A builder who’s wedded to wood
Posted on 01 October 2010
Written by Eric Sorensen
Page 1 of 2
Dick Pulsifer fashions functionality and beauty based on century-old tradition in his Maine shop
We're all, to a degree, products of our environment, and that is certainly the case with Dick Pulsifer, a wooden-boat builder from Brunswick, Maine. Dick grew up listening to the rhythmic sound of one-lunger - or single-cylinder - gas engines pushing small wooden fishing boats along Maine's New Meadows River in the wee hours of the morning. Think of the movie "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," and you'll get an idea of the clattering cacophony the engines produced.
The inshore fisheries these boats worked were Dick's world as a child, and that's why he's spent decades building the boat that captivated him at an early age - a tried-and-true hull design that has served New England for well more than a century. Known as a Hampton-type boat, Dick's Pulsifer Hamptons are built to haul lobster traps or to take the kids out for a day on the water. Building strip-planked wooden boats is an art form, and it's gratifying to me that Dick is keeping it alive as he handcrafts a few 22-foot Pulsifer Hamptons each year.
It takes 450 hours to build a Pulsifer Hampton, and just a few years ago when things were booming Dick had five- and six-boat years. However, the market has thinned for these $47,250 boats given the economy and the erosion of discretionary income.
I had the pleasure of visiting Dick at his workshop earlier this year, and it was a bit like taking a step back in time. The man and his boats are emblematic of the wooden-boat building tradition that is so much a part of our maritime history, and I'm happy to say he is hanging in there despite the tough economy.
"The boat in the back shed, the one I'll be taking to the Portland boat show, was built on spec, and so is this one I'm working on now," Dick says. "[Business] will pick up again, but right now it's very frustrating. However, it still pays to buy in volume, so currently I have $5,000 tied up in shaft logs and shafts, which I get from Ron Thomas in Franklin."
Ron does beautiful work, according to Dick, who describes the shaft log as a piece of art. The shaft log is very heavily built, as you can tell as soon as you pick it up and swing it around the shop a bit.
The man behind the boats
You might say Dick stumbled into building traditional wooden boats. Back in the early 1960s, Dick wasn't interested in being drafted into the Army, so he joined the Navy and served from 1963 to 1967. When his enlistment ended, he went home to Brunswick, Maine.
Friends at Bowdoin College had come across an old one-lunger that had literally shaken the dory it was in to smithereens, and Dick acquired the engine and looked around for a boat to put it in. What he found - this was in 1969 - was a Hampton launch, which, as it transpired, served as a perfect platform for the engine.
He ran that boat for 18 years while building boats for a living. By 1987, the Hampton launch had given up the ghost, so he built himself a Pulsifer Hampton of his own, hull No. 27, specifically for the one-lunger. (That was one lucky engine, if you ask me.) The original Hampton's galvanized fastenings were gone, and he didn't want to fiberglass the boat, adding insult to injury, so he consigned it to the graveyard.
"It had archaeological value as a locally built boat [that] was never lobstered," Dick says. "The original owner messed around with some tuna fishing and general putting around, and he helped Charlie Gomes build it."
Charlie Gomes was one of the best-known builders in the Casco Bay area for years. As far as Dick knows, Charlie built his first Hampton-type hull in 1902 and continued building them into the 1950s. The Hampton-type hull was around before, of course, but Charlie made them famous in Southern Maine. For Dick, his old Hampton was a piece of history that he wanted to preserve, or at least not disfigure with fiberglass.
"You can't refasten strip-planked boats, since the planks are edge-nailed and you can't get to them," he says. "Some people fiberglass those old boats, which I guess is OK for them to do, as it keeps them going, but I sure won't do it."
Dick is stickler for tradition, and he's a bit of a throwback in other ways. If you want to communicate with him, you'll have to write him a letter or call him on the landline. He has no personal e-mail address or cell phone, though you can reach him via his website, a necessary nod to modernity. He does own an AM-FM radio, however, which was playing classical music when I walked into his workshop to see him shine in his element. "I listen to classical music on NPR all day long," Dick says.
Dick loves the lobstering exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. "It's the fishery I knew as a child - wooden boats with automotive engines," he says. "It puts you in touch with boats as they were, not these huge plastic boats you see today."
Along these same lines, Dick recoils if you associate his 22-footers with picnic boats. "The Pulsifer Hamptons are made to fish; haul lobster traps, firewood, dogs and camp supplies; to swim from; tow kids on floats; or to just cruise around," he says. "They're not picnic boats."
Dick mostly works alone, but once in a while he gets a little help building his boats from Bowdoin College students. The college is located quite close to his workshop. "I run a sort of daycare for the students," Dick says.
His building philosophy is to use whatever materials are available. (He's actually more selective than that makes him sound.) At least this is how the original builders, who fished boats they built themselves, operated. "There weren't professional boatbuilders," Dick says.
From the 1860s to the early 1900s there was an identifiable hull type for these inshore New England fishing boats, which originated in the area of Hampton, N.H., hence the name. The hulls were fitted with sailing rigs and were double-ended to better take following seas, but when there was no wind, you had to row. By about 1915 the Hampton-type boats had switched mostly from sail to one-lungers, and that meant the fishermen could go out farther and catch more fish. Engines opened up range and increased profits. They also influenced the hull design.
"A fellow named Sennet on Bailey's Island built a square-stern Hampton so he could carry a couple of traps back aft," Dick says. "The boat just evolved."
Dick says he builds wooden boats in part because he doesn't know how to work with fiberglass. "I repaired a snowmobile cowl 35 years ago and that was it," he says. "I like the tradition of working with a material that's been used to build boats around here for hundreds of years. It's already too easy to make something ugly. Canoes used to be pretty boats, and then fiberglass came along."
A versatile sea boat
The Pulsifer Hampton is a Down East design with a fine entry, round bilges, a hollow (built-down) keel, plumb stem and flat buttocks aft to provide the lift needed to plane. The built-down keel is produced by a radius in the ribs, so the hull curves down to meet the bottom half of the keel, rather than ending at a hard angle at the garboard. This adds buoyancy down low that reduces the hull's immersion at the bilge and adds weight-carrying capability.
Though the boat's full keel resists the rudder in a turn, it stops several feet forward of the stern, diminishing its propensity to keep the boat going straight ahead. At the same time, the round bilges provide little resistance to the rudder in a hard turn, letting the stern slip sideways more easily than a hard-chine boat would, a handy attribute for a boat working traps. Built-down boats are known for their seaworthiness, if not their speed.
The other popular Maine-style hull is the skeg design, which has a hard inside corner where the garboard strake meets the keel. This design planes more efficiently than a built-down hull since there is more bottom-lifting surface.
The Pulsifer Hampton has a modest beam, which helps make it an efficient and comfortable sea boat. The Hampton-type design differs greatly from the designs of more modern boats, which are often not as fuel-efficient and easy in a seaway. As Dick says: "The wide barges they're building today drag along half the bay with them." (I knew I liked this guy!)
Riding a semidisplacement hull with the center of gravity farther forward, the boat can run comfortably at any speed up to its 13-knot top end. There's really no hump speed - the boat will just slide along a little faster each time you nudge up the throttle. The round bilges, modest beam/length and fine ends give it a comfortable motion.
"The rudder is balanced, so [the boat] steers easily," Dick says. "You can back it any way you want once you have a little way on, or leave the rudder hard over and back and fill." Dick makes the barn door rudder from 1-1/8-inch-thick oak, drifted together with 3/4-inch silicon bronze rods.
Power is a 290-pound, 29-hp Yanmar diesel with a deep 3.22-to-1 gear turning a 1-1/4-inch stainless-steel shaft (that's one heavy shaft for 29 hp) and a 17-inch-
diameter by 16-inch-pitch four-blade Michigan DQX wheel. "[It's] a marvelous blade shape, with no cupping," says Dick, who finds the props work well right out of the box.
The boat, which weighs 2,200 pounds launched, gets on plane easily at about 11 knots and, as previously mentioned, does just over 13 knots wide open. Fuel consumption - this is the good part - maxes out at 1.5 gallons per hour.
Part of the secret to reliable running is clean diesel. "We suggest that [owners] fill a container with fuel, let it settle out, then pour the contents into the tank," Dick says. "Too often they get a slug of sludge or water in the fuel if they fill [the tank] directly from the nozzle."
As to average running time during a season for these boats, Dick says 100 hours is about the norm, since most owners don't launch their boats until the middle of June. "The water is just too cold," he says. He adds that the engine will burn around 20 gallons of fuel in 60 hours of running time.
Lately, many owners have been young families with children. The design lends itself to practical functionality and to playtime with the kids, depending on the desire of the owner, Dick says. "One of my boats is owned by a real boat nut in Bainbridge, Wash., and he uses it year round. Now his kids know how to run an inboard boat," he says.