There’s a sign hanging out on the shop floor at Van Dam Custom Boats, which reads “Mission Statement: To Build the World’s Finest Wooden Boats.” The sign itself is a thing of beauty, mahogany finished to a high luster and hand-lettered with 23 karat gold leaf, like many of the transoms on boats that have left the shop over the years. The sign and its artistry are reminders to all who see it - quality is not an abstract concept, but a product of details, and details of details, executed to the highest standards.
But the Van Dam experience is more than creating the finest boats, as each vessel is uniquely customized with hand-crafted expertise and is fully tailored to the vision of their client. As their Marketing Director Kim Melching eloquently explained, “Our boats are not lifeless production models. The craftsman, from design to launch, breathe their soul into the boat. It’s not out of necessity… it’s a passionate choice.” This level of excellence is borne of diligence and care.
Nothing there happens by accident. And it shows. From the long-range business plan to the weekly shop cleanup, every task is tackled mindfully, efficiently, conscientiously.
It’s a philosophy that is embraced wholeheartedly by everyone on the sixteen acres—the in-house name for the sprawling campus of storage sheds and workshops shared by Van Dam Custom Boats, a service and storage facility and a yacht brokerage based in Boyne City, Michigan.
It comes as no surprise that with such a strong work ethic at its core, Van Dam is starting to make waves amongst enthusiasts and connoisseurs the world over, despite having eschewed formal marketing for much of the company’s history. Instead, Van Dam has always trusted that quality speaks for itself, and square dealing with clients buys earnest word-of-mouth advertising.
A recent escalation of marketing efforts and the addition of a dedicated sales team has elevated the brand at an unprecedented pace, albeit atypical of their unpretentious culture as a whole. But with forty years of humble diligence under their belts, Van Dam is poised to become the darling of luxury for consumers seeking a beyond-top-of-range experience.
Experience? In a utilitarian steel shed, in a small lakeside town in Michigan? Yes. Although boats are the company’s product, what they uniquely offer is an ability and an eagerness to work with their customers to produce a boat that is not only tailored to fit but designed from the ground up as an extension of the owner’s personality. In a marketplace overflowing with luxury goods that conflate “custom” with “available in different colors,” Van Dam acts as curator of their clients’ most extravagant fantasies, lending their expertise to ensure that their clients’ ideas—often literally sketched on envelopes and bar napkins—coalesce into a whole that exceeds every expectation.
One of the current builds, Victoria Z, nearing completion in the rigging area of the shop, is an excellent example. Under construction for nearly three years, this project exemplifies not only Van Dam’s technical excellence as boatbuilders, but the way in which clients can exert control over even the most minuscule detail. At thirty-five feet, every square inch of Victoria Z, inside and out, represents a collaboration between client and builder that nurtures every idea to its fullest expression, while maintaining the overarching vision of the boat as a whole. At any given moment, clients have the ability to revise and edit their vision for the final form of their boat.
It is a truly individualized, intimate journey guided by master craftsmen who are unparalleled in their field. Victoria Z's engines engines are scratch-built Ford 427 side-oilers, mated to surface drives through one-off chain linkages developed in conjunction with Arneson. The fuel tanks are painted the same pearl white as the bottom. So is the bilge. Though there is some way to go before its launch, it’s clear that this is a special boat among special boats. And to this client, the process is just as important as the product. As Melching professed, “You’re not just buying a boat. It truly is a side-by-side, walk the path journey you're traveling with us.”
With the commissions currently underway, Van Dam is accepting clients that are willing to wait until at least 2020 for delivery. But discerning individuals know the score: a Van Dam boat isn’t a thing you buy, it’s a process you undertake. One worth waiting for.
— Jamie Agoglia is a renowned writer, photojournalist, and entrepreneur. Her work has been displayed at events and galleries across Southern California. In her writing and photography, she focuses on art, travel, and music.