It’s late on a Friday afternoon in Castiglione del Lago, Italy, and the sailors from around the world have retreated to the clubhouse after a day of racing in the world championships.
In any given week, Tom Allen Jr. could leave his modest boat factory on Buffalo’s East Side and wind up here or in other locales halfway across the world sailing boats with customers.
But this isn’t vacation. Allen is on call.
As owner of Allen Boat Co., international excursions come with the territory. He goes where his customers are.
Allen and his seven-person staff build Lightnings – 19-foot racing sailboats made of fiberglass – in an aging brick warehouse at 370 Babcock St. for sailors who compete in some of the world’s most prestigious regattas.
On the Friday in June of last year, during the 2013 International Lightning Class Association World Championship, 18 of the top 20 finishers sailed on Lake Trasimeno in a boat made in Allen’s shop.
Allen attended and sailed, too. He’ll travel to about a dozen events each year to make himself available for customers – and noncustomers – who could use an impromptu repair.
“Almost all of the time, when everyone else heads to the bar or buffet, you’ll find Tom on his back underneath some boat, repairing fiberglass for somebody else,” said John Faus, president of the ILCA, which regulates the production of Lightning boats, “ – even if they’re not a customer of his.”
Chances are, though, that they are.
There are slightly more than 15,500 Lightnings in active circulation worldwide, according to the ILCA. Allen estimates his small company built around 30 percent of them.
History of winning
One of Allen’s most loyal customers, Kenmore resident David Starck, skippered an Allen boat when he won the World Championship a year ago.
Starck said he has purchased 10 boats from the company since he began racing.
“It’s a great story, the Allen Boat Co. as a small business,” said Starck, who also is a vice president for the ILCA. “Around the world, they’re like royalty. You can go to South America and they know who Tom Allen is.”
Allen Boat Co. customers range from apple farmers in upstate New York to shippers in Greece or businessmen in Ecuador.
The clientele is diverse because the company is one of a handful of certified Lightning Class manufacturers in the world and one of two in North America.
Customers pay about $30,000 per order, which could include the boat, a custom trailer to tow and all the other parts a customer might require, beside the sails.
“It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme,” said Allen, who has a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering from the University of Michigan.
The name Tom Allen became synonymous with Lightning boats in 1961 when Allen’s father, Tom Allen Sr., started winning events while crafting his own boats.
Tom Allen Sr. raced to four world championships. His competitors took notice.
“People would see his boats and go, ‘Oh, that’s pretty nice. Could you build one for us?’ ” Allen said of his father. “And all of a sudden he wasn’t building one boat for one guy, he was building five or six and next thing you know, he’s in business.”
From the mast to the hull, Allen, 53, builds them nothing like his father. The Lightning industry has changed substantially since he took over the business in the 1980s.
Tom Allen Sr., who passed away in 2012 at 81, is known to have produced as many as 80 vessels per year, relying on a sterling racing reputation and charismatic approach to selling to put boats in customer docks.
Lightnings were made of wood back then. Much of Tom Allen Jr.’s challenge has been perfecting the transition from wood to fiberglass, a building trend that began in the 1970s.
Today, a single Lightning takes Allen and his staff more than a month to build, molding each fiberglass piece from scratch and assembling by hand. The company takes its time producing about 15 each year, Allen said.
But now, with many sailors seeking to downsize to a more cost-effective product, Allen said the Lightning Class business is increasingly gaining a working-class reputation.
“It’s not an ultra high-end boat to get into and so that sort of promotes more of a down-to-earth, seat-of-the-pants type of group,” Allen said.
Allen Boat Co. will be on the international stage again beginning June 28, when the Buffalo Canoe Club welcomes the world’s top amateur Lightning sailors to Crystal Beach, Ont., for the ILCA Junior World Championship. It’s the fourth time the Buffalo Canoe Club is hosting the international event.
All 24 amateur sailors in the event will use Allen boats donated by the Canoe Club and sailors throughout the region.
Next summer will be even bigger for the Canoe Club and Allen Boat Co., when the club is set to host the World Championship for the first time since 1973.
Between the two events, Lightning Class sailing will bring hundreds of people from all over the world to the area, Faus said.
The ILCA selected the Buffalo Canoe Club and Lake Erie over venues from around the world for many of the same reasons sailing of all types is a popular pastime for Western New York – its wind conditions and facilities make Lake Erie a world-renowned destination for sailors.
“Water sports like sailing, kayaking and sport fishing are a vital part of the region’s tourism economy in the summertime,” said Brian Hayden, a spokesperson for Visit Buffalo Niagara. “There’s no question that our proximity to Lake Erie helps drive visitors to our area in the summer.”
That, in a nutshell, is why Allen has remained loyal to the region as his source for building world-class boats from Buffalo’s backyard.
“People are going to go where they feel they can get the fastest boats,” Starck said. “If someone else was building a faster boat, they would buy them there. We are very fortunate to have the company in our backyard.”