It has been over thirty years since I had the opportunity to work at Exe Fibrecraft in the form of a spring and summer job after my second year at university. I grew up in the little farming town of Exeter Ontario nestled in some of the flattest and finest agricultural land the world has to offer. Not far - about a twenty-minute drive depending on how heavy your right foot was - the gorgeous beaches of Lake Huron stretched for almost thirty miles. At that time Exeter had a population that seemed to hover forever at 3400 souls. Whatever was manufactured there was agriculture related in the form of farm implements and plastic drainage tile.
For some time I had noticed unusual activity on the south side of town centered inside a small abandoned aircraft hangar that used to house a Stinson and a Cessna 140 that didn’t quite make it over the fence one day. The mysterious activity in this hangar had created an extension in the form of a large steel culvert-style building. Fiberglass canoes of various colors were stacked on a rack inside a fenced off area in the front, but what really caught my eye and imagination were brightly colored little sailboats of a configuration I had never seen before.
I was fascinated. So, when the school term was up, I decided to drop by and see if they were hiring students. I met the two owners, Carl and Walter and their then only employee, a decent fellow about the same age as me named Terry who had been with them from the start, (about a year.) I remember these people with great fondness. Walter, a long-time resident of Exeter, took care of sales, public relations and the business side of things while Carl was the craftsman and workaholic. Carl was an impressive individual and became a personal source of inspiration for me while Walter was a visionary entrepreneur who had the imagination to bring Carl over from Germany to build little North Sea sail boats in what was up to that point a strictly agrarian little town. Although Carl was undoubtedly the master, without Walter’s dream there would be no Nordicas in North America to sail and write about.
I immediately got hired for the princely sum of $3.00 an hour and was told to show up in old clothes the next day. Little did I know what good advice that was! For the first week I worked on laying up canoe hulls. When Carl saw that I had mastered that technique, I went on to laying up Nordica hulls. As time went on it became apparent that this was no ordinary place to work. Carl and Walter were German Canadian business partners about as similar in personality and character as oil is to water. Carl was short and wiry with curly red hair while Walter was somewhat roundish, had a small goatee, and when he went out, wore a Bavarian pork pie hat complete with feather. All that was missing was lederhosen for him to look like he just emerged from someone’s garden. Walter’s English was impeccable while Carl’s was very good, yet being just off the boat so to speak, had certain quality that was at times quite humorous within the context of a boat factory, (“I vas just sinking…”). On a typical day, things would generally start out pretty calm in the morning, but given the slings and arrows of differing personalities and work descriptions, by the end of the day Carl and Walter would be yelling at each other at the top of their lungs in their native German. For my part as an English speaking Canadian having been raised on a diet of really bad war movies, this gave the job a certain international/historical flavor.
Now the Nordica was different than most other fiberglass sailboats in that it had a hand lay-up hull as opposed to a hull spray laid with a chopper gun. Hand lay-ups are superior in that woven fiberglass cloth is used thereby giving the hull maximum strength as opposed to the random blown in glass fibers of the chopper gun. It was the same process used in building the first composite homebuilt airplanes, the KR 1 and KR2. In the case of the homebuilt 1-off airplane, the wing mold was urethane foam carefully hand shaped into an airfoil and left inside fastened to the wing spars. The one layer fiberglass lay-up was then applied to the foam in much the same way as the Nordica's hull was laid up on its mold, the only difference being that the Nordica's hull had two layers of cloth with a layer of matt in between as well as a large patch of matting on the bottom as a thickener.
The molds for the Nordica were in two sections mounted on a 45-degree angle. They were beautifully made, and their black glossy surface we kept polished with mold wax. You never, ever touched that mold with your fingers or laid your hand on it because the resulting contamination would adversely affect the casting's extraction, or show up in the gel coat.
When I worked there, there were two sets of Nordica hull molds. Each night Carl would apply the water line, then a different color of gel coat (the hull color) onto the molds so that both would be ready first thing in the morning.
The actual lay-up went as follows: We went over to a stack of Colonel Sanders Kentucky fried chicken containers - the large ones with the Colonel’s mug shot on them (2 gallons), then over to the 50 gallon barrel of fiberglass resin by the entry door. After filling the bucket, hardener was judiciously added. You didn't want to put too much in because the whole bucket would begin to kick off too soon and even catch fire from the heat generated by the reaction. If it was a hot day, the resin required less hardener than on a cold day, so that took a little bit of intuitive skill to master. Needless to say, if one didn't put enough hardener in, the resin wouldn't set quickly enough and the whole hull production would have to wait until it did.
Now, as mentioned, the hull molds were in halves and mounted on an angle. After the resin buckets were thoroughly stirred with "Always, always a new stir stick!" the resin was liberally brushed onto the set gel coat surface. This ensured that you at least got some resin on your fingers even though you didn't touch the mold. I swear the stuff had a habit of crawling up the handle of the brush aided by the fact that you didn't exactly take your time brushing it on because as careful as you were on putting hardener into the resin, you didn’t really know when it would start to kick off. So the resin was slopped on and it was imperative to get a layer over the whole mold. This was a two-person operation on the little 16-foot mold (the only size of Nordica they made there at the time.) The next phase of operation was that the two of us would go over to the roll of fiberglass cloth and with our resoned hands (no gloves) pull off about 19', cut it with shears, and carefully walk over to the mold and gently lay it in the resin.
Now the work began. First the cloth was dabbed down into the resin with paintbrushes. Once this was done to maximum completion, small wallpaper rollers were used to fully impregnate the cloth with resin and roll out the excess as well as inevitable bubbles caught under the cloth. This really got your hands coated. In your other hand you had a small paintbrush for dabbing out any of the more stubborn air bubbles that the roller couldn't get. After a certain point in time, the resin began to kick off making any last bubbles all the more imperative to get out. Of course, as anybody who has ever worked with fiberglass resin knows, once it starts to kick off, its pretty much made up its mind that that's the way things are going to be and you'd have to cut the bubble with a sharp knife and get some resin into it with a brush or else you've got a blister under the gel coat. This form of lay-up had three problems. The first was blisters, and the second was labor intensity and the third was finding people to work in extremely poor conditions with minimum pay and still give a damn about the job they were doing (working out bubbles so that blisters would not appear). The plus side was that the customer got a superior hull in that it was stronger than most other sailboats made with a different technique and much lighter where you didn’t want a lot of weight (ballast should be in the keel!)
However, working within arm's reach of a hull mold covered in wet fiberglass resin was not a pleasant experience. The fumes were eye-watering at times. Body heat covered with wet resin would accelerate the hardening process between your fingers and both roller and paint brush handle making them difficult to put down, or get rid of for that matter. And you couldn't stop until all the bubbles were out. Edge separation along the perimeter of the mold was especially trying in that the weight of the wet cloth tended to pull away from the mold, so you usually were working down to the last minute before the resin kicked off. You could usually tell when it was going to kick off because the brush and roller had just recently welded to your warm fingers slightly ahead of the rate of reaction on the hull.
Just after the resin had began to kick off and was almost hard, the cloth was trimmed off the mold’s edge with a carpet knife. Great care and timing were essential in that if you tried to trim it too soon the cloth would separate from the mold. If you waited until too late, it was living hell to cut the stuff, and the glass cloth combined with hardened resin produced a serrated edge as sharp as any steak knife. Cutting your hand or fingers was not uncommon - in fact you sort of got used to it and didn't notice the smaller cuts until you went over to the bucket of acetone hoping for relief in getting the caked matt and sticky semi-hardened resin off your hand and out from between your fingers. Putting your hand into the acetone bucket sent you through the roof as every little cut filled with "finger nail polish remover". Acetone filled cuts are an experience like no other. Little chance of falling asleep during that experience!
After the resin had set after the first lay-up, its surface was roughed up with sandpaper. Any slight anomaly from a smooth surface would cause a bubble on the next lay-up so everything had to be meticulously hand sanded, being careful not to sand into the cloth fibers thereby weakening the lay-up. After this was done the whole process was repeated with a fresh batch of resin and a layer of matt. This was the worst stuff to work with because when you went over to the roll with your encrusted and adhesive fingers, it tended to come apart and stick to them. The matt was really a random matrix of microscopically narrow and long glass shards flattened into a sheet. Although this was easier to lay-up than the cloth, its generosity in spreading itself onto you and your clothes made it a material from hell. After the mid layer of matt was trimmed, had hardened and been sanded, a final layer of cloth was laid up and the whole process repeated.
After both halves of the hull were all laid up and cured, they were ready to be separated from the mold. This Carl would do with and air of casualness born of doing it over a thousand times. With cigarette in mouth he'd start with carefully getting his knife under the upper lip of the lay-up then walk the length of the mold taking the knife with him. We would all gently work the lay-up loose (usually it would pop off the mold), then carefully carry it into the assembly room where Carl would join the halves together and add into the keel large steel scraps weighed on a scale from a farm machinery company. He would then pour a bucket of resin into the deep V of the long keel to transfix them. With all that jagged steel imbedded in fiberglass resin, the keels of those little boats were like closed Swiss Army Knives!
Of course, resin got all over you and the whole process resulted over time in your pants being laid-up over your lower extremities to the point where they became form fitting body armor. When you went home after a long day's work, part of it came with you in the form of microscopic glass shards imbedded in your skin. This made sleeping a less-than-comfortable experience, no matter how many baths you took. However, after time, you got used to it and it bothered you less. The worst scenario during a lay-up, (especially at the matt stage), was having to take a pee. Besides the handling and re-packing problems, your fly tended to be welded shut.
Those were the days before the long overdue mushrooming of personal health safety at the work place. Nobody wore a mask, there was no ventilation except an open door and you sanded fiberglass by hand (again with no mask). Carl put in long hours hands-on, a cigarette in his mouth (of course, you had to watch lit cigarettes near the acetone unless you wanted your head blown off. I was lucky because I’d didn’t smoke!). Carl was the one who went inside the little cabin of the Nordica after the deck was laid on the hull to sand by hand all the rough spots off the ceiling and walls then brush on white gel coat. Such a cramped space with all that glass fiber floating around and no mask! He would come out of the cabin and ask us in his German accent, "Do I have any gel coat in my hairs?" and wonder why we were fighting back laughter.
Footwear was really interesting. I started off with an old pair of flexible sneakers and by the end of my tenure at Exe Fibrecraft they had practically doubled in size and weight. I had long since given up lacing them because the laces were welded together and instead put them on like slippers. I remember thinking that Boris Karloff would feel really at home in them. When I first started at the end of the university term it was late April and not that warm outside. However, during the summer the temperature would rise to the high 80's in the shop and what with the fumes and all, it was living hell. When things got out of hand in that regard, Walter would open the fridge that was always within arm's reach of his fiberglass office furniture and thereby unveil a couple of cases of Molson’s Canadian. When we had finished up a lay-up, he'd call production off, and we'd drink free beer instead. That was a nice touch that I never experienced anywhere else.
The little Nordica was an unusual boat born of a building process that had its labor-intensive basis in post war Germany (the place where fiberglass was invented in the 1940’s). It was the old school of fiberglass boat building that became less and less cost effective as labor costs increased. Its hand lay-ups required lots of rolling and dabbing with the possibility of the odd blister under the gel coat. This process also required a split hull mold producing hull halves that had to be joined. A spray type lay-up found in most fiberglass hulls removed the possibility of bubbles and blisters and the necessity of making a hull in two halves with subsequent joining. However, the resultant hand laid hull was stronger (by virtue of the cloth's lattice) and lighter since the resin was hand worked into the cloth thus reducing the amount used - something a chopper gun could not regulate nearly as well. Furthermore, the hull had to be made in halves because it was impossible to do the hand lay-up inside a one-piece hull mold. Cloth could not be employed in a one-piece mold because it couldn’t negotiate the internal contours of the keel without lifting up and forming massive blisters and pockets. So, you might complain about the blisters found on a Nordica, but you have to realize that their presence was because the hull and deck were hand-laid and superior in the strength versus weight category. It was a very expensive and time-consuming way to make a fiberglass boat.
1974 was the beginning of an interesting time. Labor costs were at the end of a period of relative stability that had lasted since the end of the Second World War. After this point they escalated. As an indicator, almost anything of hand crafted intensity quadrupled in price within a decade. By the end of the decade Exe Fibrecraft moved away from Exeter. I had heard that they were in search of a place to set up shop with lower wage expectations. However, this was also the time when Canadian interest rates were pushing 20% on some business loans, and if Exe was in the process of building a new 30 foot design using the hand lay-up technique from a recently constructed plug and molds (the major up-front investment in fiberglass boat building), it would have been very difficult for them to stay ahead of the game, (in fact, as it turned out in the boat building industry, it proved pretty hard for anybody to stay ahead of the game.)
As far as hull lay-ups went, I imagine the Nordica 16 was about as much work as a Nordica 20, and not that much less work than a Nordica 30. It made more sense to build bigger boats with their greater price – more cost effective. However, given their intensity of labor, all Exe boats were under priced in order to compete. They were really expensive little boats to make and I feel a strong degree of sadness that the company went under. But what a great little boat the Nordica was! A Tupperware Norse Knarr with a cabin and Marconi rig. Nothing like it in the water (around these parts at least) and as sea worthy as they come!
I guess that summer long ago I developed a love affair with the little boat – so much so that I bought one last summer – and had a most wonderful time sailing it around Georgian Bay.…………But that’s another story.