really don’t have the leisure time for that.”