Columbia: the gem of Rock Harbor
Posted on 28 December 2010
Written by Eric Sorensen
Rebuilt after a half-century of hard fishing in Cape Cod Bay, the 43-footer is ready for the next 50 years
When I was a young man in the 1960s growing up on Cape Cod, Mass., a focal point of my life each summer was the charter fishing fleet down at Rock Harbor in Orleans.
Considering that the harbor is on a little tidal creek with only enough water to float most boats for about two to three hours on either side of an 8- to 11-foot high tide, the fact that it hosts one of the biggest charter fleets on the East Coast seems improbable, to say the least.
The channel - if that's what you call a shallow ditch just 12 inches lower than the surrounding sandbars - has all of 6 inches of water in it at low tide and stretches a half-mile from the jetties out to the edge of the tidal flats lining the perimeter of Cape Cod Bay.
Obviously, timing the tide makes a big difference when you're trying to get in or out of the harbor half an hour early, so the channel is marked by slim 20-foot pine trees. (If you hit one in the fog, it'll give.) The ice takes them out in the winter, so new ones are pumped into the sand each spring, tracing the arc of the channel every hundred feet. We locals had fun with the tourists who asked how the trees got there and how they managed to grow in salt water. We enhanced their puzzlement by saying that those sturdy hybrid pines (Pinus Salticus) had been specially grown to flourish in a salt-and-sand environment.
Everyone fished according to the tides, going out 45 minutes or so later each day, so our days would start at anywhere from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., depending on the tide cycle. Growing up fishing this way, it was hard for me to imagine a harbor you could transit at low water. I think fishing the tides was part of the reason for the harbor's popularity as a home base for charterboats, because it probably resulted in catching more fish. Each four- and eight-hour trip went out on the same tide. Peak times for fish to feed are based on tidal flood and ebb, so timing your departure to the tide cycle made fishing more predictable, taking one variable out of the equation.
The other reason for Rock Harbor's popularity is its location. It's not far from the Cape Cod Canal for customers coming from off-Cape, and it's centrally located within striking distance of the best fishing grounds - Barnstable 12 miles to the west or Provincetown 17 miles to the north. In those days, almost all of the boats were slow, cruising at 10 to 12 knots, so getting to some of the fishing grounds could take an hour, like the Path off Truro or the Barnstable bell buoy. You could get to Sunken Meadow in about 20 minutes and you could get to the Brewster flats in about 10 minutes.
When live-lining for stripers out on the shoals - the late charter captain Elmer Costa's favorite way to fish - we'd stop at the Rock Harbor bell buoy two miles out, load up with three or four dozen tinker mackerel using multicolored Christmas tree rigs, and head out to catch bass.
In the 1970s, I had a 42-foot Bruno that I chartered for a couple of years. One September day I was out meat fishing (catching fish to sell) with four other young captains along for the ride. The fog set in just as we were heading home from Peaked Hill Bar on the back side of Provincetown. Like everyone else back then, I dead-reckoned, using the compass and depth sounder to get around Provincetown, across Billingsgate Shoals and past the old target ship (scuttled in the late 1940s off Eastham for bombing practice) to the flats off Rock Harbor. I aimed to hit the flats a quarter-mile to the east of the pine trees in the channel.
Knowing the tidal stage, the idea was to get to 6 feet of water and then turn west and head along in 5 or 6 feet of water until we found the first tree. Two hours later, with visibility at 200 feet at best, we got to 6 feet of water, at which point I stood up and slowed the boat, only to have the first tree appear right on the bow 100 feet ahead. I didn't bother mentioning to the others that I was heading for a point 400 or 500 yards to the east, and into the harbor we went with the other four skippers trying hard to look unimpressed.
In those days, a dozen wooden charter boats were in Rock Harbor, including a 28-foot mastless catboat named Owl, Stu Finlay's Sea Buddy and Empress, Dick Clark's Flying Mist, Dick Woodland's Madame B, Steve Stevenson's Shirley L (which I served aboard as a mate), Don Walwer's Terry II, and a 43-foot Phil Bolger design named Columbia, which was owned by Elmer Costa. Columbia was a special boat, and Elmer was a superb seaman and fisherman. I have fond boyhood memories of both.
Elmer was born in Provincetown, and he was long-lining aboard his father's trawler full time at age 14. That was no easy trick, because he had to skip school, which his father wouldn't knowingly allow. So the enterprising Elmer would sneak aboard the boat and hide under some canvas before his father came aboard, only to show himself once the boat was offshore. Elmer's father, John, was one of four brothers who had come over from Portugal. They all made money and sent it back home, but John was the only one of the four to stay in the United States. The other three eventually moved back to Portugal.
By the early 1950s, Elmer was fishing aboard the first Columbia, his uncle Tony's 41-foot Boston-built long-liner, doing fishing charters during the summer. Elmer went to Florida one winter on vacation and he took a hard look at how the charterboats worked down there. On the Cape, many of the charterboats in the '50s and early '60s were simple converted sailboats, Maine-style lobster boats, or Novis (boats built in Nova Scotia) with lawn chairs in the cockpits and no bridges.
Elmer had bought the first Columbia from his uncle, who had moved back to Portugal. Based on what he saw in Florida, Elmer added a flybridge and outriggers to Columbia, and he built four swiveling fishing chairs, having the custom hardware forged of bronze. Incidentally, that custom bronze hardware is still being used on Columbia No. 2 today. He also put a sign advertising his charter business on the back of the deckhouse (possibly the first charterboat in the area with a marketing department).
Elmer moved to Orleans in the 1950s so he could run the boat out of Rock Harbor. It was there he married his sweetheart, Jacqueline, and started a family.
In the early '60s, Columbia caught fire and burned to the waterline while being towed in after an engine failure on Billingsgate Shoals, right off Stony Bar. If you like a little history with your boat story, Stony Bar was an inhabited island in the 19th century when the sea level was apparently a few feet lower than it is today.
"He was sitting up forward on the trunk cabin, being towed home by his uncle, when something blew up in the engine room - maybe a battery being charged," says Marty Costa, 55, Elmer's oldest son. "If he'd been back in the cockpit, he likely would have been killed."
A fishing-machine design
Shortly after the fire, Elmer traveled the East Coast looking for his next boat. While driving through Rhode Island - which doesn't take long - he came across a Phil Bolger design called Mako II that had recently been launched after being built in a barn in North Kingstown by Bob Linton. Elmer had been kidding around with Frank Taves, owner of Taves Boatyard in Provincetown, asking him when he was going to build him a boat. So when Elmer saw the 43-foot Mako II, which he liked immediately, he got a copy of the plans from the owner, took them to Taves, and asked him to build the same boat for him, but with a few changes.
One of the changes Elmer wanted concerned the forward section of the hull. It originally had a lower sheer with bulwarks, but Elmer wanted the hull continued up to the height of the bulwarks, which is one reason the boat has so much flare forward. He also specified side decks 20 inches wide so his customers could comfortably live-line mackerel when fishing for stripers. The wide side decks allowed a person to walk from the cockpit to the pulpit and back again without hanging on - not unlike strolling down a sidewalk.
In those days, people wanted to catch fish. They didn't care about creature comforts like the large, nearly full-beam air-conditioned saloons found on today's comparatively prissy boats. So the small pilothouse resulting from those wide side decks was not an issue. Back then the pilothouse - people had too much self-respect in those days to call them saloons - was just a place to get in out of the rain.
In addition to the wide side decks, Columbia's cockpit, at 15 feet long, is huge - another reason the pilothouse is small by today's standards. Elmer wanted four people to be able to fish at the same time with plenty of elbow room, whether plugging for bluefish or live-lining for bass. The cockpit is so big that the mates, Elmer's sons Marty and Marc, were probably more worn out at the end of the day than the 11 other mates in the harbor. It was those extra miles they had to put in getting from one end to the other.
While the cockpit is probably the biggest in existence for a 43-foot charterboat, the cabin, like the pilothouse, is modestly proportioned. It's plenty long, but there's not a lot of room by today's standards because the bow is so fine - much like that of a destroyer. Such a fine bow makes for the smoothest possible ride in a head sea, but it really narrows the cabin sole forward. It can also cause trouble running down-sea in big waves, since the bow has less buoyancy, or dynamic lift, initially as it submerges. This can create a tendency to bow-steer because of the depth of hull momentarily under water, though it isn't really a problem in a 14- to 15-knot cruise boat.
The flybridge is also small by today's standards, but that, too, is for a reason: Its small size left room for a walkway all around it, which allowed Elmer to plug for fish with a spinning rod while customers were playing their own fish. He'd hook a fish and then either hand the rod down to the cockpit, or walk forward down a couple of folding steps between the windshield windows and give the rod to a customer on the bow, so he or she could bring in the fish.
The boat was a pure fishing machine as a result of its design and layout. You could easily have four fish on at once in the cockpit, two or three more on at the bow, and one or two more on up on the bridge. That's the reason Columbia caught so many fish. It was built from scratch as a fishing machine, and since it was 5 or 10 feet longer than most of the other charter boats, there was much more space from which to catch fish.
Type-B anglers who wanted to relax and maybe catch a few fish need not have signed on as customers aboard Columbia in those days; Elmer pushed his people as hard as he worked himself. But the people, and the business he built, made his the busiest boat in the fleet, often working as many as three trips - 16 to 20 hours of fishing - per day.
Not just anyone can catch fish, even from a boat like Columbia. It takes someone who pays attention to the signs of fish, comes to the right conclusions as to when the fish will be where, and who is driven to catch the most. Such a person is easily bored once they reach a certain level, which may explain why Elmer stopped chartering after 15 years and started tuna fishing commercially. Of course, the profitability of catching tuna worth many thousands of dollars each might have had a little something to do with it, too.
Frank Taves, the Provincetown boatyard owner Elmer had joked with, agreed to build the boat in 1964, but he had a few changes of his own to suggest. A key one concerned the keel. The plans called for it to be built of many pieces of oak that were scarfed together, but Frank insisted on building a one-piece keel 18 inches thick from top to bottom, and a one-piece stem, the two pieces joined with a knee. All were built with seasoned white oak. Frank and Elmer rejected oak from 12 trees before they found wood they liked.
Another important change involved the forward deck. The original plans called for fiberglass over plywood. Instead, Elmer opted for a planked deck forward, a beautiful presentation with the planking following the curvature of the gunwale forward. (It took one of the yard's craftsmen a month to plank and caulk that deck.) While Bolger's plans specified mahogany hull planking, white cedar was used. White cedar stands up better over time and is lighter than mahogany, so it was a good choice. It did present some problems, though, as I'll explain shortly.
"There's other stuff that was not in the contract that Frank did above and beyond, and it's well known he lost money on the job, but this was his baby, too. He wanted it to be perfect," says Elmer's son Marc Costa, 50, now Columbia's owner.
So Columbia was built with a white oak keel and frames and white cedar planking. The hull planking is in exceptionally good shape 46 years later. As previously noted, the use of white cedar meant the boat was lighter than Bolger had planned for, which caused it to float higher in the water, the chines immersed only a couple of inches aft. This caused the boat to chine-slap more when trolling or drifting than it would have had it been heavier, and that accelerated the process of the fastenings working loose over the years.
Building Columbia was the boatyard's first new-construction project. The shop had spent most of its time doing repairs, seasonal maintenance and refits, yet the yard's expertise is apparent when you look closely at the results. The construction presented the Taves crew with a few interesting challenges. Bolger's design is unique not only for its fishing-machine topsides, but also for its hull form. The term warp, or twist, is used to describe a hull with constantly changing deadrise, as opposed to a monohedron hull, which basically has the same deadrise in the aft half of the hull. The warp in Columbia's hull is extreme, which made it difficult to build.
The bow has what looks to be 75 or 80 degrees of deadrise around station No. 2, transitioning to a perfectly flat bottom at the transom. That makes the boat a displacement hull forward and a planing hull aft, so it averages out to a semidisplacement hull overall. The bow is so sharp, both in terms of deadrise and half-angle of entry (the hull's footprint at the waterline forward), that the chine actually disappears at about station No. 3 (30 percent of the way from the bow at the waterline to the transom).
This naturally presented another challenge for Taves' crew, since the last bottom plank and the first hull side plank, which butt together at an exact 90-
degree angle at the stern, merge together to form a single plane up in the bow. Taves' crew seamlessly accomplished this transition, a marvel of craftsmanship a lot easier to draw on paper than to fashion in wood.
Many good years
Columbia was run hard until Elmer gave up chartering in the 1970s after many productive years, but the boat stayed in the family. Marty and Elmer's son-in-law, Danny Chase, ran the boat for the next 30 years.
Elmer died at age 78 in the autumn of 2007, and Marc wanted to keep the boat in the family. So Marc, also a charter skipper, bought Columbia from his mother (www.mysterysportfishing.com). By that time, Marty had bought a 46-foot Hatteras, which he charters.
Two years ago, Marty's daughter, Kirstyn, who like her brother Derrick is a third-generation Costa captain, had Columbia out fishing with six customers in boisterous conditions that revealed some problems, as Marty recalls.
"Kirstyn was fishing off P-town, and it was good fishing, but the wind was coming," he says. "My daughter has the tenacity of her grandfather, so she kept fishing, and then the wind started blowing just as the tide was turning. Coming home, running south-southeast from Provincetown to Orleans, with the wind out of the southwest and the seas on the beam, the chines hit really hard a few times, and the bilge pump alarm went off."
Like most 46-year-old wooden boats, the hull leaked slowly. All the commotion plugged the bilge pump, and the bilge alarm went off. The six guys chartering the boat bailed with 5-gallon buckets (and came back the next season with a floatie for Kirstyn as a joke). Marc came out in his other boat - which he eventually sold - and the Coast Guard responded as well to round out the party. The boat got back to the harbor and fished the rest of the season, but it was clear that Marc had his work cut out for him in the fall.
When Marc had the boat hauled at the end of the season after the leak developed, it became apparent that the cheek boards, which sandwich the horn timber aft, had come loose because the galvanized fasteners failed after more than four decades of hard use. The garboard strakes, the first planks on both sides of the boat against the keel, were screwed to the cheek boards. Because the bottom was perfectly flat aft, the ribs aft were also attached to the cheek boards, further exacerbating the problem.
Farther forward the ribs were set into and attached directly to notches in the keel. When the fasteners let go and allowed the cheek boards to spread slightly from the horn timber, the garboard strakes and ribs aft moved outboard with them, opening up a seam along the garboard.
The only way to fix the hull was to tear out the cockpit deck, remove the fuel tanks, take out the floors, refasten the cheek boards, and put everything back together. The original fastenings were silicon bronze and they were still in impressive condition after all that time. However, the galvanized iron boat nails and galvanized iron bolts holding the cheek boards in place had failed due to age.
"Actually, she was pretty much leaking all over back aft," says Marty. "Around the chines, across the stern at the transom, the last rib was also cracked, so it was leaking down. The boat was over 40 years old and just needed a little attention."
Marc knew he had quite a bit of work on his hands, and as usually happens on projects like this, there was a lot more work than first met the eye. The boat was built to lighter scantlings than that massive oak keel would lead you to believe, with fairly light frames set fairly far apart. And there were no stringers under the cockpit abaft the engine room bulkhead. Marc saw two advantages to beefing things up. The first was the obvious plus of having a stronger structure aft, one that would last longer than the original. The other was the benefit of the extra weight.
Columbia's tremendous deadrise in the bow transitions to 35 to 40 degrees in the area of the engine room, right in the middle of the hull, and this hull depth creates a lot of buoyancy. The result, along with the lighter cedar planking, was that the chines aft, where the bottom flattens out, were barely immersed. This made the bottom slap and pound outboard and aft even at trolling speed in fairly calm conditions, let alone in the 4- to 6-footers Kirstyn found herself in that day coming back from Provincetown. All that pounding had loosened the fasteners through the years.
Marc was also uncomfortable with the ribs, so he decided to expand the scope of the repair job to include all new ribs abaft the engine room, new floor timbers, the addition of laminated plywood stringers on top of the floors to stiffen the hull longitudinally, new knees at the chines tying the floors to the hull side ribs, and new fastenings in the bottom. He also put in two new 212-gallon aluminum fuel tanks on top of the floors and in between the stringers.
A 43-footer with Columbia's original 180-gallon fuel capacity is unheard of today. A convertible that size built today would have a pair of 600-plus-hp diesels and carry 500 gallons of fuel. (It would also hit 35 knots versus Columbia's 18-knot top end.) But on the fully refurbished Columbia, with its single 450-hp GM 871 TI diesel, the boat burns an average of 45 gallons fishing two trips all day long if cruising as far as Truro or Provincetown, less if there's good fishing closer to the harbor.
After 18 months of steady work, Columbia was ready to launch last spring. The boat was fished hard all summer without incident and, with the added weight and horsepower, ran better than ever. When Marc invited me out in the fall to catch a few bluefish with my old friend Drew Jamison and his son Peter, Columbia was back in its old form. In some ways better than ever, in fact, as I've never seen the boat hit anything close to 18 knots, like it did with Marc showing off for the running shots I took from Marty's Hatteras.
"I'm real happy to have her back in the water and working again," Marc says. "She's a great boat with another 40 or 50 years in her, for sure."
Elmer's sons are obviously proud of the boat, but they're more proud of their dad, and not just for his ability to catch fish. "He was as honest as the day was long," says Marty. "He treated people well. He liked having people on the bridge to talk when fishing was slow and he loved to tell stories. He was a good father."
And there isn't a prettier boat than Columbia - for all its functionality as a no-nonsense fishing machine - anywhere on the seven seas. Phil Bolger was an experimenter, a dabbler in ideas, and some of his boats were more successful than others. Columbia was one of his experiments, and while you wouldn't want to be running at 18 knots downwind in 6-footers, the same can be said of most 43-footers being churned out today. It is a great boat at 15 knots in just about any conditions Cape Cod Bay can throw at it.
And then there's that singular hull design, with its quirks and foibles that make the boat aesthetically fascinating, purely as sculpture, as a study in proportion, as a graceful work of art. It's good to see the boat remain in the Costa family, right where it belongs and where it will be taken care of properly, at least for another generation.
Eric Sorensen is a consultant to boat- and shipbuilders and to the government. He 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 January 2011 issue.