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From Backyard to Big Time – Gold Coast Yachts

In the 1970’s, Roger Hatfield built a 31-foot trimaran
in his Tacoma Park, Maryland back yard, his wife learned celestial navigation, and
they sailed off to the Caribbean for a few
years.

“I had a passion and chased after it,” says
Hatfield.

Around the same time, Richard Difede
left New Jersey to winter in Mexico, sought a place where “people were
half sane and spoke English,” and came to St. Croix owning nothing but his
surfboard, backpack and dog.

After Hatfield and Difede
met through a mutual friend, they began building a personal cruising boat,
basing themselves at the Salt River Marina in exchange for cleaning up and
managing the place.Then fate
stepped in, in the form of Captain Heinz Punzenberger,
who needed a new boat to take tourists on day excursions to
Buck Island.  He asked Hatfield and Difede to design and build
Teroro II
, still a familiar sight in St. Croix waters 21 years later.

“It’s
sailing every bit as well as ever,” says Hatfield of the 42’
trimaran which has never needed structural work despite being flipped upside
down by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and hit by lightning after a power surge at
Green Cay Marina in 2002.

“It’s
been such a good relationship,” says Mary Punzenberger. “We had no signed
contract—my father was alive at the time and he thought we were
crazy.It’s a very good
boat.”

One
good boat led to another, Gold Coast Yachts was incorporated, and this year Difede and Hatfield began work on boat nu
mber 80. Satisfied repeat clients are the norm—Red
Sail Sports, a charter company operating catamarans in Aruba, Grand Cayman, and
Hawaii, has
taken delivery on seven so far. 
What’s the Gold Coast secret of success?

“A lot of
boats in the day charter business are racing boats or cruiser boats which
don’t have passenger spaces,” says Difede.
Hatfield’s catamaran designs incorporate safety features, like sails and
rigging placed away from passenger areas, and comfort features like sun roofs
and steps to the sea.Speed is a
consideration, too—Gold Coast’s 54’ motor sailers operate at
around 25 knots under power or sail.

Hatfield’s ideas, now widely copied by competitors, came
from listening to customers and employees and taking into account each
client’s budget and requirements. 

“Roger’s job has been to synthesize all of that,”
says Difede, who handles the business end.
“That’s why people come to us.” As in a good marriage,
each partner credits the other with the success of the business.

“He’s the backbone of the whole thing,”
says Hatfield about Difede. “He deals with the nu
mbers with dollar signs. He’s more creative than I am in
many ways.”

Realizing early on that they could not rely on itinerant
sailors for skilled help, the two gradually trained their own work force of 27
people.With this team they will
build six boats in the next 12 months while holding deposits from four or five
clients on a waitlist.Besides
commercial sailing catamarans, Gold Coast builds Wave Piercers
used for water taxi and ferry services around the Caribbean.

Although they’ve earned their way into the big time, Difede and Hatfield still run a lean operation, working out
of a trailer, sheds, and shipping containers. Three boats are in progress at any one
time, and the average price per boat approaches $1 million as costs for time
and materials increase.

Space constraints prevent Difede
and Hatfield from building more boats per year and they think about moving. First, though, they will wait to see if
the government of the U.S. Virgin Islands changes Economic Development
Commission laws to allow more than 20 years of benefits—if not, their tax
incentives will end this year along with the ability to run a profitable
business.

Until they get word, they’ll keep messing around with
boats on the banks of a river where Columbus sailed in 1493 and where
they created a work world that they say has been a blessing. Rich Difede
likes the maturity the work brought to his former tropical backpacking life.

“It has been a great place to force you to grow
up,” he says.

And Roger Hatfield, who chased after his passion? He’s still finding it in a
St. Croix boatyard.

“Anything
we want to learn in life, we can learn it here,” he says.

www.goldcoastyachts.com

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