The quiet black waters of the Tuckahoe River in southern New Jersey seem worlds away from the deep-sea fishing grounds of the Atlantic Ocean and the metropolitan waterways of the Hudson River.
The rural landscape invites kayakers and bird watchers who are often startled to see a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat, ferry or a dinner cruiser threading its way upriver from the ocean a few miles east.
The vessels are all headed to Yank Marine Inc., a shipbuilding and repair facility that began as the dream of a young man over 40 years ago. It has grown to become the busiest yard in the state, where thousands of private yachts, commercial and fishing craft, military vessels and Coast Guard-certified passenger vessels have been built and repaired. The yard has become so busy that a second facility is now under development.
John Yank Jr. first started working around boats when he was an eighth grader in the tiny village of Tuckahoe, N.J. Yank soon knew that boatbuilding would be his future. He went to work at nearby Egg Harbor Yachts building hulls for the exclusive fishing boat builder. He stayed for 15 years and learned every job at the yard.
In the late 1960s, Yank decided to go out on his own. He bought seven acres on the riverfront and went about constructing a 600-ton railway. “I didn't have enough money to buy all the materials at once so I would take my truck and buy a few railroad ties at a time,” Yank recalled with a chuckle. He had two employees at the nascent yard and no income to pay them. “So, for quite a while, I worked as a carpenter on a housing development project in Ocean City 20 minutes from here, and each week I’d split my paycheck three ways.”
Yank said that he initially intended to build “pot boats” that were used by the local commercial fishing fleet to pull lobster pots. After the railway was complete Yank began building headboats, a staple of the Jersey shore recreational fishing scene. The boats, also known as party boats or drift boats, take large fishing parties each “paying by the head” on half-day fishing trips in the coastal bays.
Yank transitioned to fiberglass in the late 1970s, but Yank Marine became best known as an aluminum builder. “Once you build with wood, everything after that is much easier,” he said.
It is nearly impossible to walk the docks of a Jersey marina and not run across a Yank Marine party boat or commercial fishing vessel. Early on, repair and maintenance of the Jersey commercial fishing fleet augmented the yard’s newbuild projects.
In order to service the growing demand, Yank added a 200-ton Marine Travelift boat hoist to the yard in 2001. Payroll has grown from the original three employees to 60 today. The yard’s footprint has also grown and now sits on a 30-acre site on the Tuckahoe River in Cape May County. Yank Marine’s docking facilities include seven berthing areas from 65' to 100' in length and there is 18,000-sq.-ft. of enclosed building space that can handle vessels up to 150'.
The yard maintains a mix of repair and newbuild work through a diverse customer base. The project board on a recent day read like a catalogue of steel and aluminum workboats: a pilot boat was in for repairs, there was a dredge repair and assembly, a research vessel conversion to an expedition yacht was underway, and a headboat, small tug, dinner cruise boat and a commercial fishing dragger were all in for repair and maintenance. There was also a newbuild fishing boat bound for Hong Kong under construction.
NEW FERRIES, NEW LIFT
Meanwhile, two 400-passenger ferries are under construction for NY Waterway. The $10.4 million contract that was awarded to Yank Marine late last year brought national attention to a yard that has mainly relied upon word of mouth for new business. It’s reportedly the first ferries built in the Garden State by NY Waterway since the Weehawken, N.J.-based ferry service began operations in 1986.
The 110' ferries will carry commuters between Belford, N.J., and Manhattan. Most of the NY Waterway fleet is waterjet powered, but the new ferries will use traditional props turned by Caterpillar 3512 C Tier 3 diesels, providing more fuel efficiency. Yank Marine has repowered 10 passenger vessels for NY Waterway and has handled repair and maintenance on its entire fleet. The first new ferry, the Molly Pitcher, is scheduled to enter service early next year. The second ferry is set for a third quarter 2015 delivery.
Aaron Duffy, project manager for the ferries said that the yard is using waterjet cutting technology on this project for the first time. “It cuts so cleanly it is a great time-saving system," said Duffy.
Mike LeMole of LeMole Naval Architecture designed the ferries. His office is on Yank Marine property and much of his work is on Yank projects. Being on site is a big benefit with large projects like the ferries. “It is good to keep my nose in the project and be available to answer questions as they arise,” LeMole said.
The diversity of the projects at Yank Marine keeps him interested. “It keeps you on your toes around here because the projects are always different. These guys have a willingness to try anything,” said LeMole.
The ferries are shifted around with a 300-ton Marine Travelift boat hoist that Yank obtained in 2012. John Yank’s wife and marketing manager, Bette Jean, came onboard in 2005 and assisted in applying for and obtaining a $962,000 grant from the Maritime Administration’s Small Shipyard Grants Program to acquire the lift. The yard already operates a 200-ton lift and the original 60-ton lift that John Yank purchased in the 1970s.
The new lift was needed to help the yard grow. “It is clear that the business is here to support an expansion,” said Bette Jean Yank.
The constraints of the Tuckahoe River location include shallow depths and four bridges downstream of the yard. So Yank purchased six acres on the Maurice River in Dorchester, a historical shipbuilding community in Cumberland County, N.J. The Dorchester yard, Yank Marine Services LLC, offers unimpeded access to Delaware Bay. The existing 200-ton boat lift will be relocated to Dorchester. Once the lift is placed into operation there, it will create up to 35 jobs, the company said. It will allow Yank Marine to service larger commercial vessels that are now forced to travel to shipyards located in either Virginia or Massachusetts for service and repair.
The Yanks are currently negotiating with local bankers to secure financing to build the infrastructure that will allow them to relocate the 200-ton boat hoist from Tuckahoe to Dorchester. “The goal is to create the necessary infrastructure and then purchase a 600-ton lift,” said Bette Jean Yank. “There is most definitively a demonstrated need for a heavy lift.”
When the expansion is complete, Yank Marine will have the only large capacity lift between New York and Norfolk, Va. Scott Buck, manager at the Dorchester yard, also runs Yank Marine affiliate Jersey Diesel, a dealer for most major workboat engines and generators.
“Our customers are lined up and we anticipate being busy from day one,” Buck said. Buck and Yank anticipate beginning work on the infrastructure project in early 2015.
Back in Tuckahoe, John Yank has passed his passion for boatbuilding on to his son John III. As the business has expanded, Yank has had to delegate some of his responsibilities to the younger generation, but he remains passionate about the business he created.
“I just love building and working on boats. Most days it’s hard for me to leave.”