What I Saw – by Jackie Philpott

Berkeley Marine Center

Nobody wants to give up their boat to the boat yard. But sometimes we don’t have a choice, do we? Sometimes it’s the only way we’ll get a more beautiful, well running boat back. We hope so, anyway. I decided to go interview Cree Partridge about his boat yard. My boat has always gone to Berkeley Marine Center. She likes it there and so do I. The yard is owned by Cree and Julie Partridge. I made arrangements ahead of time to interview Cree regarding the history of his yard. He agreed, so I sailed over with my tape recorder and a tin of oatmeal raisin cookies. Cookies are the price of admission to Berkeley Marine Center. You didn’t know that? Well, now you do.

Cree Partridge, co-owner of Berkeley Marine Center.

As soon as I arrived Cree said, “Let me show you our progress on Glass Slipper. She’s almost done.”

Cree is building himself a rocket ship of a boat. Not just any boat, but one made of carbon fiber. Even the mast. He’s got a lot of friends and they’ve participated in the build. The plan is to race it in the 2024 Transpac, which is a biennial sailing race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Glass Slipper has been “almost done” for more than a small number of years now. Every time I visit the yard there she is, incrementally different and waiting patiently.

We walk together past the barn and all the other projects being built in discretely separate areas of the property. We walk past the welding shop and fabricating equipment. We weave our way through masts resting on sawhorses and large metal drums, whatever is available when the sawhorses have all been used. Then we step over hundreds of feet of stainless steel tangles around the drums.

The shed at Berkeley Marine Center.

Every 30 feet or so somebody stops Cree to ask him a question. He gives each person his complete attention. It takes us awhile to get to the shed where Glass Slipper is being built.

We climb up what Cree assures me is an “OSHA approved” ladder to the top of his boat and that’s where the interview starts.

Before he bought Berkeley Marine Center, Cree built boats in Southern California. I asked him how he came to buy the yard.

Cree: We used to haul our boat out here. It was run by the nicest lady. The yard, to say it was sleepy? It was less than sleepy. It was basically a non-operation but still open. There were five boats in the yard. From year to year the boats may have changed, just slightly, but you would always see three of them from the previous year.

Julio Ramirez and Ruben Gabriel.

The beauty of the yard to me was that we could haul the boat on Friday and launch it on Monday. Do all of our own work, including moving the stands all weekend long. Nobody was around there to watch. I mean, you can get yourself in hideous trouble moving stands when you’re painting the bottom. And we wouldn’t be charged for the weekends. No laydays for weekends because nobody’s there in the office. No laydays if it rains. No laydays for hauling and launch day.

I’d haul on a Friday and launch on a Monday, there’s no charges. All I would pay for was hauling the boat out and launching it. I’d buy my own stuff and do my own work. Monday rolls around and I’m out here taking our boat back to our slip. We moved our powerboat from Friday Harbor down here in 1992, so that’s when I discovered this yard. I brought my boat here every year.

The barn at Berkeley Marine Center.

A friend of mine knew my background. I had explained to him about the business of building boats, how after a boat was built we had nothing to do. We’d end up putting all the money that we’d made building the boat into holding our crew together or laying them off and hoping we could find more people the next time we got a an order to build a boat. In the middle of making boats you have to have some income to keep yourself busy.

This friend of mine said, “Hey, this boat yard’s for sale.” He had sailed with the owner’s husband before he passed away and was the broker trying to sell it on the widow’s behalf.

I said, “Are you kidding me? That’s where we take our boat all the time. That’s great!”

I told him, “Go find out what she wants to do.”

Diane Walton, owner of S/V Gerda.

He had a really nice brochure. Really nice. Aerial photos, income and expense reports. Everything that a buyer could want. Everything here was for sale. The business was for sale. I knew the property already and I went through the numbers on it.

I said, “Just make a deal.”

I was finishing up another project and had nothing on the horizon at all. So, he did. I took ownership of the business in 2000.

Jackie: So, you’ve owned this boat yard for 22 years. What did Julie say when you went home and told her, “Hey, honey! I want to buy a boat yard!”

Cree: That’s an interesting story. I took this fancy brochure home. I put it on the kitchen table and Julie read it. Then she said, “Cree, you should do this.” And I said, “you think so?” Then I said, “Okay!”

We have changed it over the years. The big change was that the day after we bought it we needed to stay open seven days a week. That’s what got us through the first five years. When we bought the yard we bought the lease that the yard was operating on, and at that time it had 30 some odd years to run, so it was pretty much a perfunctory approval. The most recent lease ends in 2030.

Jackie: A lot of environmental regulations have changed during the past 20 years. Do you have an uneasy relationship with the City of Berkeley?

Engine in bilge of S/V Gerda.

Cree: No. The City of Berkeley has been very helpful to us and very supportive of us in just about every way they can. All of the improvements that are going on right now are long overdue. No doubt, we had truckers that wouldn’t drive in here because of the road, and so that was something that was weighing heavily on us. To a certain extent, it was affecting our bottom line. So, I can’t say enough good things about the road now because it’s finally coming in and getting done properly. It’ll be great.

They’re also working on a ferry dock utilizing the old pier. I hope the old pier is gonna get upgraded because that was just a fabulous place for people to come down and go fishing with no license.

Jackie: You don’t see that changing after 2030?

Cree: I don’t really see it changing much.

Jackie: Have you been given some assurance of that?

Cree: It’s just a logical continuation. There’s definitely a need for the boat yard. There’s definitely an ongoing use here for the boat yard. It’s just a question of what term they elect to put on it after our lease is up.

Jackie: So, it’s a different situation than in Alameda where they gutted the marina and got rid of all the marine services? You don’t see that happening here?

Cree: No. This is state land and it’s mandated. I believe in the master lease that there has to be a marine services element here. In the agreement between the City of Berkeley and the state, this is state land we’re on. The city is mandated to control and maintain the site for the state.

Jackie: You talked about having to keep crew employed in Southern California. Earlier in your career you built boats down there. Today you advertise the Berkeley Marine Center as a boat building and restoration enterprise. It seems to me you are a boat builder in the body of a boat yard owner.

Cree: Uh huh.

Jackie: You hope to have Glass Slipper ready for the 2024 Transpac. Do you think she will be the last boat you build?

Cree: No. I don’t see why I should exit from this. I enjoy doing what I’m doing. I enjoy the people and I enjoy the whole atmosphere. It’s a full-service yard, so we do everything from repairing old wood boats to commissioning brand new high tech sailboats. I’ve got a lot of powerboats in my back pocket that we’ve done, so it’s not just sail, not just power, it’s anything that floats.

Jackie: Your wife, Julie, helped run Berkeley Marine Center for a long time. Tell me about how you named Glass Slipper. My understanding is that men often name their boats after their wives. The thinking is that, if the boat is named for the wife she’ll be more likely to come on board. What do you think of that hypothesis?

Portable hydrogen cell-based generator.

Cree: [laughs. He’s heard this before.] Glass Slipper is a play on the fairytale. The Glass Slipper that the prince went around with the morning after the big ball where the chariot turned into a pumpkin and he found Cinderella. Using the shoe. Hence, the Glass Slipper. I guess that makes me Prince Charming? I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s great. It also says something about the boat. Because it is going to be fast. And it’s gonna be slippery. There’s no doubt about it. It’s gonna be a really really really fun boat to sail.

Jackie: When was the last time you had a sailboat of your own?

Cree: Oh boy. I’ve always had a sailboat. I still have a Force Five sitting in the driveway that I had 40 years ago. I don’t think I ever named it. And it’s sitting there not sailing. But I won’t get rid of it. Boats represent fun things to me. A lot of great memories. I took Julie sailing on the Force Five when she was pregnant. So pregnant she couldn’t get underneath the boom when we tacked. We’ve sailed and raced together on bigger boats since.

It’s been really interesting working with Jim Antrim because he has a very diverse design portfolio of boats. Recently, we launched a boat of his that was commissioned here for a guy who is going to pedal around the Americas. Now, where in the world do you see something like that? That’s exciting to me to see something completely different. It’s not a run of the mill, off-the-shelf kind of thing you see in most boat yards.

A single boat yard can only handle so much business physically. All of us would rather have more business or bigger business or better business or however you want to describe it, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the business that’s out there. For years we’ve been working on a backlog of boats and I’m sure every other yard in the Bay is doing the same thing, where they’re scheduling boats in and waiting to empty the yard before they can haul a boat. There’s not enough space. Look around at all the boat yards and subtract the number of yards that have disappeared in the last 8 to 10 years. Where did all those boats go?

Jackie: Can you tell me about the professionals who work here? What are their specialties?

Cree: Rigging has always been something that’s important to have close by. It’s always been a piece of the boat yard business. Ryan Nelson (Rogue Rigging) was working out of his garage. We had a space here that made more sense for him having the ability to pull rigs, go up masts with our crane and so forth. It made more sense for him to be here. Ryan is just flat-out organized. And intelligent. He’s terrific.

Jackie: Julio Ramirez has developed quite a local reputation for his boat painting skills. How did Julio happen to come here?

Cree: Ron Anderson sent Julio to us. Ron and I are pretty good friends and when Anderson’s boat yard in Sausalito was closing down he sent his good guys here. We had three other guys from him. Julio is particularly unique in that he takes his abilities to the next level. We’ve been supporting that all along, sending him to week long classes. And for every one of them I get reports back that he was the one guy that was kind of leading the pack. That’s the way he is. He is really intensely interested in perfecting his profession. He’s absolutely unique.

Each person who works here, with his or her own portion of the business that we do is a leader. Each one of them can talk with customers about what they should or shouldn’t be doing and how to or how not to do the work. Which was obviously more important when we were doing a whole lot of DIY (do-it-yourself) work.

7.2 liter hydrogen canisters.

We have a good deal of talent here, but sometimes it’s tied up. That’s when I need somebody that is just going to come in and work with me on a single project until it’s done and then both of us will leave it. Right now, Kurt in the front office is the yard’s marine electrician. He helps us with all the minor stuff. Bob Miller does a lot with engines. I do some. We don’t have enough demand for electrical work to have somebody here full time. When it gets to the point of really technical electrical stuff, Phil Moomha helps us. Right now we’re holding Phil hostage. His boat’s in the yard so we’re telling him that we can’t launch his boat until we get this and that done.

Jackie: Can you tell me about the quality of stainless that is necessary for marine hardware?

Cree: The quality of stainless has a lot to do with the finish on the stainless. Finished stainless is electropolished and then polished, which makes it nice and shiny. We can make a duplicate part, then electropolish it which passivates the surface so that it won’t rust. It takes the iron off the surface of the metal. Then we’ll polish it to make it bright and shiny. Both parts are then equally strong.

Years ago we started acquiring machine tools and we’ve had various welders and machinists in here. Years and years ago we had a really unique guy that was very interested in doing stainless art. Spectacular stuff. Absolutely spectacular. He did a lot of art in stainless and he was a meticulous machinist. So, we started loading up on machine tools and have just been acquiring them over time.

Jackie: Why is marine welding unique to marine welding? You just can’t call in a welder to do marine work.

Cree: You have metal that works in a marine environment and some that doesn’t.

So, you need to know which materials to use and which application is important in a lot of cases. You can’t just go out and grab a piece of metal and put that in a boat and say that it’s gonna last forever.

Jackie: In 2013 when you replaced the rigging on my boat you were able to fabricate the mast step out of starboard. When did you begin to fabricate boat parts?

Cree: We work with any of the plastics. Right now we’re working with a bearing material for the rudders on Glass Slipper. It’s a plastic, but you can’t just get off-the-shelf plastic to put in the water because a lot of plastics absorb water, which changes the tolerance of the bushing.

Jackie: Can you talk about issues of territoriality that arise? Power struggles?

Cree: A lot of boat owners have people they already work with. Historically, they want to keep working with those people. I think that’s a great thing because it maintains continuity of the product. That said, somebody has to be qualified to work here. We’ve thrown quote unquote experts out. It happens when somebody comes in and purports to be an expert in a particular aspect of whatever it is they’re planning on doing on the boat. You look at what they’re doing and it’s not even close to being anywhere correct.

We generally talk to the owner and ask, “How long have you been working with this guy?” “Where did he come from?” “What’s your history?” “What do you want to accomplish?” Sometimes we tell the owner that his “expert” is completely unqualified to do what he’s planning to do. When that happens, you can find somebody else. If we can’t do it, we can recommend somebody else. A professional somebody. We try.

Boats mean a lot to people. They mean a lot to you and I. But they mean a lot to you and I in different ways. You get a third person in here, that’s something completely different than what you and I think and sometimes that person controls that information close to themselves and it’s very important to them. You can’t say, well, that’s the wrong way to be or the way I do it is the wrong way to be or the way he thinks is the wrong way. Everybody is unique and their boat is unique.

Jackie: You’ve created this yard, built it up.

Three boat owners standing around in a boat yard.

Cree: Nah, I didn’t. All the people that are here have created it. It’s not one person, it’s an atmosphere that’s here. I’m a caretaker of it, but definitely not the architect. There’s a difference between an architect saying, “This is the way I’ve designed it” and a shepherd directing his flock. I prefer the shepherd analogy for what I do in the boat yard. I’m more comfortable with that.

Jackie: Would you be interested in describing what you hope customers won’t do? How would you say, “Please don’t be this customer?”

Cree: I just think everybody is unique and there’s no formula for having a happy experience in the yard. But if you’re not having a happy experience in the yard, it’s not your fault. It’s a lack of understanding.

We laugh and laugh together because we both understand that Cree has essentially declined to define a bad customer.

Jackie: What’s your favorite quality in a customer?

Cree: Somebody who will jump in and do things they have never done before.

Now we climb down the ladder from the top of Glass Slipper and walk past the barn toward my car.

Someone walks over to check in with Cree regarding whether a large project will fit into the barn. I overhear Cree’s response, “I don’t know. Let’s try!”

As I shake his hand and get ready to leave the yard this is what I say to Cree:

Jackie: I think that’s what you do here. When somebody asks, “Can we do this?” Your answer is usually, “I don’t know! Let’s try!”

Cree smiles his big, infectious smile and says “Yeah!”

This, in a nutshell is Cree’s attitude toward both people and boats who come into his yard. He’s like that kid on the playground who used to dare you to swing higher. Three years ago he tried to persuade me to install an electric engine in my boat. This year, Cree’s all about hydrogen power.

Cal 2-27 sailboat in hoist ready for splashing.

He has installed a hydrogen engine in a 26-foot wooden boat, the S/V Gerda. Built in Denmark sometime in the 1940s, Gerda is a double-ended sailboat owned by Diane Walton, with whom I had the nicest chat. This is what the hydrogen engine looks like in the bottom of Gerda’s shallow little bilge.

Cree is working with an energy start-up company in Berkeley called PowerUP Energy Technologies. If you are interested in this technology, check it out.

Call me old fashioned, but I’m sticking with my 11-horsepower Universal diesel for now. I’ll just wait a few years for Cree to work through the little glitches like recharging at sea without carrying multiple canisters of hydrogen.

How Do Boat Yards Work, Anyway?

After my conversation with Cree I started making a list in my head of all the different types of specialized knowledge required in order for a boat yard to offer full-service. It quickly became a very long, complicated list. This is America, land of the specialization of labor. Fewer and fewer boats nowadays are made in the way of production boats 40 years ago. Working on any boat requires imagination and resourcefulness on the part of those who are expected to repair, modify and recreate it.

I remember the response of a building contractor years ago. When I asked him how long it would take and how much it would cost to remodel my old house in Oakland he explained, “I can’t tell you until we open it up.” The walls, roof and floors, everything had the potential to hide mold, rusty pipes, tangled electrical wires and inadequate load-bearing potentials. All of these possibilities were waiting in there, and that contractor met them with equanimity.

I appreciate this boat yard for the same reasons. My boat and I are always met with the same willingness to problem-solve, as had that contractor with my house. Lots of old boats have come through Berkeley Marine Center, so my 43-year-old sailboat isn’t considered an outlier. In order to make some sense of how adaptable a boat yard needs to be, I decided to consider BMC from an organizational perspective. For that I needed to talk with the yard manager, Ruben Gabriel.

Standing around in a boat yard is the best way to get work done on your boat. It’s the boat yard method of communication. You say you don’t have time to stand around in a boat yard? Well, then your boat will be there for longer than if you do it my way. You need to go to the yard in person, get a feel for it.

Usually you can find other boat owners to talk with about boats while you wait. Especially sailors. They’ll talk about their boats till the cows come in. When the yard manager walks by, this is what you do. You step forward and smile, politely. Sure enough, I hadn’t stood by my boat more than 20 minutes before Ruben Gabriel came walking by. If you want to work with someone who is resourceful, he’s your guy.

In 2008 Ruben raced in the singlehanded race from San Francisco to Kauai on the S/V Sparky, a 22-foot Pearson Electra. Part way there he dismasted and finished the race into Hanalei Bay under sail with a mast jury-rigged from his boom. In 2012 he sailed the race again on a 24-foot Moore, which is not much bigger than a large kayak. More recently he’s been crew on wicked fast boats in some of the biggest offshore races. Really big races. Really big boats. Now he’s the yard manager at Berkeley Marine Center. As he and I stood in the milky spring sunshine he talked about what it was like to be responsible for so many aspects of the yard.

One of the first things you see in any full-service boat yard is the large powerful boat hoist required to lift boats into and out of the water. Somebody needs to know how to manage that equipment and be available to drive it. Later, that qualified person needs to be available to relaunch the boat. This is a personnel issue that requires keeping track of equipment certifications and appropriate training of the drivers.

Then there’s the crane. Someone needs to know how to drive the crane for any number of purposes such as managing it safely when a sailboat mast is removed and then reinstalled again. Those are important people right there. Once the boat is situated on stands or a trailer in the yard, the organizational complexity continues. Who keeps track of all that? Think about it. It’s the yard manager. Let’s consider some of the different “departments” in a boat yard.

Fiberglass is just one of the many specialized skills in a yard. All that chemistry is dependent upon the knowledge of the person performing the work who needs to understand the impact of weather and wind on the final product. There’s a lot of wind at Berkeley Marine Center. Sometimes fiberglass work requires a special tent setup so the wind doesn’t blow dust into the fiberglass. Fiberglass cures differently when it’s cold than when it’s hot.

If your hull is being painted, temperature and dust are issues to be considered too. You can’t paint when the wind is howling. Those are all time factors that need to be taken into consideration by the yard manager as staff is allocated among the different ongoing projects.

Electrical Issues. Don’t get me started. Technology has surged ahead, but every electrical component on a boat, especially boats on the San Francisco Bay, remains at the mercy of corrosive salt air. Then there’s the issue of different systems introduced that don’t communicate effectively with each other. Wind and charting instruments are important to a lot of boat owners and they’re useless if the information doesn’t show up on the screen. Sailing by telltales? That is so yesterday. Anybody who’s anybody wants new technology, and good luck if you can’t install it yourself. Marine electricians are a rare breed and someone who knows how to integrate all the electrical bling on a boat is even rarer.

Rigging on a sailboat refers to the wires or lines holding up the mast: the forestay, the backstay and the spreaders. It refers to the lifelines along the outside of the hull. And what has this sailor learned from new powerboat friends? Rigging for a powerboat has a completely different meaning than for a sailboat. According to the Universal Technical Institute, “installing an outboard, which is called rigging, involves much more than simply bolting the outboard to the transom. It includes connecting the steering system, throttle and shift controls, navigation and communication systems, engine control systems and more.” So now I know and if you’re a sailor, now you know, too.

A complete boat yard needs to have a knowledgeable rigger available for both sailboats and powerboats. Nobody wants their rigging to fail and fall into the water. Nobody wants engines to fall off the back of a powerboat. Riggers are very important people.

Full-service boat yards need to have a chandlery full of boat supplies. Who does the ordering for the chandlery? Who keeps track of supplies as they come in and go out? And don’t even get me started on bookkeeping, payroll, taxes, environmental regulations etcetera. A boat yard requires a very complicated organizational structure. Who keeps track of all that?

Ruben makes a lot of these complicated decisions look easy. And I’m quite sure they are not. When boat owners first bring their boats to BMC they complete a work order, which is a list of things they want done. That’s when the yard manager begins to organize the materials and people needed to do all the jobs on the work order. Every part of that list requires a particular type of specialization, another person who has that skill set. They might be employees or they might need to be located from outside the yard and persuaded to come work on a contractual basis. However, once the boat is on stands the boat owner often adds to the list of things they want done to their boat. As the list expands, so does the organizational complexity required to meet their needs.

Ruben explains that, no matter how many additional materials, parts, time and personnel have been added to the work order, there’s always that one customer who wants his or her boat splashed before the next weekend. Preferably, THIS FRIDAY. Ruben looks at me and asks, “What can I say?” We both shake our heads mournfully and name the culprit out loud: “It’s a boat!”

The Three Degrees Of Denial

No matter what happens, I always seem to have a hard time extricating my boat from the boat yard. There are a lot of boats in there and she gets lost in the crowd. A friend of mine has a sanguine attitude when I complain. He says, “It’s a boat yard. What do you expect? Boat yards are the same all over the world. They’re like that in Australia. They’re like that here.” I get no sympathy from Ray Irvine.

Once you begin the process of leaving the boat yard with your boat you can usually expect to experience the existential dilemma I call the Three Degrees of Denial:

1. What you hope it will cost

2. What you think it probably might cost

3. What it finally costs.

For example, recently I drove with a friend to collect his sailboat from a boat yard. On the way there I asked how much he thought the bill would cost and he told me. I wrote the amount down in my little notebook and waited in the car. As he walked back after paying the bill I noticed that he looked a bit shaken. I showed him the page in my little notebook and asked whether his guess was accurate.

His response? “Oh no. It was more. Much, much more.”

This year, my boat and I left the yard without experiencing that particular dilemma. When I wrote the original work order I requested a bottom paint job, new stanchions and a new masthead antenna. After two weeks I left the yard with a nice bottom paint job. My take-away regarding boatyards is to consider them the same way as my childhood expectations of Christmas morning. Year after year I asked Santa for a pony. My parents told me that I needed to be more realistic. When I was six years old I had no idea what that meant. Now I do.

Nowadays I’m not disappointed when my boat leaves the boatyard. I’ve learned to be more realistic. Instead, this exit was like that Christmas when I got a new Barbie and a red patent leather case full of clothes and accessories. I understand that there are a lot of other kids out there, and they want shiny new things for their boats too. Only very few people get the pony. The rest of us have learned to be happy with what we do get this year. My boat left the boat yard looking beautiful upside and down.

I also got to visit with everyone at Berkeley Marine Center, which is always a pleasure. Plus, I got this story which I have shared with you. Thank you for reading. Let’s all be careful out there. Contact me at jackie@yachtsmanmagazine.com if you saw something on the Bay you would like to share.