Boats, Banjos and Bachelor Parties

Nothing sells canoes better than tossing them down a waterfall.

That’s what boat manufacturer Grumman (today called the Marathon Boat Group) discovered in 1972, when several of its canoes were featured in the movie “Deliverance.”

“They were going for this massively dangerous whitewater shot,” recounts Doug Potter, general manager. “The film shows the canoe heading for the precipice. The guys would jump out just before they got there, and the canoe would get mangled. After the third one, they finally managed to keep one floating.”

The thriller was successful – as were the canoes. “The following year we sold some 40,000 of them,” Potter says. “We had to run five assembly lines, day and night, to meet the demand.”

To this day, they are the core products of a company that, over the course of its more than 60-year history, has seen its ups and downs, but continues to steadily turn out high-quality canoes, boats and pontoons.

From the skies to the waters

It all began in the summer of 1944 on, or rather between, the lakes of the Adirondacks. William Hoffman, vice president of Grumman Aircraft Engineering, was trudging from one lake to the next, weighed down by a heavy wooden canoe.

Having built innumerable planes during World War II, he knew the strength of lightweight, stretch-formed aluminum, and decided that the watercrafts – and his back – might benefit from it. The first 13-foot aluminum canoe was built at the aircraft plant in Bethpage, Long Island, the next year.

In 1952, the budding canoe division relocated to Marathon, in Cortland County, which offered a lower cost of living and electricity, as well as good transportation access via rail. (In the meantime, trains have been replaced by trucks driving on Route 81.)

As the “Deliverance” spike in canoe sales died down, Grumman added fishing boats to its lineup, and later, in the 1980s, pontoons – which attracted the attention of Midwestern boat-motor company OMC.

From 1990 until the former Fortune 500 company filed for bankruptcy in 2000, Grumman’s boat and canoe division became part of OMC. The 85-person workforce in Marathon began to also build DuraNautic boats, another brand that its parent company had acquired. But as OMC’s downward spiral became apparent, a group of former Grumman managers and investors formed the Marathon Boat Group (MBG) in 1996 to purchase back the canoe and boat lines.

The hitch: OMC refused to let MBG use the Grumman name, which it still had under license from Northrop-Grumman, to whom Grumman had been sold. “So we changed our address to One Grumman Way,” Potter grins. “They couldn’t stop us from putting that on our catalogs.”

With OMC’s demise just a few years later, MBG took over the license. The Grumman name and decals have been back on the company’s boats ever since.

Eight to 80 hours later

Today, 17 welders, painters, assembly workers and administrators build several thousand watercrafts a year. Double-end and square-stern canoes range from 13 to 19 feet in length and weigh in at as little as 50 pounds for the solo version.

In the boat division, MBG offers five versions of Grummans, each named after a Finger Lake, and continues to produce four models of DuraNautics, recognizable by their sea-foam green color. Pontoons – large platforms on aluminum logs that Doug Potter calls “living rooms on the water” and that others sometimes refer to as “party barges” – round out the offerings.

All of these emerge from MBG’s 43,000-square-foot facility. The floors of the expansive, noisy halls glisten with metal flakes. “It’s aluminum-reinforced concrete,” Potter jokes. Partially finished boats are stacked in every corner, waiting for the next step in the assembly process.

First, aluminum – in 4,000-pound coils for canoes and pre-measured sheets for boats and pontoons – arrives in the fabrication area at the south end of the building, where it is sheared to size and cut into shape.

Next step in the canoe recipe: Bake the “skins,” which have been stretch-formed into the shape of a hull, 50 to 100 at a time in an oversized oven for eight hours at 375 degrees to harden the aluminum. (Boats and pontoons are made from a harder aluminum alloy that requires no further processing.)

In the assembly area, the canoes run through 10 different operations, starting with riveting two halves together with aircraft techniques. Then, like every MBG product, they spend at least 10 minutes in a hydraulic pressure tank to test for leaks before progressing to the spray chamber to be painted. Seats put in and graphics applied, the canoes get one more clear coat and are ready to ship out on a truck.

Boats receive similar treatment, except that the skins are welded together and reinforced with external keels along the length of the bottom, and transoms in the back. “When you put horsepower on them, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got a really strong hull to take the stress,” explains Potter.

For the pontoons, finally, large sheets of aluminum run through a roller to make up to 10-foot-long cylinders. Two of these and a nose section are welded together into long logs or floats. Framed and assembled with a wooden deck, carpeting or vinyl, fences and ladders, a console, furniture and wiring, the pontoons come together slowly in about 80 man hours, compared to eight hours for canoes.

“We hand-make everything except the furniture,” says Scott Morris, MBG’s sales and purchasing manager. “And in 2013, we added state-of-the art PVC siding. Aluminum gets dented, but this stuff will either break or bounce and is easy to replace. So far, we’re the only ones using that.”

Strong enough for combat

This innovation is especially popular with rental companies, whose boats suffer much abuse. They are among MBG’s good customers, along with camps, boy scout groups and of course, individual canoeing and boating enthusiasts, mostly in the eastern United States but also in the West, Canada (10 percent) and Europe (5 percent).

One of them is Phil Crimmins of Ithaca. For many years he used a 17-foot Grumman canoe, which he had rigged out with a class C sail and rudder, and occasionally outfitted with a 3-horsepower motor. In his boat rental business Puddledockers, he has been very happy with his Grummans, which make up most of his canoe fleet.

“They just don’t die,” Crimmins says. “Once I rented out six canoes to a bachelor party. Of course they tipped them over, but I just took a soft, rubber-coated hammer, pounded the dents out, and it’s like it never happened.”

Potter would be pleased to hear that MBG’s products are living up to its slogan: “Built to last.” Craftsmanship is at the center of this promise, he says. “Our welders are really good, and you can tell that the riveting we use on canoes is Grumman engineering.“

As for the pontoons, “They are probably over-engineered,” he declares. “The sales manager was once at a production meeting, and he couldn’t believe what the materials cost per unit. He said something like, ‘Gee whiz, guys, we’re not flying them into combat.’”

And so the company’s parts business runs very well. “We get calls from people wanting to replace parts on their grandfather’s boat built in the 1960s,” says Potter. “It’s good and bad, because you don’t get a chance to replace the boats as quickly as you might want.”

A place to hang your hat

Within the company, relationships last just as long. The average tenure of MBG employees is about 20 years. Scott Morris is a typical example, having worked his way up from the assembly line through painting to supervisory positions.

“When I came to work for Grumman, I was just looking for a place to hang my hat until I found out what I wanted to do,” he says. “Thirty-five years later, I’m still doing it, so I guess I found my place. There’s a great family atmosphere. Even when we had 100 people, when one person was down, the rest of them would rally around. This really made me feel good working for this company.”

A second shot at fame

And so, looking back on over 60 years of successfully building boats as a family, Potter has no plans to, well, rock the boat. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says. “We’re just trying to expand our markets, keep things going.”

Maybe a tried and true strategy will come in handy: Morris recently signed off on a deal with the Discovery Channel to have a DuraNautic boat appear on the TV show “Behring Sea Gold.”

“I’m hoping that that show will do for us what ‘Deliverance’ did for the canoe business,” says Morris. “It’s just unvelievable what that movie did for us.”

Grumman Finger Lakes Boats

“Because we’re in the Finger Lakes, we thought, what better way to name our configurations,” Doug Potter told me. “Plus, the names we chose are six letters long, so they fit nicely. Sorry, Skaneateles.” Here are the MBG boats with Finger Lakes names.

Cayuga: deep-hull fishing boat suitable for bigger water
Otisco: flat-bottom jon boat for quieter waters and duck hunting
Seneca: deep, V- hulled, utility fishing boat for a big lake
Oneida: 16-foot, deep-hull boat for fishing or cruising
Owasco: 16-foot “family fun boat” for fishing, cruising and skiing; includes a lay-down sleeper seat. Like its sister boat Oneida, it can take choppy waters.

by Olivia M. Hall

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