In a small shop near the banks of Dog River, Ben Cummings meticulously places the finishing touches on a custom-designed skiff. His creation is set for completion this summer. “It’s a redfish-catching machine,” Cummings says as we examine the model. It was recently installed with fiberglass and is almost ready for final painting. The vessels are called Tensaws, so named for Alabama’s largest delta system, in which Cummings’ boats fit perfectly. His project is a prototype. More are coming.
Following the tradition set by legendary boat builder Lawrence Stauter, Cummings might be Mobile’s next aqua entrepreneur to watch. If all goes well for the 26-year-old Mobilian, Tensaw 1 will be the forerunner for Tensaws to come. The milestone will also be his latest dream come true involving water.
The aquatic vision began around 2015 during the entrepreneur’s teenage years. He was able to transfer a love of the outdoors to summer employment. During his high school days at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School and college years at the University of Mississippi, he worked at marine repair / electrical businesses.
Cummings installed wiring, speakers and sound systems and did interior work on boats. He learned the business from hands-on training. “I’ve been crawling around in these things forever,” he smiles, referencing the dozens of boats he rode on, fished from or repaired over the years.
After college, he started a guide business, Delta Fly Fishing. During that time, he met Harry Spear, owner of Spear Boatworks in Tallahassee and the YouTube creator of “The Art of Skiff Building.” “I spent about a week at Harry’s shop,” he recalls, “And learned a lot from him, which helped me build my first boat.” Spear made the hull. Cummings brought it back to Mobile to finish the job.
“I never saw the finished product,” Spear says. “But it looked good from the pictures Ben sent me. He built a beautiful boat, and I can tell by the photo that he pays attention to details. Ben is proud of that first boat and he should be.”
The formative days turned into years of experience, which leads to the present and the first Tensaw, his nautical pride and joy. “I will tweak and test it,” Cummings notes. “What I learn from this one will be applied to the others.”
He knows about tweaking to make things right. About two years out of college, his business experienced growing pains. “I had outgrown the original location — my parents’ garage in Ashland Place,” he said. In January 2021, he launched his company, Tensaw Boatworks LLC, across the street from Dog River Park.
“I’ve outgrown this place too,” he smiles as we walk around boats in various states of repair. Being outgrown is a good problem to have. Business is good.
Cummings sold his first personally built boat to a Baldwin County customer. Now comes boat two, the first in the Tensaw series. “I am building this one for me,” he says. “It will be tested and modified as needed. This is the model for Tensaws to come.”
The shop’s centerpiece water vessel is 18 feet, 9 inches long. “I started it from the ground up,” the builder says, rubbing the smooth fiberglass finish of his boat which is about to have the deck installed. Work is tedious but the task is also a labor of love. The boat started as an idea on paper and a set of plans. It was built from the frame, assembled with wood, fiberglass and more, with an untold but obvious warning: Don’t try this at home. Custom boat building is not an assembly line process. Each vessel is a work of art and the construction is far from easy.
Social media sites are filled with video clips of backyard boat makers six miles from shore when suddenly, the vessel involuntarily becomes a submarine. Spear warned and Cummings heeded, “The hull is everything. Concentrate on the bottom part, the part that interfaces with water. If the hull is breached, everything above it no longer matters.”
Professional builders know the difficulties of staying afloat — literally. Each build is different, and some phases of construction are more difficult than others. “Applying fiberglass is challenging,” Cummings notes as an example. “It has to be placed just right or it doesn’t work.”
There is trial and error in fiberglass placement and boating work in general before you are competent enough to build your own vessel. Or better yet, let Cummings do it. On the Tensaws, every phase is done by hand in accordance with purchasers’ specifications. “Usually customers want personalized interiors,” he notes. “Some want a center console, but others want it in the back.” Tensaws will come in several sizes, again, based on what customers want. If one’s desire includes Mobile, Baldwin and fishing beyond, Tensaw is the answer. “It will glide on 7 inches of water,” he says. “Perfect for shallow-water fishing, salt or fresh.”
Cummings’ initial project is a point of pride. “I’m almost done,” he says. “It still needs the deck installed, some finish work and painting, but we are close. This boat taught me a lot about the business and the craft of boatbuilding.”
The whole process, from idea to splashdown, is about a year-long process in custom boat building. Cummings believes production time will decrease once a standard mold is designed from his prototype. He will turn out more boats in less time. When finished, the craft takes a plunge, launched across the street into Dog River, the testing center.
Perhaps soon, a fleet of Tensaws will cruise the river’s waters, the next in line for Mobile’s nautical history and the fulfillment of Cummings’ dreams.