One of the oldest manufacturers of canoes and kayaks in the state, Freeport-based Lincoln Canoe and Kayak has been churning out its distinctive brand of handmade boats since 1959.
Lincoln's products have come a long way since the company was founded by two college students inspired by a summer spent lugging an 80-pound aluminum canoe through the Canadian wilderness. The company's products now have a reputation for sleek design and light construction developed over the last 53 years, even as the company changed hands.
But current co-owner Marc Bourgoin was not content to let it rest on its laurels. "At Lincoln, we're all about our brand, and there is a lot of equity in that brand, but our dealer base needed to see that we are committed to improving that brand," he says.
While the "handcrafted" superlative was part of Lincoln's history, it was not part of Bourgoin's vision for the future. Rather, he saw a need for modern manufacturing techniques that he fulfilled by tapping a cadre of young boatbuilders in southern Maine and offering his production facility as a learning lab. Today, as a result of that partnership, Lincoln Canoe and Kayak has doubled its wholesale business over 2011, and can hardly keep the boats — which range in price from $899 to $3,799 — on the showroom floor.
"All the signs are for a healthy year ahead and everything we've built so far has sold, which is a problem," he says. "Right now we're building to order."
The partnership sprang from Bourgoin's growing concern over the viability of making kayaks and canoes by hand.
"Up until we bought the company, everything had been hand-designed, hand-lofted, hand-shaped. We have a reputation for being somewhat old- school," says Bourgoin. "That's a cool way of doing it, but it can be faster, cleaner and more precise if you incorporate modern technologies. It streamlines the whole process and the end result tends to be better."
Much like Lincoln's founders, who embraced emerging technologies such as fiberglass, Bourgoin looked to modern manufacturing practices like computer-aided design and advanced composites to solidify Lincoln's reputation as an industry leader, while demonstrating a commitment to steadily improving the product. But he was hampered by Lincoln's economic and technological reality. "We didn't have the resources to invest in any new technology like CAD or the knowledge to work with that kind of stuff," says Bourgoin.
But he found people who did. Knowing that he wanted the technology to create a new, advanced kayak mold, Bourgoin approached The Landing School, the world-renowned boatbuilding institution based in Arundel. With programs in wooden and composite boats, yacht design and marine systems, The Landing School prepares students for careers in maritime construction and other industries, such a aerospace and energy, that use similar construction techniques.
Described as a "school wrapped around a boatbuilding shop" by Director of Education Ken Rusinek, The Landing School builds curricula around technology like CAD programs and cutting-edge composites processes. Bourgoin approached Rusinek with a simple pitch: Using the school's facilities and expertise, help Lincoln improve its kayak molds and in exchange, composite students will have a chance to work on a market-ready product. "This [partnership] brought us into 21st century, so to speak," says Bourgoin.
In 2011, the first year of the partnership, Landing School students helped Bourgoin revamp two classic molds and collaborated on the design of an entirely new kayak model, the Seguin. This year, the school produced two tandem kayaks, four Seguin model kayaks and three canoes for Lincoln. "Two of [those] were very high-end carbon fiber with clear coat hulls," says Bourgoin. "That's something we probably couldn't have done on our own."
And the new boats were a bargain, relatively speaking. Bourgoin paid $40,000 in design fees for the three new models — a fraction of what it would normally cost thanks to the The Landing School's CAD capabilities and access to cheaper labor.
The partnership is a two-way street, according to Rusinek. Recognizing an opportunity to expose students to the demands of today's boatbuilding market and defray the school's own materials carrying costs, the education director was eager to join forces with Lincoln. "They are buying all the materials and finding the customers," says Rusinek.
During each 10-week semester, Landing School students, whose average age is 27, produce wooden boats and composite craft, which are then sold by the school. In teaming up with Lincoln, Rusinek says the school is able to focus more on its core mission: preparing students for careers in the marine construction industry.
"Our primary focus is education, and the boats we produce are just byproducts of that educational process," says Rusinek. "We're not in the business of selling boats, so with our relationship with Lincoln, we can get rid of that messy part of it."
The composites program is the newest educational track at the school, founded five years ago in response to a growing industry trend of using materials like carbon fiber, Kevlar and pre-impregnated composites. "We started the program because composites were becoming such a prominent material in boat making," says Rusinek.
Increasingly used in a range of construction and manufacturing processes, composites skills honed at The Landing School can easily be transferred to other industries, according to Rusinek. The school's composites lab features an oven specifically designed to handle the baking of pre-impregnated composite materials, a costly process that is quickly becoming the industry standard in higher-end watercraft.
"The composites program probably has the greatest crossover; it's a fairly new field being used in everything from wind [turbines] to the new Boeing Dreamliner," Rusinek says. "The students' training prepares them not only for careers in boatbuilding, but in the aerospace and construction industries as well — it has applications far beyond the marine industry."
By working with Lincoln, Landing School students get hands-on experience designing and working with high-grade materials and are exposed to a taste of the real-world applications of their classroom skills. "It proves to them that they are entering a viable career path. They realize that mold that they made is really getting used to build boats," says Rusinek.
The partnership elevates the work done by composites students from an abstract, educational exercise to a make-or-break project complete with strict deadlines. "The first three kayaks [produced for Lincoln] were going to Europe, so there was this reality; these need to be done by this day because they are going on a container ship to Europe, it's not just an arbitrary deadline from an instructor," says Rusinek.
The composites program positions students to play a role in one of the state's best growth industries, notes Bourgoin. "Composites have a lot of potential in the state of Maine. Tourism is one the rise and we're building something that has an immediate application. The paddlesports industry in Maine is viable, and this is a rare opportunity for students to play a hand in the development of a growing business," Bourgoin says.
The partnership offers some ancillary benefits to Lincoln as well. Ever mindful of growing the brand, Bourgoin sees an affiliation with The Landing School as a marketing tool for Lincoln. "If there was any way to be affiliated with that program, it would potentially benefit our brand and could increase our exposure," he says.
"It made for a nice story when we were talking to potential dealers and customers to say, 'We collaborated with a world-renowned marine trade program and they are doing a lot of our design work,'" says Bourgoin. "It also reflects our commitment to keeping as much work in the state as we can."
The new products created by the partnership have been popular, says Bourgoin, in part because of their back story and because they are remarkable kayaks and canoes. He says they have helped him double both his orders and dealer base (from six dealers to 12) in one year, creating a bigger retail footprint for his company, which used to rely primarily on Internet orders and foot traffic into its Freeport store. The company has also recently established relationships with dealers in New York and Germany.
Similarly, working with Lincoln has helped The Landing School by defusing some tension within the Maine boat-building industry. "Occasionally we'll have companies that build boats for profit who feel that the boats we build provide unfair competition because our labor [the students] are paying us," says Rusinek. "The partnership with Lincoln has calmed some of this.
"The nice thing about working with Lincoln is that it allows us to build boats to train students without being seen as competitors," he adds. "We're working with a builder to improve their business rather than being seen as another threat."
Bourgoin would like to see the partnership continue, citing the student's ability to meet the market's high standards and consistently turn out showroom-ready watercraft. "We'll run with it as long as we can," he says
Chris Audy, a former Landing School student who returned in 2005 to help launch the composites program, lauds the partnership's benefits to the students who have toured Lincoln's Freeport workshop several times since it began. "[Lincoln] took a huge risk and opened their doors right up, exposing any trade secrets they might have," Audy says.
Helping to modernize the practices of an established manufacturer was a unique opportunity for Landing School students, he says. "We built a bunch of new tooling for them and hopefully Lincoln will take the stuff we helped work through and put it back into their business so they can be more streamlined," he says.
"It's a great synergetic effort — a small Maine business and an educational institution helping each other out," says Rusinek.