Luther Blount, at 89, can still hit the right notes

At Blount Boats in Warren, R.I., owner and founder Capt. Luther H. Blount is surrounded by his history, hobbies and family.

Walking to the windows of his modest house on the shipyard grounds, the 89-year-old Blount points out the dock where he learned to swim and the docks being rebuilt along the shipyard’s wharf. His grandfather, Willis Blount, ran an oyster house off these same docks. He warned him he was going to lose his shirt in the business, but Blount managed to keep his shirt and do quite well for himself.

Blount can look back on a successful career that has been long and steady, but also diverse. He has been among the marine industry’s most notable innovators with more than 20 patents to his name. He is admired for his Yankee ingenuity, toughness and practicality. Blount not only founded and built up a shipyard, but he also created several successful cruise lines.

“It’s been a lot of fun building boats,” Blount said as he picked up the trombone he keeps in his office. The self-taught musician played a few tunes by the window overlooking Narragansett Bay. Then he pointed out Prudence Island, where he owns 80 acres. “I knocked out three deer there this fall with a bow and arrow. I got a six-pointer, a small buck and a medium buck,” Blount said.

He simply could have paid $1,200 to buy himself a crossbow, but he decided he could build a better one himself. “It used to kick like a shotgun, so I had to adjust the balance,” Blount said.

It takes a steady hand to hunt with a bow and arrow, and Blount has used that hand to run a very successful yard over the past 57 years. Blount, a Warren native, graduated from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston in 1937 with a degree in mechanical design. After a 12-year stint working for others, Blount struck out on his own in 1949.

“I started building fishing trawlers, then passenger boats,” he said.

Blount Boats, formerly called Blount Marine Corp., has built more than 315 boats to date: passenger and vehicle ferries, offshore supply vessels, commercial fishing boats, tugs, barges and many others. “I built about everything there was to be built. I made a little money on every boat,” Blount said.

A natural inventor and businessman, Blount continuously improved on building techniques and design ideas. In 1954, Blount built the first U.S. long-liner made of steel. In 1963 Blount designed what he said was the world’s first small stern dragger. He fitted it with Blount-designed net drum technology. Hundreds of commercial fishing vessels copied the drum design over the years.

Blount said he got paid $1,000 for the drum design and that he sold a few of his patents over the years to finance other projects, but he still has 22 patents in his name.

A repeat customer in the 1950s got Blount thinking of ways to diversify his business. “This client would order a new 65-foot excursion boat from me every July,” Blount said. “I realized that’s the business to be in. There was more money running a boat than building a boat.”

Blount started the American Canadian Line in 1965, a cruise company that took small groups of passengers on a circle route around New England: up the Hudson River and the Erie Canal, across Lake Ontario, down the St. Lawrence Seaway to Montreal, out the St. Lawrence River to the Canadian Maritimes and down the Maine coast back to Rhode Island.

Starting with the 65-foot, 12-passenger Canyon Flyer, the business now runs three 183-foot, 100-passenger vessels. In the early 1970s, the company expanded its cruising grounds to the Caribbean. All the vessels had shallow draft and limited beam to allow them to enter waters and locks that are off limits to large cruise ships.

Blount explored potential destinations on his own boat. His daughter, Julie Blount, who runs the front office of Blount Boats, recalled those days. “Dad never believed in vacations,” she said.

Today the business is known as American Canadian Caribbean Line and operates more than 16 cruises from Nova Scotia to the Panama Canal. Perhaps not surprisingly, the president of ACCL is his daughter, Nancy, who has been with the company since 1975. She has worked for her dad since she was 13 as a deck hand, waitress and even as a shipyard welder. “I have done almost every job on the ships,” she said.

Another Blount family business is Bay Queen Cruises. Run by Blount’s son-in-law Robert Dahmer, the dinner cruises sail out of Newport and Providence on the 350-passenger Vista Jubilee and the 150-passenger Harbor Queen. Both vessels were built by Blount, who started the dinner cruise line in 1971 with Bay Queen.

“Luther is the best salesman I’ve ever known,” Dahmer said. “He can sell and make his point in just about anything.”

Diversifying his business over the years might have been Blount’s salvation.

“It’s feast or famine,” Blount said of the shipbuilding business. “I always put a little money away over the years.” Blount made improvements on the shipyard, acquired real estate and built boats on spec to keep the yard busy during the slow times.

His yard has also been a training ground. Asked how many people have worked for him over the years, he replied, “Probably 3,000. I trained so many people in the field, many are running boats today or went out on their own.”

Three of those former employees who went out on their own are Preston Gladding, Richard Hearn and George Duclos of Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding in Somerset, Mass. The company celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

Blount’s interest in the community encompasses all of Narragansett Bay, and he has donated more than $1.5 million through his Narragansett Bay Resources Foundation, which aims to foster the shellfish resources of the bay.

Since the 1960s Blount has experimented with oyster farming. Today Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., uses his pond and creek on Prudence Island for scientific research. “Luther has been very supportive of the project,” said Dr. Timothy Scott of the Roger Williams marine biology department.

The university and Blount created an oyster-spawning sanctuary to allow the oysters to mature in a safe environment before releasing them into the bay. “Luther has been trying to do this for 30 years. He is very excited about it,” Scott said.

Blount gets excited about many things in his life, but retiring is not one of them. “He’s going to go till he drops,” Julie Blount said.

Blount did try to retire in 2000. He signed a five-year contract leasing the shipyard to Ohio businessman James Barker, but the yard went into receivership in February 2003.

In July 2003, Blount returned to the yard full time, although one wonders if he ever really left.

“He’s not going to retire anymore,” Julie Blount said.

Blount won’t say directly if he intends to retire, but he did allow that others are doing a fine job. “I’m watching my kids now,” he said.

“He trusts me to make the right decisions,” Nancy Blount said. His grandson, Luther Blount III, is working in the shipyard’s engineering department. “I’ve been working him in gradually,” Blount said while showing off a ship’s blueprint done by his grandson.

“My father is a tough critter to work for,” Julie Blount said. “But he has mellowed a lot over the years,” Nancy Blount added.

Blount Boats, like its founder, remains busy. The yard started work in March on an 89-by-30-foot steel excursion vessel for Wendella Sightseeing Co. in Chicago. Last year it completed a rudder conversion for South Ferry Co., based on Long Island, N.Y.

“We were really impressed with the Blount rudder assembly they put on our newest car ferry, the Sunrise, so we brought the Southern Cross over as well,” said President Bill Clark. South Ferry operates between North Haven and Shelter Island at the eastern end of Long Island.

In the fall of 2004, Blount Boats delivered a 155-foot, 3,200-hp offshore supply vessel for the Puerto Rico Ports Authority and an 85-foot, 150-passenger dinner cruise boat, Spirit of Newport, for ts sister company.

“I’ve got the shipbuilding in my blood, and we’ll build boats as long as we can,” Julie Blount said.

Her father couldn’t agree more. “It’s nice to be building a boat,” he said. •

By Professional Mariner Staff