News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, October 10, 2013
Local boat builders seek to create new market in Korea

by Rich Hewitt

Maine Classic Boats, a Brooklin-based cooperative representing several Hancock County boat builders, is working with South Korean trade officials to develop a leisure boating economy in that country that could boost sales of locally built boats there.

A visit to Brooklin last month by two trade representatives from the Jeollanam Province on the southern tip of South Korea has moved that effort forward, and officers from Maine Classic Boats are tentatively scheduled to meet with the provincial governor next month to formally outline what MCB plans to accomplish in South Korea.

According to MCB president Erik Jacobssen, the southern coast of South Korea is the ideal spot to develop a leisure sailing culture that would benefit both the South Korean economy and the local Maine boat builders, as well as other marine-related businesses in the two regions.

South Korea is surrounded on three sides by water, the Yellow Sea to the west, the East Sea (also known as the Sea of Japan) to the east, and the East China Sea to the south. There already is a boating culture of a kind, Jacobssen said, including boat yards building large ocean-going freighters, and a strong fishing community. The only real recreation boating, he said, involves the “go-fast, faux racing boats,” that have attracted South Korea’s “go-fast” mentality. However, Jacobssen said, as the South Korean work week has shortened—the five-day work week is now law—more people are looking for a more relaxing type of boating experience.

But, it is really only on the south coast of the country—in Jeollanam Province, and particularly around the city of Yeosu—that conditions are right for the kind of leisure cruising culture and yachting village Maine Classic Boats hopes to develop.

The province is primarily rural and agricultural, and its long coastline is dotted with coves and islands.

“It’s rural and it’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s really very much like Maine, like the Maine coast of 50 or 60 years ago.”

The city of Yeosu was the site a few years ago of a World Exposition, and the government worked to upgrade the transportation to that area so that travel to the region from the larger population centers to the north is now relatively easy.

The idea, he said, is to develop a marine destination where people have a place not only to purchase their boats, but a place to keep them in the winter, moor them in the summer, buy supplies and equipment, and a place to live.

“It’s not only Maine boats,” he said. “It’s the whole idea of boating as it’s done here in Maine—creating more of a Maine maritime mystique. We want to offer something different that a certain group of people want.”

To that end, Maine Classic Boats was formed. Its members are North Brooklin Boats which Jacobssen owns, Brooklin Boat Yard, D.W. Hylan, Brion Reiff Boat Builder, all of Brooklin, Ellis Boat Company of Southwest Harbor and Stephens Waring Yacht Design in Belfast. Through their involvement, MCB will market their services and products in South Korea.

The provincial government is interested in attracting outside investment and promoting tourism in the region, according to Jacobssen, and the recent visit by representatives from the Jeollanam-do Provincial Governtment’s trade office in New York, was a key step in the developing relationship between MCB and the province. For the South Koreans, Jacobssen said, the trip was an opportunity to “check us out.” He has been to South Korea several times, including his most recent visit bringing a MCB booth to the major South Korean boat show. But, he said, they had not been to Maine.

“This was a chance for them to see if we were for real,” he said. “To see if we knew what we were talking about, if we really did know how to build boats.”

Their visit included tours of the member boat yards, including excursions on some of their boats, as well as a visit to the Mount Desert Island boating centers.

“I wanted them to see what a mature yachting community is and what it brings to a community,” he said.

The meeting with the governor of Jeollenam-do next month will be the next major step for MCB. There, they will sign a letter of intent with the provincial government that will establish a formal relationship that could lead to governmental backing and even financial support for the venture. No date has been set for that meeting, and Jacobssen stressed that the meeting is still tentative.

Although many of the pieces of the enterprise have “just fallen into place naturally,” Jacobssen said there is still a lot of work to be done.

MCB needs to raise the capital it needs to fund its part of the project. It’s not a lot of money, he said—about $250,000—that would help to establish the corporation in South Korea. That funding could be in place by the end of this year, Jacobssen said.

At the same time, they will need to find a South Korean-based partner—ideally, someone involved in the hospitality or real estate development fields—who could work on the project there.

The third key piece is to develop a promotional effort in South Korea to market the MCB brand name. That will involve revamping and improving the MCB website and a stronger presence in the country, particularly at the major boat shows.

“What we hope to do is build a Maine Classic Boats brand name and have it recognized in what is now the world’s 12th largest economy,” Jacobssen said.

That could lead to a number of off-shoot business opportunities, including sales of Maine-made, MCB-branded merchandise, the development of cruising guides for the South Korean coast, tourism opportunities within South Korea, and even the potential for boating enthusiasts to book trips back to Maine, where it all began.

“I think that concept has a lot of legs,” he said. “The vision is for us to create an interest for Maine maritime products so that they become a known entity among Korea’s elite. Through that, entrepreneurs here in Maine can make some money.”