Island boatbuilder helps get America’s Cup defender afloat
Jason Torbett has lived in Jamestown for 30 years. He moved here when he was 9 years old, attended the Jamestown schools and graduated from North Kingstown High. These days, however, Torbett finds himself living in San Francisco, joining the ranks of Rhode Islanders who are working to help Oracle Team USA defend the America’s Cup later this year.
After high school, Torbett attended MTTI, a career training school in Providence where he studied marine mechanics. This led to a job at New England Boatworks in 1996. Although his training was primarily related to boat engines, there wasn’t much work in the area at the time. Torbett was asked if he would like to work on composite boat building. He agreed. He remained with the Portsmouth company for 16 years.
During his time at New England Boatworks, Torbett worked on prestigious projects such as the construction of two boats for Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes syndicate. The boats competed for the America’s Cup in New Zealand in 2003, losing in the quarterfinals of the Louis Vitton Cup. It was Conner’s final America’s Cup effort. More recently Torbett was part of the team that constructed Puma’s Mar Mostro, a boat that competed in last year’s Volvo Ocean Race and finished in third place.
“That was a great project for New England Boatworks,” Torbett said. “It was a very high profile boat and something we hadn’t done yet. It was a really nice boat.”
Eventually the boat building business gave way to a long held dream of Torbett’s. In April 2012 he left New England Boatworks to focus on an effort to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail – from Georgia to Maine.
“A friend of mine called me and told me that he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail. It had been my goal to get the trail hiked back in 2008, but I really couldn’t do it at the time because the economy had crashed and I was afraid of not having a job when I got back.”
When the opportunity to hike the trail came again, Torbett didn’t hesitate. He left New England Boatworks on good terms and set off on the trail. He said that although leaving a job that he had held for 16 years was frightening, at 39 years old he realized that if he didn’t do it now he might never do it.
“I was a little concerned at my age, but I really enjoyed it a lot and found some peace,” he said. “I met some incredible people on the trail who, like me, were trying to get away from the 9-to-5 drone style of life.”
The plan was to hike the trail straight through. Nights were spent in shelters along the trail, but since some of the accommodations were moldy and dingy, when the weather permitted Torbett strung up a hammock and slept there.
The original 5 1/2-month schedule that Torbett created for the hike was derailed when he found himself enjoying his time on the trail so much that the schedule went out the window. Despite doing away with the schedule, he still found himself completing mileage in the time he had originally allotted for himself.
“It opened my eyes to how great our country is,” he said. “We kind of lose faith when we see all of these horrible things happening, but when you’re a stranger in somebody’s town and they take you to their house and feed you, and let you do your laundry, it really opens your mind to the fact that things really aren’t that bad. There are still a lot of really good people out there.”
Unfortunately, Torbett’s hike came to a premature end in Dalton, Mass. He had been walking on a stress fracture since hiking through the rocky hills of Pennsylvania. On Sept. 10, as he was nearing Dalton, he jammed his foot into a rock and “felt something go wrong.” He got to Dalton and went to a hospital where x-rays showed that he had broken two metatarsal bones.
Torbett estimates he completed 1,582 miles of the trail over approximately five months. About 600 miles remained to the finish at Mount Katahdin in Maine. Torbett has no doubt that one day he will complete the hike.
Not long after he got back to Jamestown, Torbett saw the video of the Oracle 72-foot catamaran crashing in San Francisco Bay. The crash took place on Oct. 17. Torbett had met Oracle project manager Mark Turner while working at New England Boatworks, and it wasn’t long before he got a call saying that Oracle was looking for boatbuilders to help them repair the big cat.
Without a job and not yet ready to return to New England Boatworks, Torbett readily accepted the offer. Within a week he was driving to San Francisco. When he arrived and got his first look at the wrecked boat, he knew that there was a lot of work to be done.
“We were really under a lot of pressure to get the boat put back together and get the guys back on the water so that they could start training. The first two months that I was here we were working around the clock, seven days a week, 12 hour days.”
After a Christmas break, the work resumed and the boat was returned to the water earlier this month. Torbett has been on the water watching the crew put the catamaran through its paces. He likes what he sees.
“I think they have a great chance to defend,” he said. “The campaign is professionally run. As the defender I think they’ve got a really good chance. The whole team here is dedicated to building the best boats that they can. This boat is a machine. It’s a monster on the water and it goes really fast.”
Now that the boat is back on the water, Torbett is only working six days a week, making parts for the second Oracle boat, which is expected to be launched in April. He’s working alongside a number of other Rhode Islanders including Jamestown’s Scott Ferguson, who is the chief rig designer for Oracle.