Boatbuilding in their blood

As teenagers, both Gary and Steve Nordtvedt worked at their father's boatbuilding company, Uniflight, which occupied the entire Fairhaven Marine...

By Isaac Bonnell

The Fairhaven waterfront holds many fond memories for brothers Gary and Steve Nordtvedt.

As teenagers, both of them started working at their father’s boatbuilding company, Uniflight, which occupied the entire Fairhaven Marine Industrial Park in the 1960s and ’70s. At its peak, Uniflight employed more than 500 people and made 20-foot to 40-foot boats for sport fishing, cruising, and later for the military.

“My greatest memories are the smells of the different woods we used to build the boats,” Steve said. “Later on when we started using resin, that smelled too, but not as nice.”

Now, decades later, Gary and Steve are once again working together and building boats in Fairhaven.

Gary, 61, started his own boatbuilding company, Norstar Yachts, in 1994 and he recently moved the operation to a 12,000-square-foot space in the Fairhaven Marine Industrial Park. Steve, 67, joined his brother last year and together they are producing some of the finest custom powerboats and sailboats in the region.

“These boats are built to order — no two boats have ever been alike,” Gary said. “I’m not interested in making a whole lot of boats.”

“We want to build a small number of very special boats,” Steve added.

A family tradition

Bellingham has a long tradition of boatbuilding and the Nordtvedts have seen much of it firsthand.

Their story started with Gary and Steve’s father, Art, who was born in Bellingham in 1922 and worked at Bellingham Shipyards until launching Uniflight in 1957. Art was a self-taught  boat designer and developed the signature shape and style that made Uniflight boats famous.

“He had no formal education in naval architecture, but he had the opportunity to design and test a lot of boats,” Gary said. “And he came up with a great formula and hull shape. It’s a very good planing hull.”

Gary said he learned a lot about boat design and engineering from his father.

“I was always a boat nut,” he said.

But he didn’t jump into the industry right away. First he spent 20 years as a commercial fisherman, running his own boat from the rough waters of the Aleutian Islands to the sunny shores of Southern California. All that time living on a boat gave him plenty of ideas about how to build a better boat.

“In my time out in the Aleutians, I’ve come to appreciate a well-built and comfortable boat,” he said.

After leaving the fishing industry, Gary joined his brother to launch Nordic Yachts in 1977. The company built luxury powerboats and sailboats and would still be in business were it not for a luxury tax that, in 1991, was applied to yachts that cost more than $100,000.

“The phones just stopped ringing after that,” Steve said. “The luxury tax on yachts was repealed a few years later, but the damage had already been done.”

So Nordic Yachts closed and the Nordtvedt brothers pursued separate ventures. In 1994, Gary started building boats again, this time under the name Norstar Yachts.
At that time, he focused on just 30-foot and 36-foot powerboats. Sales were good —

Gary built six boats a year on average — until the price of fuel began to near $5 per gallon. Sailboat sales aren’t as affected by the price of fuel, so he dug out the old molds and tooling for the Nordic sailboats, made a few improvements and launched a new line of boats.

Onboard the Norstar 40

The first of these next-generation sailboats, the Norstar 40, is now completed and moored in Squalicum Harbor.

The attention to detail is evident as you step onboard — nothing feels out of place. The teak interior of the cabin feels roomy and comfortable thanks to ample storage space and a clean design.

“We do the whole thing, inside and out,” Gary said. “It’s real precise, hands-on work and it takes forever, especially when you’re doing custom boats. But most people are willing to wait a year to get something special.”

The sleek blue hull is made from 1.25-inch-thick fiberglass and carries 7,000 pounds of lead in its keel.

“We’re not building a racing machine. That’s not the primary purpose of the boat,” Steve said. “We want to build a strong and safe boat that you can take around the world.”

In fact, several of the old Nordic sailboats have made it all the way around the world, Steve said. When he found out that Norstar was bringing back the Nordic line of sailboats, Steve began tracking down Nordic boat owners to see if they had any ideas for minor improvements and to let them know that Norstar could do repairs for them.

In the process he discovered that about 25 percent of the boat owners were the original owners and had taken rather long voyages. One boat owner from Chicago is even starting his second circumnavigation of the world, Steve said.

The recession has certainly hurt sales, but the boat industry is cyclical and Gary said he is confident that it will pick up again.

And just like their father, the Nordtvedts are committed to building high-quality boats for as long as they can.

“You’ve got to love it, because it’s not easy work,” Gary said.

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