You’re walking the docks enjoying a balmy day at the 2002 Fort Lauderdale Boat Show, and thinking a little refuge from the sun and humidity would be nice. It appears in the shade of an imposingly large yacht’s bow, and you can’t help but notice its modern yet classic lines. Your eyes don’t lie; this could only be a Grand Banks — the first of the Aleutian Class 64, GB’s first, totally new raised-pilothouse-style yacht since the long-extinct wooden Alaskan series.
Fexas de Force
Bearing just enough family resemblance to the Robert Dorris designed 45- to 55-foot Alaskans built from 1967 until 1973, Naval architect Tom Fexas’ Aleutian class stakes out new territory in the marriage of classic and modern lines. From Fexas’ trademark flowing flybridge to the pleasing home of the stern and integrated platform, but nothing particularly derivative of previous raised-pilothouse yachts by Monk or DeFever, except for perhaps the Aleutian’s remarkably balanced cabin and sheer line proportions. The Aleutian’s breathtaking lines hint that Tom Fexas is also blessed with the same eye for style and elegance as William Garden.
Forty years of boat building have proven Grand Banks’ track record in choosing brilliant naval architects and designs, although a few models, including the long lamented Alaskans and barely lamented Lagunas, succumbed to economic upheavals along the way.
The Inside Story
The roots of American Marine Ltd., which is now Grand Banks Yachts, roots go back to the late 1950s when Robert Newton, with sons John and Whit, began building custom boats in Hong Kong. American Marine’s sail and power designs from Sparkman and Stevens, William Garden, Angleman and Davis, Eldridge McInnes, Nat Herreshoff, Ray Hunt quickly established the company as a quality builder.
In 1962, Naval architect Ken Smith designed “Spray,” a 36-foot cruising boat and forerunner of the classic Grand Banks. “Spray” was launched in 1963, which was the same year American Marine stopped building custom boats to concentrate on the now legendary 32- to 66-foot Grand Banks classic fleet. By 1969, American Marine outgrew the Hong Kong yard and added a factory in Singapore, doubling their capacity with the new fiberglass GB32, 36 and 42 models. Hong Kong continued to build the other models in wood, including the Alaskans.
By the early 1970s, the company was in a frenzy of acquisitions and alliances, buying up marinas and dealerships, getting into the engine marinizing business with John Deere and ultimately selling over two thirds of its production at 33 worldwide dealerships. In hopes of further expanding the booming business, a powerful and stylish 33-foot sportfisher, the Laguna 10 meter, was added to the line, and followed in 1971 by the 38-foot Laguna 11.5 meter. Unfortunately, the popular 30-knot boats faced an early demise.
As the Arab oil embargo quadrupled fuel prices, gas lines were born, talk spread of a boating ban on weekends and the world’s economy dropped into low gear. The thirsty Lagunas vanished. And as boat sales slowed, American Marine found itself facing bankruptcy.
Rescued and Revived
Encouraged by steady sales of the fuel-efficient, traditional Grand Banks line, Bob Livingston and a group of investors took control of the company in 1975. The Hong Kong plant was closed, thus ending wooden boat building, as the new management dissolved alliances and divested itself of all outside properties as it began painfully downsizing back to profitability. Since then, American Marine’s business blossomed and a new factory was added in Malaysia. Many of the new managers remain at the two factories.
Banks’ customers, perhaps the most loyal owners in the world, often trade up to larger Grand Banks. This built-in, self-sustaining quality seems good for larger boat sales but could, unfortunately, cannibalize the smaller models. More than 1,130 GB36s and more than 1,400 GB42s have been built. Production of GB32s ceased due to high costs after 861 were built. In 1998, GB36s went out of production for 18 months while the factory made improvements and streamlined processes to make the line profitable.
As buyers demanded more speed, subtle changes and larger engines have turned once slow and thrifty classic GBs into 20-knot boats. American Marine resurrected the 30-knot express cruiser in 1993, with the introduction of the Ray Hunt-designed Eastbay powered by a pair of large Cat diesels. Hot on the heels of the wildly popular Eastbay 38, the Eastbay 43-foot and 49-foot models paved the way for the current, fast-growing East Coast-style picnic-boat and lobster-boat crazes.
Grand Banks Today
Today, between Eastbay and GB classics, Grand Banks Yachts annually builds about 90 boats, with a waiting list close to a year. Eastbays fill the demand for fast, stylish, superbly built express cruisers while GB classics remain the gold standard in true value and quality. But the demand for Grand Banks quality in a rugged raised-pilothouse blue-water cruiser has always posed a dilemma: to buy another brand or to buy a GB classic model. The new Aleutian class ends that dilemma, at least for buyers who happen to find a 64-footer just the right size. Barely a month after the Aleutian class was unveiled to Grand Banks dealers, the first 10 had been ordered. It’s probably a safe bet that with the Aleutian class, Grand Banks has hit another home run.