Buck Frost and Andy Aleicho complete each other’s sentences. For 32 years now, they’ve been partners in Itchiban Yacht Painters. With a nod or a glance, they each know what the other is thinking, and when we meet in late December 2018, they’re either thinking about the next boat scheduled to roll into their paint shed or whether the New England Patriots would make another Super Bowl appearance.
It was Zane Oller who actually started their yacht-painting business in 1985, and one of the early yachts he painted was in Japan. After reviewing his work, many of the Japanese workers said to him, “You are ichiban painter!”
In Japanese, the word “ichiban” means number one, or the very best. Oller liked the sound of that, so he adopted the name, but added a “t” to Americanize it. Itchiban Yacht Painters was born, and its reputation for excellence spread by word of mouth. Frost and Aleicho both enjoyed being employees of Itchiban. They were shocked and saddened when Oller died in a parachuting accident in Florida in the late 1980s.
After Oller’s friends mourned his passing, Bristol, Rhode Island-based boatbuilder Eric Goetz called Frost and said, “Get your ass over here and finish this boat.” In Goetz’s shop was the 80-foot maxi Emerod, which required a big painting crew, and the job was high stakes. Aleicho and Frost walked into a meeting at Goetz Composites, and, as it turns out, the topic of the meeting was whether these two guys could finish the job.
Buck, a Maine native and graduate of the Eastern Maine Vocation Technical Institute, was 21. Aleicho, who was a welder before he started painting at Itchiban, was 24. Neither had ever owned a business. But what they lacked in experience they made up for in attitude, enthusiasm and the strength to longboard big yachts by hand. The team at Goetz believed in them, and they finished the paint job perfectly, on time, on budget and without drama or nonsense.
Soon thereafter, Frost and Aleicho purchased Itchiban Painting company from Oller’s family. To this day, they honor his memory by putting the number 13, which Oller wore proudly on his softball team jersey, on their logo and all of their company clothing.
Emerod was the first of countless yachts Itchiban painted for Goetz, who notes, “The reason I like working with them is they are ready to do whatever needs to be done. We’ve used them as boatbuilders, laminators and painters. They have a gung-ho attitude, which is really fun to be around.”
Of all of the boats they’ve launched together — and there is a fleet of them — one of the most memorable was Young America for 1995 America’s Cup challenger PACT 95. The paint job of the boat’s iconic mermaid was designed by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Frost remembers being in a meeting where someone asked if the complicated paint job was even possible. In the tradition of Itchiban, the team replied, “yeah.”
The Itchibans, as they are known, took a photo of Lichtenstein’s model, converted it to plastic film, and projected it onto the yacht with an overhead projector.
With the help of Rhode Island School of Design students, who worked for pizza and beer, the mermaid was traced onto the yacht with pencil. Then it was taped off with “miles and miles” of green Fine Line masking tape.
Using Sikkens car paint that would kick quickly, Frost, Aleicho and the rest of the Itchiban team started painting on Friday and finished late Sunday night. “We’d work until three in the morning, clean our guns, go home, then come back at six or seven,” Aleicho says.
After all of the colors were applied, they shot the mermaid with 10 coats of clear and buffed out the hull. As the boat was packed up on a truck and driven down the road, the weary painters went home to get some sleep.
With Young America safe in San Diego, Itchiban moved on to other boats. Then the phone rang. “Pack your tools,” Goetz said. “The boat blew over. We’re going to San Diego.”
A freak tornado had hit the team compound and the mermaid had three big holes in her hull. “One of them was big enough to drive a VW Beetle through,” Frost says. The Goetz team created molds to match each hole, and the Itchibans patched the intricate paint job.
On a particularly hot day during the repair, builders and painters from Goetz and Itchiban were working inside the boat when Goetz heard the mumblings of a speech.
All six of the Goetz guys and the Itchiban team came up to the deck. Suddenly, a scissor lift came up and there was Lichtenstein above a crowd of dignitaries, ready to christen the hull.
Goetz looked at the gathering below and said, “Guys, these speeches are going to go on for a while. We have to get lunch.”
As Lichtenstein and the dignitaries occupied the scissor lift that normally would have transported the teams back down to the ground, Goetz came up with an improvised solution. They grabbed a tent pole that was near the deck and slid down to the ground, fireman style. As they walked into the hospitality tent, Goetz said to a server, “Hi, we’re here for lunch.” The team feasted in the tent while the speeches continued under the hot sun.
Having built around a dozen America’s Cup boats that the Itchibans painted, Goetz doesn’t dwell too much on one particular vessel.
“It’s not so much the boat as it is the fun of doing this stuff with people you have a lot of affection for,” he says. “They’re awesome guys, and I’m glad they’re getting the recognition that is so long in coming to them.”
With all due respect to war stories from the past, Itchiban is now working on confidential projects for the next America’s Cup. The team can’t talk about the details.
But while Aleicho and Frost are working, Brandon Linton — from the build team of the New York YC’s American Magic syndicate — arrives to pick up some non-skid compound. Aleicho asks him if he wants fine, medium, or coarse.
Brandon replies, “Coarse. What good would fine be?”
Frost smiles knowingly and explains that there are some owners of large power yachts who prefer fine, so the decks do not abrade the backsides of bikini-clad passengers.
Regarding the quality of Itchiban’s work, Linton says, “Anyone can mix and paint, but the question is, ‘Can you do a good job?’ We’re boatbuilders and we can paint, but the finish we get is not like glass. It’s not going to be to the standard these guys can achieve. We’re always putting it on thin for fear of applying that little bit too much and ruining the job. With these guys, they know how to get it on. They know the limits. There’s a difference between a professional and somebody who knows how to do it.”
Sailboats are traveling faster than ever, but prepping them for a perfect paint job still takes as much time as ever. The dustless sanders, modern materials and the state-of-the-art spray booth do make a difference in the outcome of the project, but the back-breaking dedication to detail is what makes Itchiban’s work stand out.
Aleicho says the view is, “If you’re going to do it, do it right. Take a little more time and get it right, instead of rushing through it to get it done.”
Not all of their projects are America’s Cup boats or maxis, however. Off to the side of the Itchiban prep shop, which measures 140 feet long, sits a DN iceboat fuselage being prepped for black paint. The project is for past DN world champ Jeff Kent. When asked why they’re painting a DN, Aleicho replies, “If Jeff Kent asked us to, we’d paint his fingernails.”
The Itchibans and Kent go back three decades. In the old days, Kent was at nearby mast builder Hall Spars and later, Composite Solutions. Today, he’s a marine consultant. When asked why he’s worked with the Itchibans for so long, he says, “I know they’re going to take care of me. Once they have the project, I don’t have to think about it again. Anytime you see them, they always treat you with a big smile, jokes, laughter; they’re upbeat. Even when times are tough and they’ve been working hard they always seem to crack a smile.”
One memorable project for Kent involved a mast that was built in sections at Hall Spars and shipped to Abaking & Rasmussen in Germany. On site, the sections of the two masts — the main mast at 150 feet and the mizzen at 120 feet — had to be spliced together, faired and painted. In the busy boatyard, the Itchibans set up a tent as an improvised spray booth and took care of the job. The finished spar was “like a piece of art,” Kent says.
If there’s a division of labor between Frost and Aleicho, Frost is closer to the customers and setting up temporary workshops on “away games,” while Aleicho excels at running the business. Frost is quick to give his partner credit for keeping the business afloat when plenty of others in the yacht-building industry have long gone under. What’s the secret to their longevity?
“If we don’t have it, we don’t spend it,” says Aleicho. “We don’t have a credit card and we haven’t had one in 35 years.”
Frost has a quick smile and a pleasant way with all of Itchiban’s customers, like Bill Koffler, the owner of Aquidneck Custom Composites, a shop that builds high-tech custom yachts.
“Bucky is super nice and friendly,” Koffler says. “He’s honest, hardworking and always has a smile. He’s my social thermometer. He likes everyone. I mean, if Bucky doesn’t like someone, oh boy, that guy is a jerk.”
How often do they get to close shop and get out on the water these days? Very seldom. Production schedules are usually tight and the Itchibans almost never get to sail the boats they paint. There was one recent exception. Frost got to go for a tear on Comanche, the 100-foot maxi Itchiban maintained. The memory brings a smile to his face that stretches from ear to ear.
Behind the shop there are two perfectly painted boats on trailers. One belongs to Frost, the other is Aleicho’s. Neither craft has seen much use.
“It’s like the cobbler with no shoes,” Aleicho says. “We never get around to using our boats because we’re so busy painting other people’s.”