A Boatbuilder off the Beaten Path
For months, I'd heard about circumnavigator Alex Wopper and Alwoplast, his custom boatyard in Valdivia, Chile. But when I got there last year, our introduction took place over lip-puckering Pisco Sours and multiple courses of sashimi and sushi at a dinner party that Wopper and his wife, Jackie, held at their home, beautifully appointed with Oriental furnishings. I was touched by the easygoing, good-natured hospitality Wopper displayed for family, colleagues, and the newest of acquaintances. He struck me as a sailor content with a life that situates him firmly on land and revolves around helping others shove off.
At 54, he's soft-spoken and polite, yet his eyes light up when he discusses something he's passionate about; there's mischief in his sense of humor. Some time after my visit, when I wrote in an e-mail that his sensibility reminded me of Bernard Moitessier, the late, great French Zen master of solo sailing, he wrote back: "Thanks for the flowers! Comparing my attitude with Moitessier makes me about two inches taller."
As a lad in Germany, Wopper didn't just devour the famed sailor's contemplative tomes; he made a mission of the inspiration he drew from them. For him, as for Moitessier, sailing wasn't just a physical and mental endurance test; it was a journey of the soul. Yet the similarities between these two spiritually minded sailors are limited. While Moitessier shunned social convention, lived penniless, and was plagued by repeated shipwrecks, Wopper found his center in keeping busy, building a business, and launching sturdy boats that endure.
Throughout his life, Wopper's looked outside himself for the strength to focus inward. As a boy, his first gaze upon the statue of the Buddha gave rise to a fascination that he labels "my first love affair." University studies made it possible for him to delve into Asian culture, customs, and religion; he studied with Chinese masters for insight into his destiny, as well as partaking in martial arts and the healing art Reiki. As the masters received him, they delivered a message he'd already partially decoded on his own: From water he'd draw lifelong strength. With that, Wopper was off; aboard the 34-foot steel boat he built for himself and his first wife, the couple rounded the Horn and explored the Strait of Magellan for six months, eventually making landfall, more than 20 years ago, in Valdivia.
It was a move that would dramatically alter the course of their lives. The once-landlocked Bavarian who'd started out as a poor orphan, who'd proclaimed himself saved by the sea and sailing, who'd home-built a couple of boats and raced one of them, an aluminum 22-footer, in the 1979 Mini-Transat before becoming a circumnavigator, looked around, saw potential, and decided to stay.
"I fell in love with it," he says. "I'd always dreamed of having my own boatyard, but in Germany it was too expensive. In Chile, there was nothing. I saw the potential. In this extreme part of the world, I foresaw that boats would increasingly want to get off the beaten path and come here." His ongoing studies of Eastern philosophy inclined Wopper to conclude that Earth's energy center was slowly shifting from the Himalayas to the Andes. "I had to follow the call and move, via water, to the Andes, and grow roots right there," he says.
In other words, where Spanish conquistadores strode 500 years earlier, Wopper reckoned he'd find gold by other means. That gold, in the form of a profitable boatyard specializing in the construction of custom heavy-weather designs in sail and power for high-latitude adventure seekers, proved to be two decades in the mining. In 2007, Alwoplast, or Alex Wopper Plastics, celebrates its 20th anniversary with a full complement of employees, three sheds, one office building, one clubhouse, and a marina with 15 slips (one of them able to accommodate vessels up to almost 140 feet on the outside dock). The whole complex spreads out over three waterfront acres on the fresh water of the Valdivia River.
That's a far cry from the beginning. When Wopper picked the site for the yard on the riverbanks, "there wasn't even a road," he says. "No road, no building, no telephone. We had to use a barge to go into town to use the telex. This is how it started. It was really challenging. I was the first worker, and within a half a year, I had five guys working with me."
Alwoplast's first commission, in 1987, was from "a crazy German sailor," Wopper says, who wanted a 38-foot West System ketch. Other jobs came in, requests to build runabouts, small boats, anything that suited both lake sailors and racers and those who by choice or career had to take to the daunting waters of the Pacific Ocean's Roaring 40s, which lie just outside the entrance to the Valdivia River. In 1990, Alwoplast even became a certified builder of the Olympic-class Tornado catamarans, selling several to Germany as well as helping to build a Tornado fleet for use on the lakes outside of Chile's capital city, Santiago.
The turning point in the business came in 1992, when sportfisherman Richard Postma hired Alwoplast to build a Lock Crowther-designed catamaran for his charter-fishing business in Bora-Bora, French Polynesia. "It was an incredible state-of-the-art fishing machine of Kevlar and carbon fiber," Wopper says. "It was vacuum-bagged, foam-cored, and epoxy-cured. He'd gone to other yards, and he picked us. Fifteen years ago, it was an unusual project. Was the client crazy? In some ways, yes, but I'm happy for each 'crazy guy' who walks into the office. Only the dreamers are changing the world and making it a more interesting place. If you can dream it, we can build it!"
Since the Postma commission, the bulk of the yard's work is in multihull design and construction in sail and, increasingly, power; in 20 years, the company has built more than 45 boats. Commissions come from the military, for patrol and rescue vessels; from commercial enterprises, such as tour and ferry companies; and from individuals seeking custom and one-off boats, such as a current commission to build a sailing catamaran equipped with Glacier Bay's Ossa Powerlite system, a generator that produces high-voltage DC current to drive an electric propulsion system. Alwoplast-built boats are found in waters all over the world, from Chilean Patagonia to French Polynesia, from the Mediterranean to the Intracoastal Waterway of the United States, and in the Caribbean. The yard is certified by the International Organization for Standardization and adheres to management and quality-control practices of ISO-9001. Since 1996, it's been a member of the American Boat & Yacht Council and has debuted new models at boat shows in the United States. And in 2000, Jimmy Cornell, the bluewater voyager and CW contributing editor, used Alwoplast as a stopover and repair station for his Millennium Odyssey round-the-world flotilla. "Virtually all boats had work done while there," Cornell wrote in an e-mail. "Alex's yard is first class, with very skilled workers."
Such statements from a seasoned world voyager who can be stingy with compliments make Wopper justifiably proud. "After 20 years, we've survived as a place where you can get unusual projects done," he says. "We never serve the charter industry. Our expertise is in the area of extreme weather as a testing ground. We know shitty weather."
Heavy-weather expertise notwithstanding, Chile's still a long way for U.S. sailors to go to build a boat. Why would someone, whether he or she was the client or the designer, want to work with Alwoplast in Chile?
"Our clients are looking for their final, custom-designed boat, and we can do it for one-half to two-thirds of what it costs in the United States, even with custom specs," Wopper says. The business manages to accomplish this even though materials, primarily from the United States, New Zealand, and Europe, come at roughly a 60-percent surcharge. "We can't compete with mass-production boatbuilders," he says. "We produce two or three boats a year. Our clients are people who've had three or four boats before. And they're ready for more: They want a floating office. They want their house."
Other factors contributing to the success story include reasonable labor and overhead costs, Alwoplast's solid financial backing from leading players in Chile's private airline and automotive sectors, and disciplined management practices, chief among them the operation of the yard as a full-service facility.
"We hire no subcontractors," Wopper says. "We have everything except a sail loft. When we changed from a limited-liability company to a stock company, we decided that the cost of a sail loft wasn't feasible. And, anyway, we were slowly shifting to the powerboat market."
Among its 45 employees, the yard has its own naval-engineering staff of five and a machine shop where it forges such structural and deck components as cleats, rails, and rigging. It hires its own laminators, electricians, polishers, sanders, and administrative and general-maintenance workers. Where possible and appropriate, vessels are appointed belowdecks with native woods and domestically produced fabric and upholstery.
Successful working relationships with yacht designers and the ability to develop and modify its own designs as a result of custom requests give Alwoplast more significant advantages. "What we offer are proven hull shapes," Wopper says. "There are no surprises when we launch the boat. We know its power, speed, range, and whether it's seaworthy. We can place owners' ideas on proven platforms. And because we have an in-house staff to carry it out, we can get it done. These boats are in the water."
For all the useful trial and error over the years working with various designs, Wopper's advantage still comes down to his experience as a sailor. American multihull designer Chris White, who's partnering with Alwoplast to build two Atlantic 57 catamarans, with plans to build others, offers an interesting critique. "I really like Alex. He's an intelligent, honest, thoughtful sailor," he says. "And he's a highly experienced sailor-that's a plus. Alex knows what it's like to cook a meal on a 30-degree heel. Few builders ever pay much attention to really making the interior work smoothly at sea."
Wopper would be the first to agree that success at anything is a balancing act. "I manage to run a very human company that's able to listen to the real needs of our clients," he says. "As we are a one-off custom builder, only by really listening can we achieve ultimate satisfaction. I see our work still as an art and not only technology. Being able to motivate and balance people, based on a general, more humble consciousness, is something very important to me. It's not only about money. As an entrepreneur, especially in a developing country, I feel it's necessary not only to feed your workers but also to try to be a living sample of true and standing values. It's not a check and a 'Good-bye!' at the end of the day. It's 'Welcome to the Alwoplast family.'"
At times, though, life does swing out of sync. Among the challenges Wopper experienced during his career was the loss of his founding partner when he and his first wife, who started the yard with him, divorced. Yet the prediction of the Chinese masters that he'd form a new family rang true, and Wopper rebounded with the support of his adopted daughter, Isi, and his current wife, Jackie, who's certified as a Reiki master and volunteers at the local hospital. "I work in the yard to support our living, and Jackie works for free in the hospital. Both areas, home and work, are clearly separated, and we both are most grateful for our lives. I draw a lot of energy from it for our business."
So these days, perhaps the only critical area left in Wopper's life to rebalance is the sailing part. Success doesn't allow for unstructured time on the water, even if the business is boatbuilding. The last ocean passage he took was in 2004 aboard the Alwoplast-built Dalila Sue, a 50-foot power cat, from Valdivia to Miami. Wopper still sea-trials the new boats, and he chartered a bareboat five years ago in the British Virgin Islands.
But his pleasure on the water for now is confined to a 14-foot rowboat that, for him, makes up for all the organizational heft he puts into Alwoplast: "It's not a floating jewel, as you may think," he says. "It's more an ugly, leaking workboat with zero maintenance. That's the final result of 35 years of building boats, and I love it!"
Elaine Lembo is CW's managing editor.