Maine boats that love rough water
Posted on 01 June 2009
Written by Eric Sorensen
Jamie and Joe Lowell continue a family tradition of building Down East boats used for work or pleasure
At the Maine Boatbuilders Show in Portland early this spring, I was standing at an exhibitor booth watching a video of a classic 34-foot wooden lobster boat named Osprey running along at about 30 knots, slicing nonchalantly through a 1-foot chop with no discernible vertical motions.
One of the most interesting things to me, besides how smoothly the boat was running, was how steady the video was. It looked to me like it might have been taken from a car driving down a causeway parallel to the boat’s course. I asked one of the fellows at the booth how much the video camera cost, since it obviously must have been a stabilized model. He replied that it was a budget hand-held with no stabilization.
How could this be possible? Well, it turns out it was the boat that, in effect, was stabilized. The photo boat was a Lowell Brothers 26, built by Jamie and Joe Lowell to their Uncle Royal’s design, and built as a Sisu 26 for years. And the vintage wooden 34-footer in the video? Designed by the brothers’ great-grandfather Will Frost back in the 1940s. Will was also famous for his rumrunners in the 1920s and ’30s. “Brutal things with a tremendous amount of horsepower,” according to one observer.
So if you’re tired of being thrashed around in your too-wide, too-flat, too-blunt, inefficiently powered planing hull, there are much more seakindly alternatives. Welcome to Maine, where you just might find the antidote you’ve been looking for.
The Lowell family’s roots in the Maine boatbuilding tradition run deep. Will Frost was one of the pioneers through the first half of the 20th century, designing and building everything from lobster boats and draggers to rumrunners and commuter yachts. Riley Lowell was his head man and son-in-law, in that order chronologically, learning the trade and passing the torch to his sons, Royal and Carroll Lowell, both of whom developed reputations as designers and boatbuilders.
Many of the Down East-style production boats in the water today were designed by the Lowell brothers, including Royal’s Bruno and Stillman fleet of 35-, 42- and 55-footers; J.C. Boatworks’ 31 and 35; the Harris 35 and 38; the Sisu 22, 26 and 30; the Newman 46, 38 and 30; and the Holland 32 and 38, to name a few. Both Lowells remained active throughout their lives, producing the lines that defined a wide range of rugged working boats and yachts from 8 to 100 feet, vessels well-regarded for their comfort and steadiness underfoot in heavy weather.
Fast forward to 2009, and we find the Lowell legacy living on in the form of Carroll’s sons Jamie and Joe. Like their father before them, the brothers grew up thoroughly immersed (so to speak) in boats. In 1997, they teamed up to form Lowell Brothers (www.lowellbrothers.com), working out of the building that had been in the family for decades in Yarmouth, Maine, initially making molds for other builders, and doing repair and maintenance work.
Today, the brothers, with a five-man crew, build custom one-off fiberglass boats — and a few of plank-on-frame construction — but where they hope to grow the business in the near-term is with their production boats, for which they have built their own tooling. Their production models include 22- and 26-footers (like our photo boat) designed by Uncle Royal, a 43-footer designed by Dad, and now a new 38-footer that Jamie Lowell designed and are laying up (hull No. 1).
“It’s great to be building new Lowell product again after years of other people building my family’s designs,” Jamie says. The brothers expect to launch the first 38 in late summer, depending on how extensively the owner wants it outfitted.
Business has slowed of late, because of a complex sequence of events roughly summed up as being related to a drying up of Icelandic capital (they had their economic meltdown a year before we did), which was used to finance a Canadian fish processing operation that, in turn, bought much of the shellfish produced in Maine. The loss of the Canadian operation has reduced demand for fish — processing fish on this side of the border is very pricey — which means prices have dropped and business is off both for the New England fishermen who have been the core of the Maine boatbuilders’ customer base and for the small shops like the Lowells’ that produce their boats. Meanwhile, they’ve been getting a few calls from West Coast fishermen and hope that produces results in the form of firm orders.
For now, the first 38 is sold, and the brothers are hopeful it will be the catalyst for new orders. Just a few years ago, from 2004 to 2006, Lowell Brothers was having a field day, with the shop pumping out 11 43-footers back to back.
The new diesel power
Tracing the development of Maine lobster boats would be hard to do without taking into account the impact of increasingly powerful, lighter-weight diesels. I had a Royal Lowell-designed 42-foot Bruno and Stillman built in 1975 with which I ran charters. As was typical for the period, she was powered by a 265-hp Detroit Diesel 6-71 with a 2-to-1 Allison gear turning a 1.5-inch stainless-steel shaft and 26-by-26-inch four-blade prop. It was a solid 12-knot boat that burned, on average, 35 gallons in a day’s fishing — back-to-back four- and eight-hour charter trips — out of Rock Harbor on Cape Cod, Mass.
The boat had a beam of 13 feet, 8 inches, and the engine weighed about 2,800 pounds. If you wanted a speedy boat, you had to order it with a 3,300-pound, 350-hp Detroit Diesel 8-71, or an equivalent Caterpillar, and you could count on a blistering 15-knot cruise, light. I mention the weight of these engines because it illustrates how much more today’s builders have with which work. The first Lowell Brothers 38 will have a 2,870-pound, 800-hp MAN (about the same weight as the 6-71, but about triple the horsepower) with a 1.75-to-1 two-speed ZF gear, 2.5-inch shaft, and a 28-by-36-inch four-blade prop.
Jamie expects more than 30 knots with the MAN, and his experience is that economy improves with the bigger engines at a given speed, say in the low 20-knot range. So power is a big deal, and you have to be able to offer it to stay competitive in this market, just like Viking Yachts couldn’t give away one of its 40-knot 60-foot convertibles if it only cruised at 25 knots.
In a lobster boat, the engine goes as low in the hull as the transmission and oil pan will allow (down in the hollow keel if it has one), which in the case of the MAN produces a low, 7-degree shaft angle, which helps with both efficiency and vibration. This limits the prop inclination to just 7 degrees from the boat’s baseline plus the running trim angle, maybe 14 degrees total, since these boats tend to run bow-high with all that speed and lift forward.
“We keep the engine as low in the boat as possible to lower the center of gravity and also to keep the deck closer to the water in our workboats,” says Jamie. “Same goes for the fuel tanks. We avoid putting in saddle tanks when we can. A big single tank can go in lower in the boat, which also helps keep weight low.”
More beam, less weight
Like horsepower, beam has also increased over the years. Like numerous production powerboats, many Down East boats have steadily increased in beam for their overall length, partly in reaction to market demand. People either don’t understand that greater beam-to-length makes a boat much less comfortable in a seaway and less efficient for a given size (hull volume), or they value the increased accommodations enough to overlook the drawbacks of overly beamy boats.
In the case of commercial fishermen, they got hooked on the increased load-carrying capacity of beamier boats, so the average 42- or 43-footer now has more than 15 feet of beam instead of 13 or 13.5 feet, as it was 20 or 30 years ago. The high horsepower now available is what fundamentally makes the extra beam possible, since the diesels from a few decades ago couldn’t make one of these newer boats plane to save its life with half fuel and no fish on board, never mind when loaded to the gills.
Not only are the boats beamier, including the Lowell designs, they carry more of that beam to the stern. Earlier designs tended to narrow up quite a bit aft since, when running at 8 or 10 knots — about the same speed as the inshore waves they worked in — the stern tended to get tossed around if it was too buoyant. Nowadays, at 25-plus knots, the boat is largely able to control relative wave speed.
Sheer power through modern engine technology isn’t the only thing that’s improved. For instance, the 38’s one-piece deck/superstructure is built of one layer of carbon fiber, wet out in epoxy resin, on both sides of 1-inch (in the sides and trunk cabin) and 1.5-inch (in the house top) Core-Cell coring. This replaces the two layers of 1808 fiberglass that would ordinarily be used, so the entire deck part weighs about 1,050 pounds instead of 1,600 pounds, and it’s as stiff as a British schoolmarm.
The weight saved not only reduces displacement, improving both propulsion efficiency and load-carrying capability, it also makes the boat more stable with less roll, since the weight eliminated is well above the center of gravity. And the 38’s hull is lighter, stiffer and stronger than the originals, since it also has Core-Cell foam-cored construction.
The laminate starts with a Valspar BlushGuard gelcoat, 1.5-ounce mat (they don’t own a chopper gun), three layers of non-woven fiberglass, the core, and three more layers of fiberglass. Each side of the hull is laid up separately, then the two-piece mold is joined together, and the keel area is built up to a 3/4-inch thickness of solid glass. The two-part mold makes the hull a lot easier to lay up, and the solid laminate down the keel area is a natural place for the through-hull fittings, rather than drilling through the surrounding compressible foam core. Vinylester resin — after epoxy, the strongest, toughest, most blister-resistant resin available — is used throughout the laminate. (Only top-shelf production builders use vinylester throughout.) The bulkheads are also Core-Cell cored to save weight.
The Lowells are hard-nosed about reducing noise and vibrations, mounting the engine on a 7-foot aluminum channel bonded to the engine bed, which itself is part of the main hull stringers only beefed up next to the engines. The more solid the engine beds, the more vibrations they attenuate. Also, this design makes it easier to install another engine later on with engine mounts in different locations, since they’ll line right up in a different spot along the aluminum channel.
The brothers use one mount forward and two aft on each side to spread out the load and reduce vibrations, and the pilothouse deck is cored with 1-inch Core-Cell foam, which, along with the sound-deadening materials used in the engine room, also helps to contain engine noise.
These boats are meant to be out on the water, and the rougher the better. Look elsewhere if a floating gin palace floats your boat. “The idea is to get people off the mooring and out in the boat, including in foul weather,” Jamie says. “We think it’s important for a boat to look good sitting at the dock, but anyone can design a pretty boat. What’s really important to me is how it moves through the waves, how it sheds water.”
The Lowells take a lot of pride in how clean their boats’ wakes are, and how easily they come up on plane. “People will use the boat a lot more when they find out how comfortable it is in rough water,” says Jamie. “We love to take people out and see their reaction running one of our boats at 20 knots in 6- to 8-footers. They are really taken aback by how comfortable and quiet our boats are.”
Though Jamie has high hopes for the 38’s success as a production boat, he remains a custom builder at heart. “Building one-offs really tickles our fancy, since we could be real creative with every boat we built,” he says. “We also feel that a boat with the Lowell name attached to it has a higher resale value. The name really means something to people who understand how well our boats do offshore in all kinds of weather.”
For my part, it’s good to see young blood still at it in Maine, producing updated and, in many ways, much improved versions of the boats I grew up on. I took a spin around Rockland Harbor the morning after I met with the Lowells on one of their 43-footers, this one powered by a 600-hp Deutz for a 22-knot top end. This was a slightly larger, much faster version of my 42-foot Bruno, and the similarities were unmistakable, including the comfortable motions, even running at 20 knots into 3- to 5-footers rolling in from the northeast. However, this boat is a lot quieter with twice the horsepower. In a world that demands wider, roomier, faster, it’s good to see that the Lowell brothers have figured out how to deliver the goods in a boat that’s to the ocean born.
Eric Sorensen was founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached at
This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.