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The Boat That Jack Built

BY ALAN OLDHAM
PHOTOS PROVIDED

A cluster of brightly colored beehive boxes greets me as I turn off a rural road about 25 minutes northeast of London, Canada. The bees dance through the air, enjoying the sunshine of an August afternoon, unaware or perhaps uninterested in pandemics or politics or even their own species’ much talked about decline.

Driving up the long gravel path, I see an old house, half hidden within the overflowing borders that blend forest and farmland.

The house is old but far from sleepy; it too is a hive of activity. Renovations are under way. Building projects all around reveal the genius of a master craftsman at play in his work.

Jack Coughlan may not have built this house, but since retiring from decades at the helm of Hudson Boat Works, it has become the pioneering boatbuilder’s most recent medium.

Mask on, I knock on the door. A shock of colors greets me as one of Coughlan’s four children, Bronwyn Mund, comes out with her husband, Dan, and one of Coughlan’s many grandkids hefting a bucketful of flowers, freshly cut for sale at the local market. Looking through the open door into the kitchen, I spy buckets of flowers everywhere. Springing over the threshold, deftly, sprightly, Coughlan joins me outside with the light of second childhood in his eyes.

Walking out onto his half-built deck, we sit far enough apart that I can safely take off my mask. Fortunately, the bees are also keeping their distance, but we can see their hives down the hill and, beyond them, an eternity of trees, tilled earth and sky.

Old friends and fond memories

“I started thinking of Ed before you came,” Coughlan says, with momentary sadness. “It’s the athletes, the people like Ed, I am grateful for in my life, in my work.”

He is soon smiling again as we sit and talk about the ways that having known Ed Winchester enriched our lives. His sudden passing last spring was an unexpected shock to so many.

It isn’t every day that I contemplate the unanticipated, unlooked-for kindnesses that can change people’s lives. For Coughlan, however, taking time to connect life’s dots is one of the great joys that retirement has brought. Yet this skill–to see vivid patterns that others miss or simply ignore–is nothing new. It is lifelong and has got him into trouble more than once.

In the 1970s, it cost him a job at Kaschper, Canada’s fastest-growing boatbuilding operation at the time.

 “I’ve always had a hard time doing the same thing over and over,” says Coughlan. He had never held a job for more than a year or two before his four years working for Jakob Kaschper, who had learned the art of shell-craft from the legendary Willy Empacher in Germany.

“The company kept on growing, but I didn’t feel we wanted to achieve the same things,” Coughlan remembers. “It was hard to leave. Jakob taught me a lot, but it was the best thing for me.”

 Coughlan’s restless curiosity about the way the world works–how people relate to one another and to nature, and how he might do things differently–has been an asset. It is at the heart of Hudson Boat Works’ unprecedented success in the nearly half-century since Coughlan walked out of Kaschper’s busy workshop and into the calm and quiet of his own backyard to craft wooden oars. A few years later, he had switched to single shells and his own business was taking shape.

So much has changed for Coughlan, and the sport, since then. He is glad to have made his exit when the time was right.

 “It is now a bigger business. There are a lot more financial aspects to deal with. Boy, I can’t imagine being there now.”

With a new generation assuming the helm, including Hudson’s operations manager, Glen Burston, the business of boatbuilding has become part of Coughlan’s past. Through it all, though, the person who motivated him to craft his first boat still shares his life.

A labor of love

“I always liked to build things,” says Coughlan, when I ask him about his passion for working with his hands. “I built my first boat in high school. I actually made it for Dallas. She was always interested in sailing and stuff, so I made her a small sailboat.”

I’ve known Coughlan and his wife, Dallas, for a number of years, but until now did not know they were high school sweethearts.

“We met at a dance at Wonderland Gardens, right near the London Rowing Club, actually,” Coughlan says. “I think I was 17; she was a year younger.”

Their young love turned into a lifelong partnership that is stronger now than ever. Family, for both Coughlan and his wife, is the most important thing, and business, it would turn out, was also all about family.

In hindsight, it seems Coughlan was fated to meet Dallas. While he went from job to job after high school, doing construction, then shift work for the railway before finally, almost by chance, landing a job building rowing shells and oars after seeing an ad in the local newspaper, she remained the one constant, weaving together the various strands of his life. Her last name, after all, was Hudson, and her brother, Hugh Hudson, would one day become Coughlan’s business partner. But that was a long way off in the future, and at the time Coughlan met Dallas, he had not yet sat in a rowing shell, let alone built one.

Learning the trade

“When I left Kaschper, I took a job renovating restaurants with a friend,” says Coughlan, as our conversation turns to work and rowing. “I was a woodworker, so decided to make oars on the side as a hobby. It soon turned into a business, and I hired a couple of guys to help me.

“Around that time, I bought an old boat off of a local rower. I fixed it up and would take it down to the London Rowing Club and go for rows up to the forks of the Thames.”

With business picking up, however, Coughlan never really had time to get into the sport in which his future company would play such a large role.

“When Concept2 came out with their carbon-fiber oars, you could see that wooden oars were history,” says Coughlan, who began looking for another construction job.

Once again, fate seems to have stepped in when Doug Wilson, from the St. Catharines Rowing Club on Canada’s Henley Island, suggested that Coughlan make his own boats.

 “Doug actually arranged for me to go to Germany to learn from Empacher,” Coughlan recalls. “I talked Dallas into the idea, and she stayed at home with three kids while I went for six weeks to work at Empacher.

“I learned what I needed to know, came back and built my first single that fall. You know who bought it? It was Gord Henry’s brother, Dave,” he chuckles. In due course, Gord Henry would work for Coughlan before going his own way to found Fluidesign.

“I built 10 singles that first year,” says Coughlan. “The next year, 20, then 40.”

Coughlan’s brother-in-law, Hugh Hudson, got involved early on, and with a little funding from Hudson’s father, the company took shape.

“Hugh was a draftsman and wanted a job in that area, but everything was changing to computers. I was already building boats when he came on board, but he was always a key guy. After a few years, I made a double and I handed the singles off to him.”

As with any good partnership, Coughlan and Hudson brought complementary skills to the job. Coughlan was the dreamer; Hudson, the businessman who ensured that their company, Hudson Boat Works, began to grow. “He was the sales guy,” remembers Coughlan. “He would pick up the phone and sell boats. I would pick up the phone and talk about the next thing I was going to do.

“The relationship between Hugh and me has always been good. I feel so blessed that I’ve had a job building boats. The rowing community is so great. They are really thoughtful people.”

Lines and designs

“When I built the first boat, everybody said that they liked the Stampfli and Empacher lines on the single,” Coughlan says. “So I went to Montreal, where the club had both shells, and I compared the lines of the Stampfli and Empacher. They were so similar. Instead of making a mold of these boats, I did the research and came up with a little compromise. Bob Mills got a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics in that boat.”

With Mills’ success in a “Hudson”, things started taking off. “We moved out of our 24-by-30-foot garage while we were still building singles and bought a 6,000-square-foot site. It was huge compared to the garage, and we expanded to fours and eights.”

Coughlan continued to seek out new ideas from athletes, coaches and even those outside of rowing to make his boats even faster.

Year after year, Hudson boats were showing up at ever more top regattas. “It was the athletes who were the biggest supporters, encouraging us and providing feedback,” says Coughlan. By the 1990s, as composite materials had all but pushed wooden shells off the podium, Hudson was already hatching new designs. When Canadian Olympic sculler Silken Laumann finally made the switch from wooden boat and blades for the  1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, she chose to row a Hudson.

“Women’s rowing especially was really growing,” recalls Coughlan. “We were building a lot of boats after Silken and other national-team rowers and coaches showed their confidence in our shells.” 

One step at a time

When it comes to what makes a fast boat, Coughlan gets right to the point: “stiffness,” he says without hesitation. “You want to make sure that the rowers are connected, that they feel one another. If the boat is soft, they can get away with the timing being not so good.

“Generally, the athletes always want light and stiff boats. Carbon fiber was a big step forward. We were one of the first boatbuilders to use the pre-impregnated or ‘prepreg’ carbon fiber. Before that, we were using resin. That means you are in a rush all the time to complete the work before it dries. We started using prepreg carbon fiber with the oars and learned how to handle it. Then we used it on a single and went from there.”

For a company known for innovation, it is notable that Coughlan stresses taking things one step at a time. “We always took baby steps, and it is important not to take too big steps,” he says. “You change one thing, talk to the athlete. Rather than thinking you know it all yourself, go see if they think it is a step in the right direction. Telling the customer that we already know how to do it is the wrong way to do it.”

Giving people a chance

While the company website may list the “big players” on Hudson’s design, production and sales team, a walk around their large factory near London’s Fanshawe Lake reveals a far more diverse group of employees. It is a team that mirrors more of where the sport is headed than where it has been.

I ask Coughlan about his stance on diversity in the sport and what role he has played in providing opportunities to those less privileged than so many in rowing.

“I’ve always had a soft heart for new immigrants,” he replies. “I started giving some of them jobs. Many of these guys fleeing persecution in their home countries are just natural craftsmen. I am giving them a leg up. I’m all for giving anyone a job and, if they do a good job, they can keep it. Sometimes people just need encouragement.”

The dedication Coughlan has found in the immigrant community mirrors what he sees in rowing itself.

“There was one person from Libya,” Coughlan explains. “Someone told me, ‘He needs to get a job; he might get sent back.’ All I could offer at the time was a janitor position. He took the job.

“That winter, a big storm came up, and I didn’t expect him to come to work, but he actually showed up, having biked most of the five kilometers through the snowstorm. It comes down to work ethic, and that’s what inspires me about kids waking up at 5:30 in the morning to go out and row.

“It turns out that he had been a veterinarian-in- training when he lived in Libya. By hiring someone, you give them an opportunity without prejudice to rebuild their life and make their way.

“That’s how you build a relationship. That’s what makes me feel good about life. I’ve always thought, I’ve been blessed, I’ve got money, so I want to support others. I never think about it as giving someone something for nothing. It’s like the old saying about teaching someone to fish and they have a skill they can use to feed themselves for the rest of their life.

“Dallas and I always set money aside to do things like that. We have also traveled to Africa to build houses and give opportunities to people who need them. That is where the world needs to change. Being retired lets me think more about how everything is connected.”

Retirement

Retirement has also meant more time to indulge in projects at home. “Not having to get anything done can be a bit of a problem,” Coughlan acknowledges, “but I get to think about things a lot more, so it is about creativity, and I am happy.

“I had a little scare recently; my memory was going a bit. My mom had Alzheimer’s, and my dad, and my grandmother, so it scared me a bit. I’m not feeling that anymore, but for me it was the right time to retire. Life is good. I’m tickled right now.”

“He really loved building boats,” Dallas says. “He always said, ‘I just want to make the fastest boat in the world.’ He also loves being retired. He is making wine and kombucha. He is so busy that I can’t get him to finish the house. He is going from morning till night with all these bees and honey.”

In their three years in this house, the couple and their daughter Bronwyn’s family, who share the split house, have transformed the old cropland into a flower farm. Besides the bees, they keep chickens, and a herd of alpaca grazes a little farther up the hill.

Before wrapping up, Coughlan takes me for a walk to meet the animals and see a field of flowers in full blossom. Our conversation turns from the past to the present. We talk about the pandemic, how life has changed. As usual, Coughlan is philosophical.

“I try to look at the good things about the situation,” he says. “A lot of people, myself included, have become more thoughtful. I don’t just go into the city to grab things anymore, I’m a lot more organized about planning what I am going to get and doing one trip.

“The world needs to change, and I think more people see that. Everything is connected.”

 Out here in nature with Coughlan, his words resonate.

 “We’re all connected–going for walks in the woods, the flowers, the beekeeping, talking with the animals, the eggs we eat from the chickens, the donkey that protects the other animals from coyotes. Even the coyotes have their purpose, so we won’t allow hunters on the land.”

A willing ear and an open heart

As for Coughlan’s legacy in a sport his own hands have helped shape, the retired craftsman is content with a job well done. He is also quick to heap praise on those who have helped over the years.

For all that, his company’s greatest strength might just be Coughlan’s willingness to let down his guard, to accept the critical advice of the coaches and athletes who row and race the boats.

“A lot of innovation came not so much from Hudson Boat Works as from the coaches and athletes. It wasn’t anything that I did or we did as a company. It was a group effort. I feel like we tried to listen.”

We walk back to the house, where Dallas is waiting with a bouquet of fresh flowers for me to take home along with some vegetables from their garden and a jar of fresh honey.

“When anybody asks me about working,” says Coughlan as we prepare to part ways, “the first thing I say is don’t do it for the money. Don’t waste your life. You’ll always want more. The happiest people I know are people who are doing something that they love to do in life. I am thankful that I was lucky enough to do something I loved in life. I learned a lot working with great athletes. They have put every ounce of energy into life.”

So has Coughlan. He still does. And that, it seems, has made all the difference.

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