Wayland Marine owner says he enjoys the sense of freedom, fun his business gives him
All work and no play, as we learned from Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” makes Jack a dull boy.
Fortunately for Fairhaven boat builder Ron Mueller, owner of Wayland Marine, his work is play, as a typical day for him includes: a morning on Bellingham Bay in one of his lightweight, open-water rowing shells, talking shop with customers, tinkering with technology and sketching designs in his boathouse, and then enjoying a cup of joe or cold brew at nearby businesses.
“I don’t have a job, I have a lifestyle,” said the gleeful, 64-year-old Mueller on a recent morning, as he proudly showcased his fleet of rowing shells. “I have a boat dock on the Padden Creek lagoon, I have my boat shop right here, I walk a half block to the Archer Ale House for a pint and another half block to Tony’s Coffee, and I live a mile away. Every morning, I tease the kids waiting at the bus stop. I tell them, ‘Ha, ha. You have to go to school and I get to go play.’”
Indeed, he said, he’s living a dream.
Mueller, who was a “hotdog whitewater kayaker” in Colorado, after he got out of the Air Force in 1963, said he’s always been a water baby.
He didn’t begin his career as a boat builder, though, until 1989.
While water sports were always a part of his life, Mueller’s main focus for nearly 30 years was his microfilm business and wife and two daughters in Denver.
In 1985, however, he became increasingly interested in boat building when he visited Seattle’s Wooden Boat Show and bought a small English-style cruising dingy. He was so impressed with the product that when its parent company, Vancouver Island-based Wayfarer, announced the business was for sale in 1989, he bought it.
For several years, Mueller built boats in the back of his micrographic-supply shop as a hobby business, but, after he and his wife divorced, he decided to answer the call of the great outdoors (and friends in the area) and move to Bellingham to build boats fulltime.
“I’d cycled the whole West Coast and was captivated by both the cycling and sailing around Seattle,” he said. “When I got divorced, I already had a lot of boating acquaintances and friends who had moved up here. In the early ‘90s, Bellingham used to be called ‘Boulder by the Sea.’”
At Wayland, Mueller said, business has always been steady, but it took several years to build its reputation as a maker of lightweight, stable boats that can cut easily through the open sea.
Nearly two-thirds of the approximately 100 boats Wayland sells each year, Mueller said, are his Merry Wherry kit boats, which have models that cater to one or two rowers, and to recreational and fitness rowing. Completely rigged, the boats weigh from 55 to 115 pounds.
The kit boats, which range in price from $770 to $2,695, are designed by Mueller on a computer-aided drafting program. He then enters the dimensions into a ShopBot, which cuts the boat’s Okoume plywood to specification. The pieces are then shipped with a construction booklet to customers who complete the boats themselves, through stitch-and-glue assembly.
In all, it takes Mueller about 15 minutes to cut and package materials. It then takes customers about 50 hours to complete the job.
For customers not interested in kits, Mueller also sells Sea Ranger rowboats, originally designed by an Eastern Washington company he bought out seven years ago, and Echo rowing shells, which are designed by friends of his in Maine. Both cost around $3,500.
Because of a strong marketing campaign and Internet presence, Mueller’s boats are sold all around the world; he estimated only about 5 percent of his business comes from Bellingham.
Mueller, who usually sees about $200,000 a year in profit at the one-person operation, said the business never gets monotonous because he’s always dealing with new technologies, something he’s done his whole life.
As a boy, he built a transistor radio when they first came out. In the Air Force, he worked in electronic missile maintenance. With microfilm, he developed new ways to repair the product. And when Apple came out with computers in the late 1970s, Mueller bought one as soon as possible so he could program it.
“In boat designing, everything revolves around my ability to operate a computer,” he said. “It lets me do this job by myself because I can streamline the entire process.”
Mueller, who wants to keep working for 10 more years, said he doesn’t want to add any employees because one of his greatest satisfactions is accomplishing tasks on his own.
“Because I do so many different things here, nothing’s ever boring,” he said. “The job’s always very intellectually stimulating because I do a variety of tasks. In modern life, people are only a component of a business. Sure we have teamwork, but we don’t have a feeling of completeness in a job. Here, I get an idea, I get to design it, built it, sail it and win a race. And do it for fun.”
Mueller added he does have a selfish reason for not wanting to grow the company much more.
“If you have employees, you can’t goof off,” he said. “Because you have to set standards, you can’t take off at 4 to go to the Archer and have a pint and tell employees they have to stay at work till 5. That doesn’t cut it.”
In addition to building boats for others, Mueller also builds boats to race in competitions.
Last year, he entered a 22-foot rowboat, the Merry Sea, in the Shipyard School Raid, a race from Gabriola Island, in the Canadian Gulf Islands, to Port Townsend, a distance of about 90 miles. With Bellingham’s Dale McKinnon — known for her nearly 800-mile row from Fairhaven to Ketchikan, Alaska, in 2004 — on board, the two completed the course faster than any of the sailboats in the race.
In an effort to repeat, Mueller’s currently building an 18-foot boat, the Mother Merry, which can be powered by sail or oars, to enter in the race this year.
Orell Russi, owner of The Wool Station, who met Mueller when he first came to town, and has since bought several of his boats, said it’s Mueller’s enthusiasm and intelligence — and a good product — that makes him a good businessperson and ambassador for rowing.
“His energy is up there all the time and he’s trying to do something good for the industry,” Russi said. “He’s a very, very smart man and has put together things the average person couldn’t. We’ve got somebody very special here.”
Mueller said he takes delight in turning people onto the athletic and adventuresome world of rowing.
Personally, he said, he finds inner peace at sea.
“One of the things you have with salt water is the feeling of infinity. Every stroke takes you closer to the horizon.”