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This Article Last Updated: Jul 20th, 2012 - 00:43:10
RICHLAND, MI – Their operation had the taste of a seaworthy spy thriller.
For two-and-a-half years, Jon VanderMolen and his crew worked around the clock in total secrecy, constructing 37 professional sailboats by hand inside a climate-controlled warehouse on M-89 just outside of downtown Richland.
Their customers were countries, and were all fighting for one thing: a medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Some coaches flew thousands of miles to inspect the progress of their investment. Others flooded the local boat builder with paranoid calls and emails: how was he building boats for the other countries' teams? What secrets was he hiding?
"It was like espionage," VanderMolen said. "All of the countries thought we had different things for each other."
In a little more than a week, VanderMolen will watch his work tear through England's coastal waters during the star-class Olympic competition, one of sailing's most prestigious events. From his perspective, there's a good chance at winning: 13 of the 16 star-class Olympic sailboats boats vying for gold in the Olympics were made in his warehouse.
On board are the best sailing teams in the world, including England, Canada and New Zealand. VanderMolen and his partner Mark Pickel, who now is coaching the Irish Olympic sailing team, made 37 sailboats to begin with, of which 13 made the Olympic cut.
"Jon's will, power and determination with a little bit of German engineering from my side gave a solid and fruitful base to create the fastest star out there," Pickel said in an email.
Pickel built sailboats for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and partnered with VanderMolen as he set out to build boats for this summer's games.
Despite worried calls from all over the world, there is not much secrecy behind how the boats are made. Diligent craftsmanship is key. Some Olympic sailors who use VanderMolen's boats say they are the best in the world.
"I just had a feeling that not only the boat was going to be good, he was going to create a great line," Tyler Bjorn, a sailor on the Canadian Olympic team, said during a phone interview from England. "You're making a Rolls-Royce, you're making a quality boat ... we started having good results right away."
As in many cases, quality means money. One of VanderMolen's boats costs $85,000 to 90,000 – up to $25,000 more than a similar Italian-made vessel.
There are very few builders who make star-class boats at all. VanderMolen is the only one in North America; aside from him, the market consists of primarily Italian builders, Bjorn said.
In looking to build the best boat on the water, VanderMolen alienated his own country. The premium prices created friction between VanderMolen and the United States Olympic team – one of the three remaining using a sailboat not made in his workshop. Star-class sailors from the U.S. originally expressed interest in the North American Sailing Center, but talks broke down when the team's boat buyer said they were too strapped for cash, VanderMolen said.
"I'm not rooting for (the U.S.)," VanderMolen said, explaining that he plans to support teams that have invested in his work.
Representatives from the U.S. sailing team could not be reached for comment. The team arrived in London on Monday, and is training about three hours southwest of the city at Weymouth, where the sailing events will be held.
Part of the high cost for VanderMolen's vessels comes from the building process. From the meticulous sanding to warehouse temperature, all of the little details are scientifically optimized, he said. Even the glue is specially-ordered and expensive, and is applied to create even weight on all sides of the deck.
Each boat takes about 680 hours to make. During the height of their orders, VanderMolen said the 10-person crew at his shop worked on three at a time, often working shifts starting at 7 a.m. and not finishing until after midnight. They left only when new glue was cooking, coming back in the morning to start all over again.
The VanderMolen and Pickel tested 50 different hull designs before finding the most effective shape, Pickel said. All of the boats were created from the same mold, and are identical down to the one millimeter.
Once completed, each 22.5-foot vessel was shipped in a cargo container – some as far as Poland, Croatia and New Zealand.
Now that the work is done, VanderMolen said he is looking forward to watching his boats race – even if it means rooting against the U.S.
"It's just now settling in," he said. "For me, it was always a level of anxiety."
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