Small boats make us smile, with an allure all their own. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why, but we stare at them, imagine and dream. In our minds, possibilities abound and independence tempts. Finally, we acquire a calm, clear gaze and drift away in a daydream of self-reliance.
Such a daydream resulted in a dream product for a company called Mokai Manufacturing – a modern business, making modern boats in a very modern manner. “We’re busy today,” explains owner Rick Murray, “and that always puts me in a good mood.” For Murray, “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as messing around with boats!”
In this instance, he’s messing around with the Mokai, a high-tech, take-apart jet boat that’s making a lot of people smile. “You’ve never seen anything like this before,” bets Murray, quietly. And he’s right. The small jet boat is a one-piece structure stretching about a dozen feet long and spanning 3 feet at its widest shoulder. It is a beautiful example of form following function. A central, rimmed cockpit with internal controls steps to a narrow stern section that contains a 6-horsepower engine and an axial-flow jet-propulsion pump.
Modern adventurers and weekend outdoorsmen alike view the unique craft with just one notion in mind: wilderness exploration. That’s exactly what it’s built for: taking on the shallow lakes, rivers and coastal waters previously accessible only by hand-paddled craft. The modular design of the Mokai allows a solo adventurer to launch the boat, drift with the current, motor upstream, remove the engine, and then lift and secure the lightened hull for car-top transport – all unassisted. They’re very big on self-reliance at Mokai.
You might imagine an enterprise like this being rooted in the wilds of Alaska, or the virgin lake-country of Nova Scotia. Instead, you’ll find them in the Hudson Valley in Newburgh, New York, only an hour north of Manhattan.
Murray and his partner, Marie Sprock, came up with the idea for the Mokai while working in a tiny office in Mid-Town, where they operated a small Manhattan financial venture. “We used to sit on top of our desks holding a tape measure, imagining just how big the boat had to be,” says Sprock. “It was kind of crude.”
“We’d both been in manufacturing most of our lives, and wanted to get back to it,” continues Murray. “I had experience with a company that made sport watercraft, and had learned the idiosyncrasies and subtleties of that type of manufacturing. Their design was very nice,” he notes, “but I always felt there was a market for a nooks-and-crannies type of boat for exploring and fishing.
“The essence of our original idea was the kayak,” Murray explains. “The name Mokai originally meant motorized kayak. But we discovered a lot of limitations in kayak design when adding an engine, so we came up with something new, something more stable while stationary, and more efficient under power. It grew out of the kayak, but we always called our concept a small jet boat.”
When the chance to sell their Manhattan financial venture came along in the late ’90s, Murray and Sprock seized the opportunity, and set up shop to manufacture the Mokai. From a 9,600-square-foot brick-and-block building, a crew of seven turns out $100,000 worth of product each month, shipping out boats to most of North America, and to places as distant as Chile and New Zealand. Two full-time machinists are relentlessly busy, and everyone pitches in to help prepare and finish parts. The owners work the assembly lines, sweep floors, take phone orders, challenge the designer and generally help everyone “get boats out the door.”
Roughly one fourth of the building’s space is dedicated to machining, with a Haas TM-1 Toolroom Mill and an SL-10 CNC lathe filling most of the area. The setup isn’t extravagant, yet you can’t help but notice the remarkable variety of work this shop turns out. “We’re not making two or three parts,” smiles Murray, “we’re making more than 80 parts, each specifically designed to fit the bill. They’re not all big pieces or complex castings, but each is unique. Our materials range from polyethylene and nylon, to aluminum, brass and stainless steel.”
The biggest of the big pieces is the roto-molded polyethylene hull. “It’s a high-impact, very durable plastic,” notes Murray, “and we add spars for stiffness. It’s mainly hand finished with a router and drill, but we use machined fixtures to ensure each unit is identical to the next.” Nearly everything else in the boat, except control cables and seat cushions, is fabricated using the two Haas CNC machines.
The rotor casting for the jet pump qualifies as one of the most complex parts. “This is an investment casting,” explains Murray, “which means it starts with an aluminum tool that’s injected with a wax-type substance. There are actually two wax halves here that get glued together and dipped five or six times into ceramic slurry to build up thickness. Then it’s fired in an oven. The wax melts out, and then 316 stainless is poured into the resulting hard cavity. When the ceramic is broken off, we get a piece with nice, accurate profiles. We machine the outer dimensions and bearing clearances, and then drill the center. We used to do it all on the lathe, but we found we could set them up two at a time on the mill and cut 50 units without having to make any adjustment,” says Murray.
“We measure to a thousandth or two,” adds machinist Guy Blum, “and we can easily hold that. We use probes both here on the mill and on the lathe. It may take 40 minutes to set up the machine, but then we get great productivity.”
Over on the lathe, machinist Jim O’Leary is chucking up the casing for the stator venturi. It pretty much fills the compact SL-10. “Yeah,” he notes, “it’s a close fit. We put on this special bracket so we can register it. Then, as the tool comes over and moves in, we have about 1/4" clearance. But it works perfect.”
“We did a lot of homework before we chose the SL-10,” Murray adds, “and it has worked out great.”
The lathe also produces stainless steel drive shafts and bearing shafts, which are bored and threaded to fit together. “We hold about two or three tenths on these,” says Murray, “and in an ideal situation, we like to make enough for 150 units. It’s only a couple of dollars worth of steel, so I can put that many in inventory without the big investment we had when we jobbed them out.”
To automate production somewhat on the SL-10, explains Murray, “We use a bar puller, which isn’t the most efficient way, but it keeps up with our production right now. We have an automatic parts catcher, so the machine runs unassisted on this shorter stuff. We cut the stainless bars to about three-foot lengths, so we get three drive shafts per bar. But things like washers, we make hundreds of those with the puller. As our production grows, we may be looking at an automatic bar feeder.”
Obviously, jet pumps, couplings and drive shafts demand a lot of attention, but similar care is also required for many of the shop’s small parts – from stainless spacers to multi-part fittings on the removable engine. “You might think, ‘Why go to the trouble to make this,’” asks Murray, holding up a beautifully finished, quick-disconnect fitting for the throttle, choke and steering cables. “Well, you can’t buy it with the low spring-tension and long throw that we want,” he answers, “so we make it ourselves. Our customers can work these easily, even with cold or wet hands wearing gloves. And see how this thread is done? We put a little groove here so it runs out to zero. That’s a far better way of doing it, a much better design.
“This control fitting . . . we could buy these,” he continues, “but not to the quality we want. So we said, ‘The heck with it. We’ve got the machines; we’ll spend one day and make a whole year’s supply of them.’ We turn them on the lathe, part them off with this nice little radius, and then they go on the mill and get a two-stage drill. Then they get a perfect side cut. With this equipment, we can do anything a big operation can. It’s phenomenal.”
And on it goes. From decorative vent plugs to hidden fuel line inserts, Mokai delivers top-quality parts by making them themselves. “They’re doing – with only two machines – what I’ve seen shops with twenty machines shy away from!” says Marty McGill of Haas Factory Outlet, Allentown (NY), Murray’s local Haas representative. “These guys had limited CNC experience when they started, so we didn’t encourage them to do all that. But they’ve surprised a lot of people,” McGill says.
Some of the advantages of doing it themselves surprised even Murray. “We like being self-sufficient now,” he says, “but we originally purchased the equipment simply to lower our manufacturing costs. We were spending about $600 per boat on farmed-out machining before. Today, we make everything in-house for about $95. That’s astronomically better. We made a strictly financial decision, but truly, the biggest benefit we got was being able to customize designs and tighten up our specs to a degree we never could have done in the outside world. We can actually shift volute clearances on the rotor by about 5 tenths. That makes a surprising difference in a pump, and now we can do it! The fit and finish of our products today is much better,” he adds. “Our inventories are held tighter, and our designs are constantly looked at and improved. Those are benefits we didn’t even take into account originally, yet now they’re our biggest payout.
“I’m fortunate to have worked for 17 years in the auto racing business,” Murray reveals, “and the pinnacle was at [famous ’60s driver] Dan Gurney’s operation in Santa Ana, California. We’d build complete custom-designed racecars there, making everything ourselves – even nuts and bolts when we had to. It was a superb education. I suppose that’s where I acquired the skills and ideas we’re able to apply here. Back then, it was mostly prototype, building one-of-a-kind stuff. But today, with these machines, we can bring that same type of thinking to production manufacturing. We can make everything.”
With his hands on his hips in the middle of the Mokai shop, Murray’s independence personifies self-reliance. “Virtually every bit of this boat is made in the USA,” he points out, “and virtually every piece we can tackle is made right here.” The possibilities abound.