David Robertson built his first boat when he was 12 years old.
“I always liked to build stuff,” Robertson, now 68, said.
This love of building stuff — and boats — was transformed into a family business, Gig Harbor Boat Works, established by Robertson and his wife, Janet, in 1986.
“It’s a hobby that got out of control,” Robertson said with a laugh. “It’s fun to build stuff that has meaning.”
Since boat building was a hobby and a favorite pastime, Robertson purposefully kept his business small over the years to keep the work on a manageable level where it would remain fun.
It’s a hobby that got out of control...It’s fun to build stuff that have meaning.
Dave Robertson, owner of Gig Harbor Boat Works
“We started out really, really small and as time went on (we) expanded,” he said. “We have a real niche market.”
The boats designed by the company are modern reproductions of historical boats — specifically from the 18th and early 20th centuries — that maintain the look and feel of the original design, but without the upkeep that accompanies wooden boats.
The boats are composed of fiberglass, and their main functions are for rowing and sailing, but they’re also built to equip a motor, if needed.
“We like to think we’re continuing an evolution (of boats),” Robertson said.
The company has another, larger shop in Tacoma where the fiberglass work for the boats is done. Robertson has been partnered with Dave Gahan to design the fiberglass boats since the early 1970s.
“He’s a real artist in fiberglass,” Robertson said, adding that fiberglass molds are tricky because they require working in mirror image and experience is needed in order to make sure the boat turns out correctly.
Robertson is beginning to step away from day-to-day operations of the business, leaving control of the company to his son-in-law, Falk Bock.
Bock, 40, has worked with Robertson for 16 years and is taking over the position of general manager.
“I’ve always had a boat of some sort (growing up),” Bock said. “Something to get out on the water in …(though) I never thought I’d build one.”
Falk met his now-wife and Robertson’s daughter, Jessica, online in 1998 when it “was still kind of a scandalous thing to do.”
After a few months of the couple conversing, Robertson decided he wanted to meet Bock himself and invited him to come build boats for the summer. By the end of the summer, Bock and Jessica were married.
“The thing about farm boys is that they know how to build things,” Robertson joked about his son-in-law.
Keeping his family active in the business has always been important to Robertson.
His other son-in-law worked for the company briefly; his daughters, Jessica and Katie, remain active in the company and on the website. His sister-in-law, Emilie Stevens, took over the accounting from Janet Robertson eight years ago.
The company produces about 100 boats a year and ships more than half of them around the world — even as far away as Australia and Finland.
We’d like to see keeping the company growing...Maybe add new and exciting boats to the lineup and find new and exciting markets.
Falk Bock, general manager of Gig Harbor Boat Works
Boats from the company have participated in the Trans-Atlantic race and have helped racers from around the world set records.
The company works with racers to outfit boats with specialized seats and has created an innovative forward rowing system which allows a rower to face forward and see in the direction they’re heading.
“There’s more than meets the eye when you come in here,” Robertson said. “There’s been some pretty cool stuff done in these (boats).”
The important aspects of the business to Robertson are the high level of interest his customers have for his work and the good reputation of his company.
“We do that by treating people the way you’d want to be treated yourself,” Robertson said, adding that he never forces a sale on a customer.
The steady business his company does spreads out into the greater Gig Harbor area, with out of town visitors staying and eating in local establishments on his suggestion.
“A real surprising amount of people come to Gig Harbor by Gig Harbor Boat Works,” Robertson said. “We help bring a lot of business to Gig Harbor.”
The company is currently preparing for the next big boat show, the Seattle Boat Show, held from Jan. 29 to Feb. 7.
A real surprising amount of people come to Gig Harbor by Gig Harbor Boat Works. We help bring a lot of business to Gig Harbor.
“That’s a good way to see our boats because they’re all there and you can compare them,” he said.
As Robertson moves toward a consulting role, Bock plans to keep the momentum for the business moving steadily onward.
“We’d like to see keeping the company growing,” he said. “Maybe add new and exciting boats to the lineup and find new and exciting markets.”
But Robertson doesn’t plan to disappear entirely from the business he created.
“The business has always been like a baby,” he said. “I’d like to keep involved.”