One day last week, a sleek, white powerboat gently slid off a trailer in Solomons Harbor and floated into the green water where the Patuxent River meets the Chesapeake Bay.
It was a quiet triumph for Cotton Thomas, who spent a year building the 50-foot Miss Lori by hand from fiberglass and resin, toiling away amid blueprints and packs of chewing tobacco in a workshop behind his Lusby home. She was the biggest vessel he'd ever made.
It also was a coup for Calvert County -- a completely home-grown vessel in a seaside county with a rich marine history where few boats are made by hand these days.
"Cotton fills a niche in the market for fishing-style boats, and he has a large following who like his product," said Skip Zanheiser, who owns one of the biggest marinas in Solomons, Zanheiser's Yachting Center. "There certainly are not many [hand] builders left anymore, especially on the Western Shore."
Thomas was hired to build the Miss Lori by Steve and Lori Donaldson, a Lusby couple who paid about $400,000 for the luxury boat, which has a 2,600-horsepower engine and can reach speeds equivalent to 40 mph. "Most charter boats come from the Eastern Shore but we wanted the whole thing to be local," Lori Donaldson said.
They wanted not just local, but a Thomas boat, her husband said. "I just don't think you can find a better-built boat," Steve Donaldson said.
Thomas may be the only boat builder who makes fiberglass boats by hand in Calvert County. Another well-known handmade builder, G.F. Goddard Marine, uses wood to make Chesapeake-style skipjacks. Fiberglass is popular because it is nearly maintenance free; traditionalists prefer wood.
"There are very few handmade builders left," said Chad Kershner, who works at G.F. Goddard Marine, which is also based in Lusby, just down the road from Thomas. "There's money in them, but not a whole lot of people that really want 'em. The production boats sitting on the lots of the big boatyards are perfect, they come out of a mold and they're ready to go.
"If you come here and want a boat built," he added, "it can take up to a year. Everything's hand-cut, handmade, hand-painted. One boat at a time."
In 12 years since he opened Thomas Boats, Thomas has built 166 vessels ranging from a 15-foot flat bottom for $2,600 to the 50-foot charter fishing boat for $400,000. Working with one full-time assistant, it took Thomas an entire year to build the Miss Lori. The boat was so large, Thomas had to build a temporary addition to his workshop because it wasn't big enough to house the powerboat.
Thomas doesn't use molds, the process employed by most large commercial boat builders that enables them to turn out identical boats quickly. Instead, Thomas uses a painstaking technique employing C-flex, a clothlike material made from fiberglass and shot through with fiberglass rods.
He also doesn't design his boats, only builds them. He leaves the drawings to Sintes F/G Designs Inc., a New Orleans firm that uses a computer to develop blueprints and sends them, along with a plywood wood-frame kit, to Thomas.
Thomas sets up the frame and goes to work, nailing taut sheets of C-flex around the frame. Then he coats it with resin and applies another layer of C-flex and continues the pattern until it is three-quarters of an inch thick. Once the C-flex hardens and sets, it becomes solid fiberglass and can be sanded to finished shape.
"One out of a thousand can work with the chemicals," said Thomas, whose tanned arms and hands are smeared with paint and resin. A wad of chewing tobacco takes up space in his left cheek. "A lot of people just don't have the experience or the willpower to go through it. You've got to like it to do it. It's kind of a gift."
A 53-year-old Lusby native, Thomas always has worked close to the water. He was a waterman and then a union carpenter, repairing boats. "I got tired of seeing everyone else's mistakes -- you start correcting this, correcting that, and you think, `I could build it the right way,' " Thomas said. He went into business for himself.
A good day, he said, is when "you don't scratch your head and walk away." On bad days, logistical problems haunt his sleep, he said. Thomas had some trouble figuring out how to lay the frame for the roof of the Miss Lori, at 26 feet the largest roof he'd ever made. "Many a night you have a problem during the day and you go to sleep and wake up with the answer," he said, which is how the roof solution came to him.
As newcomers with disposable income continue to flock into Southern Maryland ("the money people," Thomas calls them), orders stream in. After a two-week vacation -- the longest he's ever taken -- Thomas will start work on his next job, a 42-foot boat.
"There might be something of an upsurge in boat building here," said Richard Dodds, curator of maritime history at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons. "Certainly not a major reestablishment of the industry, but maybe an upsurge."
And what kind of boat does the builder own? "Don't have one," Thomas said. "You build 166 boats and you don't need one. Everyone's always offering to take you out."
CAPTION: Boat builder Cotton Thomas spent a year constructing the 50-foot vessel behind him by hand. He is the only person in Calvert County who makes fiberglass boats from scratch.
CAPTION: Boat builder Cotton Thomas, center, chats with Steve Donaldson, owner of the Miss Lori, as John Pruitt, a carpenter finishing the cabin, pops above deck.
CAPTION: Though handmade, the luxury boat is equipped with high-tech gadgets in its cabin.