Forty Years of The Only One

Ours is a story of drive. Of passion. Of legacy. Ours is a journey of setting Van Dam apart as builders of the finest wooden boats in the world. We are excited to take our clients on this journey with us. To what end? Van Dam Custom Boats has spent 40 years hand crafting wooden boats that can be called the only one.

When classic wooden boat designs are incorporated with highly evolved engineering, the finished product is strong, beautiful, and singular. Every Van Dam is creation different, but each fulfills a vision. A dream. Founder Steve Van Dam’s dream of sailing to far off places began with a small wooden boat on Lake Macatawa, not far from his family home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Motivated by self-reliance and a passion to learn, Steve complemented these qualities with a love of wood and water – shaping the undercurrents of what Old World masters term “a calling.”

His dream became reality in the woods north of Harbor Springs where he and his wife Jean launched the business now known as Van Dam Custom Boats. Together they built their first small boat building shed. Their family, sharing a love of boating, the out of doors and a strong commitment to the environment, joined them in their pursuit of doing things the right way. Now located in beautiful Boyne City, Michigan, a visceral belief in legacy craftsmanship drives their mission to design and build the world’s finest wooden boats.

When asked what this 40 year anniversary means, Steve first speaks to how fortunate he and Jean have been – for the opportunity of client’s – now friends – that entrusted them with building such beautiful boats; for the chance to live, work and raise a family in God’s country; to have 40 years of relationships that helped establish the company’s reputation for excellence.

Reflecting on lessons learned and the changes that have come about since he and Jean launched Van Dam Custom Boats, technology and the sophistication of mechanical and electrical systems immediately come to mind. Witnessing first hand that making continuous improvements works well, he has learned to trust others to help propel the company forward. And while he has realized that he cannot do everything himself, never quitting is as important today as it was 40 years ago.

In an age when legacy craftsmanship seems more of a lost art, or too time consuming for many of the millennials, it is the belief of Van Dam Custom Boats that hand crafted, superior quality items will always be in demand. While people may not understand why they desire craftsmanship, buyers know it when they see it.

Forty years later with his son Ben at the helm, and Michel Berryer, an award winning designer on staff, the company has the ability to create a world-class custom boat or yacht regardless of its size or complexity. Steve and Jean see triumph in watching a second generation strive to take what they started and loft it to a new level. And with state-of-the-art computer aided design programs incorporated throughout the planning and building process, things are definitely moving forward. Metal fabrication and mechanical systems are now accomplished on site. “We make our own parts and pieces – everything from metal hardware to complex electrical systems,” says Steve. If you ask what his favorite parts of boat building are now, versus when he began in 1977, he will speak of instant communication with clients, digitally designing the boats and of course, the ‘cool tools’. Boats no longer need to be hand drawn at full size to fair all the lines. Computers provide amazing efficiencies and if needed, full size patterns can be printed to check accuracy. The Van Dam crew of 10 to 12 skilled boat builders utilize the finest materials and technology available to build their amazing watercraft.

What is next for Steve and Jean as Van Dam Custom Boats has a new generation driving their vision for the future? Steve offers this poem as a way to say it best:

The Bridge Builder
by Will Allen Dromgoole

An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

Sharing experiences as teaching moments, engaging new employees in the success of the company and keeping a pipeline full of future work – these tie Steve and Jean tightly to the upward growth of the company. They continue to enjoy the family, friends and community that travel this road with them.

Be it a custom build or a restoration by Steve, Ben and their talented crew, each craft and her owner become part of the Van Dam family. Together, craftsman and client realize the pride in building the only one in the world. And it continues to be quite a journey.