Q&A: An Interview with Travis Brandt, President of Xtaero Boats

Q: Obviously, anglers in the market for a new boat are faced with a multitude of styles, sizes and various other options. In a nutshell, what sets Xtaero Boats apart?
A: In a word, usability. If you look at mission capability such as fishing on a windy day, or fishing in swells, or fishing with four large adults, the Xtaero will allow you to go out on days when other anglers are forced to stay home or in sheltered waters. Said another way, out of 365 days, you could plausibly use a 17-degree non-developed thinner gauge boat maybe 150 days comfortably where the Xtaero you can use 300 days. Reason being ride comfort, feeling of safety with confidence that the weather is manageable. This is a made up example, of course, but I feel it’s a fair expression of the boats capabilities. The same usability analogy can be said for number of fishing buddies to take, also, usability in standing head room in the cabin with easy ingress egress around each other inside the cabin. The most noticeable usability factor that’s apparent right away is the high, solid, wide and very functional gunwales. This design really makes fishing on the back deck pleasurable. Everyone comments on it, from parents with kids to seniors looking for support when leaning overboard. 

Things have happened fast for Xtaero since you started the company. Can you describe the last year and how the company has grown from where you began with that original posting online?
It’s certainly a surprise to have 50,000 views on a blog and to be at the Portland Boat Show where everyone and their mother are coming up to us saying that they’ve been following the blog or whatever. Most people know that I started the boat-building side of Xtaero Boat with a Craigslist posting in Anchorage. Out of the blue I received many inquiries and one man hopped on Alaska and met me at a hotel in Seattle. I had nothing to show him but a cardboard model of the hull structure. We had glued part of it together to show the deadrise and the girders, stiffeners and breast plate. We had the bulkheads literally in a shoe box, along with the cabin sides and roof. I didn’t know this guy from Adam and he was asking me opened-ended non-specific questions about how we would do this or that. At the point of this meeting, I was staying on a friend’s couch and hadn’t secured the exact place to build the boat. We had two chosen and were in talks with the buildings’ owners, but I wasn’t sure the boat would sell and if so, how many. So I just waited for a deposit. It turns out that Tom, the guy sitting across the table from me at the hotel, was an impressive guy. He said that this would be the third custom boat he’d have built over the years and then proceeded to school me on his previous rides. Very expensive commercial fishing boats that were 80,000-plus pounds. He was definitely salty. Finally, he looked up from the cardboard model and said, “Well, you obviously know how to build a boat,” which, of course was music to my ears. I hadn’t started the blog yet, but I was posting ideas around and had tried a Kickstarter project two years prior that failed, and the blogging community was criticizing the concept. Even now, when vendors walk in my office I get funny looks as if what we are accomplishing is not exactly normal, but when I show them the details they light up and love the business. I’ve spent years perfecting the “how” in terms of keeping overhead low, and most aggressively I’ve been working on being able to build semi-custom boats in a production environment. There is a massive amount of work on the back end, well front end actually, because Jarek Kanios, the boats’ designer, has been working on hull concepts and I’ve been working on Gantt charts (production schedules) and spreadsheets for years, just to get all the right parts to the shop floor at just the right time in order to bake the right cake. At the same time we were building that first boat, I began posting on the iFish blog and response was incredible. This led to articles, the boat show and financing to build more boats. We’re technically just over a year old and we’re on our third website, third demo boat, two boats delivered to Alaska on time and budget, a fully built-out commercial production facility and a following that is pretty humbling. 

What’s in store for Xtaero in 2016?
In short, we’re upping the game in the industry by using our know-how to build out sixteen Xtaero models, eight 22s and eight 24s. We resisted this concept of ‘two foot-itis’ because the most commonly sold boat in the USA is a 22-foot outboard. But the platform was so perfect and an extra 2 feet has been relatively inexpensive to integrate so that for 2016 we’re launching a 24-foot version. In the meantime, we’re offering, requiring actually, the customer to choose major configurations of their boat; forward- or aft-leaning windshield, open or closed back wall of the cabin, single or twin outboard, transom work station or a full height transom across the back. In the end, these details won’t change the price of the boat. With delivery times and cost being static the customer will get the boat they want and by doing this, we have sixteen fully developed models complete and can build each in assembly-line fashion along with traditional options such as aft steering helms, electronics, rigging and more. 

What kind of feedback have you gotten from anglers on the boats’ performance on the water?
So far we have two main feedback messages. One, the boat is indestructibly tough in terms of substance and design. Substance being the quantity and thickness of aluminum and design being the placement of the same into the structure of the boat. It doesn’t pound or even vibrate like other boats. Tom says it is ‘hell for stout’ and I don’t think Tom likes to say the word, but we have to agree. Hell for stout is what we were after. The other main message is that the boat works in the water, and it works when fishing. It’s not too tippy; it’s more than secure on the back deck; the feeling of safety and stability is noticeable—even as a concept, the safety and stability stands out as a physical feature when you’re out there.

The rest of the angler feedback is probably better told by the fish who met their maker quickly after Doug’s (Kodiak Demo Boat) first dropped the cannonballs. On day one, two kings and three silvers in a very short time. As of this writing he’s had the boat on-island for something like 60 days and I guarantee you the number of fish boarded and kept has been over 60 and if I sent him a text now to ask him the real number, he’d say, “I stopped counting that first week.”

Doug reports loving the gunwales, loving the ride, the economy, the headroom, and he says that the ease of cleaning is very high on his needs. He’s got four children and a wife who owns a business and Doug himself works a demanding day job 50- to 70 hours per week. He loves his boat but doesn’t have time to baby it and detail it every time. He says he loves the fact he can wash it, wipe the interior a little and walk away. No problem.  

For the Alaskan market, with our unique and varied waters, what in your opinion should anglers be looking for in an aluminum boat?
Alaska to me is more than a market; I consider it part of my identity and in many respects it is where my soul calls home. After spending a couple years as a seaman on a 110-foot cutter similar to the Roanoke Island and Mustang I worked with the Coast Guard on Kodiak for 3 years. Here I took my private pilot check ride, was a part-time lifeguard at the base pool to stay in shape and for work I was one of the people who actually answered the mayday calls at Commsta Kodiak. Peggy Dyson (the famous weather lady) literally was my next door neighbor, her long-line antenna tied off to the roof of my porch. I’ve taken mayday calls with too many fishermen who were making their last transmission. Rare few of them were prepared. Over 150 people per year lose their life in Alaska where just Commsta Kodiak has coverage. Nobody takes this lightly. So, in a word of what anglers should be looking for, safety is the end and beginning. How safety is quantified depends on several factors. In boat design, collisions with rocks are big deals for small boats in Alaska. Tidal beaching is the norm because of undeveloped shorelines and, especially in Kodiak, shale rocks are sharp and rigid so puncturing a hull is a real concern. 5086H116 is important because it is rigid and maybe people don’t know it contains magnesium, silicon and titanium among other properties. The other concern is that a hull’s exposure to extremely rough water is routine in Alaska whereas in the Lower 48 most anglers would stay home on really windy or rough days. If an angler avoids this weather in Alaska, they better take up another hobby, like moving to the Lower 48. Hull structure reinforcement and transference of energy when pounding in the waves will allow the hull asset value to live longer. Next is the high gunwales; we’ve been floating our idea of the new aft workstation by our contacts in Alaska. No one likes it. They all really love the full-width high-backed transom simply because of keeping everything in the boat where it belongs. Water, obviously is the exception, and a self-bailing deck is critical. Too many boats design dependence of the bilge pump into daily operations. I believe that the bilge should always be dry and I’m quite disappointed if there is even a quart of water in my bilge after a hard day on the water.  Beyond this, having a warm, dry and roomy cabin with a head is paramount. Many Alaskans feel like certain areas need to be compromised. I see them making choices to buy modified river boats because of brand recognition, mostly because they have to compromise to get a decent enough boat for about the right financial investment. It’s a trade-off. We hope to offer a magnitude of value for only a small amount more. 

As the founder of Xtaero Boats, when you sit back and envision one of your boats cruising the fishing grounds in Alaska, what do you see?
I’ve wanted to build boats since I was a kid, and I had this idea in my mind since I was about 12. I worked hard to get my first boat-building company going and right about the time we built the very first boat my gut tripped and a huge fear bubble floated in front of me. My boat was so souped-up on horsepower that it would attract type-A superficial guys that played way too much golf and were ultra-rich (read stuck up and wouldn’t connect with my down-home ways). I almost backed out because by this time I knew who I wanted to be and mixing with what I thought were going to be egotistical personalities would be anything but fun. The most interesting and heartwarming thing that happened was potential customers started coming around, a few ordered boats, and without exception, each party had a connection story as their ‘why’ for buying it in the first place. In one case, a man bought a boat for his four brothers to enjoy, another for his family to spend time together, another for teenagers who needed real-world experience away from PlayStations. Each person was investing in something bigger than themselves; they went far out of their way to bring that connection around the water. That is still the case. Tom has a family; he’s retired; he wants boats to be a part of his life and his ‘why’ is about getting out and enjoying time with his wife and family, as a together experience. Doug has four kids and a large group of friends, not all of whom can afford boats. He bought a boat as a provider into his family and network and the Xtaero is a natural fit with his energy, speed of life and absolute need for safety with his small kids. In Tom’s case, another boat would have been about equal for mission success, but in Doug’s case, there was no other choice. In answer to your question about what I see, or want to see, it is simply that I want people to get out and do more things together safely. Everything about the Xtaero is mounted on the concept that you don’t have to be an expert boater, experienced sailor or diehard captain at heart. The Xtaero is built for everyone to be the boat that brings people together, and brings them home. Every time.