KENNEBUNKPORT – I am not sure what the average duration of time is for someone to work at a specific place. This is not the owner, but an employee. I am inclined to think that it is probably around 20 to 25 years, so for someone to pass the 30-year mark is quite an accomplishment. This accomplishment is probably derived from a love of what they do and a commitment to what they turn out.
Back in February we gathered at The Landing School in Kennebunkport to honor Jamie Houtz for his 30-year tenure at the school. During those 30 years the School has gone through some amazing changes, the original building is gone and instructors and staff have come and gone. Jamie fondly remembered the original building known as the barn, because that was what it was. He said, “The barn, which was the dairy barn initially that John (Burgess) and Cricket (Clark) had purchased from Charlie Bassett. There was still hay up in the loft in different places. We used to laugh all the time as to why it didn’t burn down. There was also a trailer that the yacht design was in and then there was an add-on to that for an administrative office. The barn had the shop which had an L on it which was another shop. The thickness planer was outside in its own garage because it made so much noise. There were a couple lumber sheds. The barn also had two offices in the front of the building and two more offices, which is where Cy Hamlin’s office was.”
Jamie arrived in 1990 and began learning to be a boat builder/instructor. He had never formally gone to any school for boatbuilding, but certainly had the experience. He explained, “I grew up in West ‘By God’ Virginia with the coal fields. My Dad’s side of the family were coal miner and coal mining engineers and my mother’s side were coal miners, electricians, diggers and equipment operators. My mom decided that her boys were not going to be coal miners. When I was 13 and my brother was 10, we moved to the suburbs of Pittsburgh. I went to high school in Pittsburgh, graduated in 1970 and was ready to go as far away from my family as I could possibly get. I had two places I wanted to go to school at, either Washington State or Florida. My mom had an old family friend from West Virginia that lived in Melbourne and she said we are going to go down there and look at a school. We landed in Melbourne and I walked out of the plane down the stairway and onto the tarmac smelled Florida and was like I don’t need to go to Washington. I applied and was accepted to FIT (Florida Institute of Technology) in Melbourne. When I went back in September, they had moved that branch of the school to Cocoa Beach. It was just across the street from the Cocoa Beach Pier and the ocean so it was a little distracting trying to go to classes to say the least.
“It was my first exposure to boats,” said Jamie. “It was a very practical education. You definitely had classroom and you had to do your identifications of species, do all the science, you had to know the calculus, the statistics, but you also spent a lot of time doing testing on boats. We would go out of Cape Canaveral where the Navy was and it was just like being in Heaven. I learned how to go surfing. I already knew how to go scuba diving, but I got re-certified. I did underwater welding. It was just too much fun. I was there a year and a half and the family, certain things got worse, and they ended up back in West Virginia. I went back to West Virginia for about six months. Then I came back to FIT and it had moved again, this time it was in Jensen Beach, Florida. I continued going to school to finish up. I wasn’t looking for any special thing, I just wanted to do all this cool stuff that I was learning.
I was looking for a part-time job so I went to some restaurants to asked them and I just happened to see, of all things, a boat yard, Lydia Yachts in Stuart and the guy gave me a job,” continued Jamie. “He said if you come back with these tools, he gave me a little list of about 10 tools, I will give you a job. I came back a couple days later with a box of things. I really wasn’t sure what they were exactly. He said, ‘Great, just cut your hair and we will be all set.’ That wasn’t part of the bargain, so I walked out. Before I got back to the car, he stuck his head back out of a window and said, ‘I was just kidding, I just wanted to see what you would do.’ Needless to say, he understood more than I did at the time because this was a part-time job. It didn’t take long for me to start cutting my hair when the glue got in it.”
Lydia Yachts owned by Stearns, who does the lifejackets. At the time Lydia Yachts was building cold-moulded 46, 52s, and 65 head boats.
Jamie’s first job was cleaning and his second was grinding. He would take an 8-inch grinder with a 15-grit pad and remove the excess glue that the planking crew left. He was still in school at the time and since Jacques Cousteau was not hiring, he went back to Lydia Yachts for another year and a half. He then went work for a number of other builders, such as Whitaker and Rybovich, mostly working on wooden boats. He then got a job to redo the interior of the Herrehsoff New York 40 NAUTILUS, which took about a year and half to complete. He then went to work for Merrill-Stevens in Miami. Jamie explained, “I was having so much fun. My part-time job of boatbuilding, now this was my full-time job. I was learning more about sailboats and a couple of really good carpenters mentored me. They taught me a lot of really interesting little tricks. I was sailing up and down and all-around Florida. I had the opportunity to come to New England in 1979. Miami didn’t seem like the place to settle down so came up to New England and the first job that I got was working for Salt in Herb Baum’s boatyard (Kennebunkport). I made absolute enemies with John Burgess, the founder of The Landing School the second week I was in town. I came over here, John didn’t know me from Adam and I introduced myself and I said, “John, I am Jamie Houtz and I am living in town and I am working for Pam Wood teaching boatbuilding to Salt students. Before I could finish the sentence, he was like, “You need to get out of here.” And I had no idea what I had stepped into. John worked for Herb Baum and wanted to buy Herb Baum’s shop for The Landing School. For some reason, Pam Wood who was the owner of Salt, got the yard so John looked at me like a spy.”
Jamie worked for Salt for a time and then went to work at Arundel Shipyard for Arthur Brunzie in Kennebunkport. He added, “I got introduced to a guy who would never consider himself a mentor, he was saltier than salt in the sense that he had a hammer in his back pocket. I think it was the first thing he put in his pants once he put his pants on and it was the last thing he took out. Byron Swett sort of took me under his wing and I started being allowed, I already could work on sailboats, nobody really cared because this is a lobstering town and through him I was allowed to work on lobster boats. There was quite a fleet of wooden boats that were indigenous to the port and the owners of those boats, were very picky about who did what on their boat. It was so funny, we had a small travelift, 15 ton, and it was perpendicular to the river and the lobstermen would, as much as they knew their boat when it comes to tight quarters and docks and things like that, they are a little skittish. They would leave their boat at the dock and they would say you haul it out and call me and when I’m done you can launch her and once you’ve got her in the water, call me I will come get her. In order to haul it you had to do a 90 degree turn into the river and the river sometimes is running 4 to 6 knots. Byron slowly let me drive the boats and it became so addictive. It was like oh my God, these boats drive themselves. I realized every one of these boats had its own little feel to it and they have got a certain way.”
Jamie even spent three years lobster with Byron on his 27-foot CHARLENE.
While at Arundel Shipyard they took care of Cricket’s sailboat MERGANSER. John through her slowly warmed to Jamie. “I didn’t really come to the School much during that time,” said Jamie. “I was not enthralled. I admired certain parts of their work but I did not admire the fact that they would come to launch their boats unprepared. There were no cleats, the paint was still wet. They were giddy that the boat was even going to get launched and I am looking at it from the other side like this is not done yet. Never ran the engine, never put the sails up. Sometimes they would use the Travelift at Arundel Shipyard and I did one launching for them and the boats leaked like a sieve. I told Arthur, I am done with this, you can find someone else to do this. If I am not lobstering or I am not doing something to make extra money, this was a pain in my ass. I admired what they did but I didn’t admire all of the antics that kind of came with it. When John called me up, he said, I’d like somebody to come and help supervise but also build. I said, ‘you guys build things that I don’t know how to build. He and I had a long conversation and I spilled out my view at that time. The big selling point was they had just got accredited and they were only going to run for 10 months and you get two months off “paid.” I was an instructor but I was also in charge of being sure there was a schedule.”
“We graduated a lot of incredible people and they are still coming,” added Jamie. “The School is sort of a vehicle. We promise you that you are going to get additional knowledge and you are going to be allowed to practice you skills and we are not going to put any boundaries on how far you want to take that. We certainly are going to have some expectations and we would like you to do it a certain way but we are pretty creative. They are clients. They pay us a considerable amount of money and I have always felt like our job is to honor our clients and to be sure we understand that they are paying us, that we are in a service business to guarantee that they get what they pay for and they are all unique individuals and you can’t cookie cutter any of that. I think in the 30 years I have done this, the one thing that is consistent is we offer an incredible environment for young, more or less, people to have an experience that they have never had around boats.”
So how much longer will Jamie stay, he says he does not see retiring in the near future. He loves the school and the boating industry as a whole. He concluded, “I can’t tell you how many good friends I have that came because of this industry. It’s absolutely fabulous. I am blessed with that. It doesn’t always work that way that you end up in a career by accident that ends up to be so rewarding in so money different ways. It’s amazing.”