A Worthy steed

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John St. Hilaire’s Down East lobster yacht Thorobred is a ‘piece of Maine craftsmanship

The story of the Maine-built lobster yacht Thorobred is anything but typical. The red-hulled 38-footer was conceived by its owner as a traditional 43-foot wooden lobster boat like those the native Mainer admired as a youth — and like the ones the nearby Lowell boatbuilding family has been turning out for decades.

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The end product — a finely finished cored carbon fiber “lobster cruiser” — has proved a winner for both builder and buyer. “If you saw the original contract and how the boat turned out, you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve never had a boat we’ve built have such a drastic change,” says Jamie Lowell, 40, one half of the Lowell Brothers yard in Yarmouth, Maine. Jamie and brother Joe, 35, took over the yard from their father in 1997.

“My expectations were high, but for the boat to meet those expectations is a feat in itself,” says Thorobred’s owner, John St. Hilaire of South Freeport. “The finish on it … the guys did a fantastic job. When I look at it I feel I’m looking at a custom-finish boat and not something from an assembly line. It feels like I got a piece of Maine craftsmanship.”

Thorobred’s hull is built-down, with a fine entry and a lot of deadrise forward, Lowell says. The bottom is streamlined, and she shows a little tumblehome at the stern. The boat is powered by a single 800-hp MAN R6800 diesel, with a 320-gallon fuel tank. St. Hilaire discovered over the course of 130 engine hours of sea trials, then six months of day cruising, that his boat’s low-20s cruising speed (34-knot top end) and sure-footed handling validate his choice of boat and builder. “One of the most impressive things I’ve experienced is when we’re taking a beam sea in 4- to 6-foot seas — this thing refuses to get tippy,” he says. “In a head-on sea, that’s incredible handling as well. The boat peels the water away very efficiently. I can be going head-on in a 4- to 5-foot sea and almost go any speed I want — 22, 23 knots right through a head sea.”

John St. Hilaire

Fuel burn, though not a top priority for St. Hilaire, is another attribute. “Thorobred will cruise at 22 to 25 knots burning about 18 gallons per hour,” he says. “We cruised to Monhegan Island for a couple of nights on a mooring. That’s 35 to 40 miles, and she brought us there in under 90 minutes and burned about 27 gallons.”

St. Hilaire sums up Thorobred like this: “There wasn’t a single expectation of mine that was underachieved in any way.”

All of this heady satisfaction, though, came at a price — a 5-1/2-year project that at times tested the will and patience of St. Hilaire and the Lowells.

Boating in the blood

St. Hilaire, 49, was born and raised in Maine — first in Lewiston, then in nearby Saco. His primary residence is in South Freeport, and he has a summer home in Castine. “I tell my wife I feel like a tourist in my own state because I just love Maine,” he says. “Boating must be in my blood because ever since I was a small kid I have been drawn to boats and the ocean. My father bought a boat in the ’80s — a 40-foot Sea Ray cabin cruiser, then a 55-foot Ocean motoryacht.”

Although St. Hilaire relished time on the water aboard his father’s production powerboats, he was attracted to the working lobster boats ever present along the coast. “I just love the look and the lines,” he says, recalling how he enjoyed watching the local lobstermen and how they handled their boats.

About 10 years ago he bought his first boat — a Down East 34-foot 1996 Calvin Beal South Shore model. “I think I picked the right size to start with,” he says. “That was a great boat.” The family took many a day trip over the years around Penobscot Bay and Boothbay Harbor.

Prior to his marriage to Noelle, St. Hilaire, who owns a commercial roofing company with his brother, found himself living in Pownal — literally across the street from the Lowell yard. “In the years leading up to my first boat purchase, I had been going to boat shows, particularly the Maine Boatbuilders Show in Portland, and that’s where I met the Lowell brothers,” he says. “It was really cool how it all came together. I walked in the shop, and they were just finishing a 43-foot boat for a commercial fisherman. And finally I said, ‘That is what I want you to build me.’ ”

Jamie Lowell drew up the plans for a recreational version of the 43, with a couple of layout options. “Then they said, ‘But we want to build you a 38,’ ” St. Hilaire says. “They were persistent with the 38, but I didn’t want a 38.”

The Lowell brothers had their reasons for pushing the smaller boat. “We have molds for bigger and smaller boats,” Jamie Lowell says. “We’ve had such success with our old designs, but … we wanted to build something new, incorporating some of the best design characteristics of our existing boats and throw in some new designs we knew were going to work.”

The Lowells told St. Hilaire that although the 43 is a beautiful design, as a pleasure boat it would ride like the big and beefy fishing boat it is and would prove challenging to squeeze into docks and slips. The clincher was the price tag on the 38: the “deal of a lifetime,” Jamie Lowell says. However, the starting price was just that and, of course, would rise as the project evolved.

Both are hesitant to reveal the final cost, but the Lowells say they can build a second 38 hull, stripped down and basic, starting at about $500,000. To re-create Thorobred would cost upward of $900,000. St. Hilaire says the final cost of his boat was between those figures, listing more toward the high side.

“They gave me an initial proposal, but I couldn’t understand what they were getting out of building the boat for the price they gave me,” St. Hilaire says. “They said they get a mold out of it. Jamie Lowell put it in perspective for me when he said, ‘John, you can always look at this boat as it was made for John St. Hilaire. There’s no other boat like it in the world.’ I said, ‘OK, what the heck.’ They convinced me.”

A traditionalist turns unconventional

“The thing to keep in mind is that while John is a boater, he had never been involved in the boatbuilding process, from the mold- making to finished boat,” Jamie Lowell says. “But he is extremely open to suggestions and is drawn to technology, especially if it improves performance.”

The plan was to build a fiberglass and marine plywood boat with a cored hull and Douglas fir deck beams. “Definitely no carbon fiber,” Lowell says. “The boat was supposed to be just a little lobster boat, nothing fancy. We’re talking rolling gelcoat with a fancy finish.”

Over many discussions with the Lowells, members of their small crew and boat-owner friends, St. Hilaire began investigating the benefits of building with carbon fiber. He approached the Lowells to ask whether incorporating the material would improve his boat’s resale value. When the answer was yes, the “marine plywood went out the window and cored everything came in,” Lowell says.

“From the wash rails up is carbon fiber,” says St. Hilaire, including the saloon sole.

“One of the unique characteristics of that boat is that the whole cockpit seems like one piece,” Lowell says. “The visor is molded onto the boat, so the whole inside is phenomenally clean with the warm, simple feeling we wanted.”

The engine bed originally was to have been cut from steel, but it was redesigned for the lighter aluminum bed the Lowells build into some of their larger commercial boats. This required making custom stainless-steel brackets to accept the mounting system. “The whole drive line system is a very robust, lightweight system built for ease of operation,” Lowell says.

“The engine was the focal point from the beginning,” St. Hilaire says. “I wanted the biggest engine I could fit without raising the floor. We went to cored carbon fiber on the topsides because I wanted to invest in that for stability, not for fuel economy, to lower the center of gravity on what was already a stable boat.”

The Lowells added carbon fiber tubes to conceal most of the wiring. “If you look in the engine bed, you’re hard-pressed to even see a wire,” Lowell says.

“One of the things that worked well was I wanted these guys to create, to bring out their full imagination and talent,” St. Hilaire says. “That worked awesome.”

When it came to the finish, the boat spent six months in the paint shop. “The whole interior is Awlgripped, from up underneath the foredeck out to the cabin, the port and starboard seats, the life raft rack,” Lowell says. “The changes over the course of the project were phenomenal, some of them almost spontaneous.”

Lowell compares Thorobred to the Shelby Cobra sports car — a street version found in a showroom and one built for the racetrack. “They may look the same, but why does the racing model cost so much more? Because the technology inside is totally different and far superior,” he says. “It’s easy to look at John’s boat and just see a lobster yacht, but there’s a lot happening under the surface that you just don’t see. A lot of love went into that boat.”

Economic headwinds

As sea trialing and launching approached with the 2012 boating season, much had changed since St. Hilaire hired the Lowells in November 2006. A global recession tested the staying power of the Lowell yard, as business slumped from building about three boats a year through 2006 to zero. “We saw it coming even before the crash,” Lowell says. “We’re a small shop, so we tried to look at our forecast. What’s the worst thing in the world? One or two boats a year? It was worse than our forecast. We wouldn’t have done the mold had we known what the economy was going to do. Everything went quiet, and it stayed quiet — horribly so.”

That left only one job: St. Hilaire’s Thorobred. “At the time, we didn’t have anything else lined up, so we just scratched by,” Jamie Lowell says. “And with nothing coming along in terms of the economy and business, it was an open book in terms of what John wanted. He wanted it, we did it.”

The Lowell family's craftsmanship is evident in Thorobred's elegant touches, including her hull ceilings.

So although St. Hilaire had the Lowells’ undivided attention, the project moved slowly because of the multitude of modifications and the subsequent negotiations over those changes. It took 2-1/2 years just to build the molds, and the switch to carbon fiber added about a year to the job. “The painful part of the process was how long it took, but the benefit of it taking that kind of time was to be able to assess it as it went along and look at how to make it better,” St. Hilaire says.

Over 5-plus years of give and take, St. Hilaire and the Lowells had their differences, but each was worked out productively, as in any good collaboration on a long-term project. “John could sometimes be indecisive and change what he wants on the fly,” Lowell says. “But he was in love with the boats and their history, and he was very patient in the evolution.”

Pride in the finished product was a common denominator. Jamie Lowell likens his craft to artistry, calling the boats “my canvas.” He oversees each from start to finish. “We’re the guys who design, build and launch the boat,” he says. “We do the woodwork, the layup,” with a crew that varies from four to nine, depending on the workload, he says. “Building a boat is a very personal thing to us. How do you take pride in a boat you launched if you didn’t build it?”

Splash down

The first of several sea trials was conducted June 4, 2012, on Casco Bay. Jamie Lowell recalls one trial: “We were running along at about 22 knots, and the boat was just cutting through the slop. I told John to bump it up to 24 knots, and there was still no pounding at all. You could drink a martini on board and not spill it. I told John to bump it up again, and when we hit 26 knots and there was still no pounding, his jaw just dropped.”

“Stable and solid are the first words that came to mind in describing the ride, especially in a side sea,” says St. Hilaire. “It’s just so well balanced.”

Although the use of carbon fiber shaved about 1,500 pounds, St. Hilaire says his 38-footer handles like a heavier boat. “It actually feels like a wooden boat,” he says. The 7-hp Volvo Penta bow thruster makes the boat “much more agile at the dock than I expected,” St. Hilaire says.

Although the bow efficiently sheds water, rails were added after the first sea trial to knock down the spray that was wetting the pilothouse windows. They proved effective even at 26 knots.

The official launch came July 21, and Thorobred spent the season at the Strouts Point Wharf Co., an eight-minute walk from the St. Hilaire home and a five-minute drive to the Lowell yard. “Since it was just launched, we wanted to keep it close to home and close to the builders,” St. Hilaire says. “We knew summer would be about warming up to the boat.” What unfolded was a series of trips to Castine, Boothbay Harbor, Casco Bay and Portland. A long-awaited cruise to Boston was aborted because of weather.

St. Hilaire’s wife, Noelle, was involved in the project from the beginning, especially leaving her mark on the interior. “She’s a co-captain, not a mate,” he says. Daughters Mandy, 20, and Chrissy, 19, “are just beside themselves. They just love it.”

With an eye toward longer coastal cruises, St. Hilaire took Thorobred to a one-man shop in Durham, Maine, to add a few touches. During the winter he had a chart table (with a flip-up top for storage) built into the port-side dash, and new cabinetry was put into the head. A new helm station was installed to provide additional storage, comfort and an area to place a new FLIR control pad. All of the new woodwork was done in mahogany.

Launch day was a family affair and the culmination of a 5 1/2 year collaboration.

Additional sound attenuation was installed in the engine space, and a FLIR thermal-imaging camera was added to the mast. “I had never cruised north of Castine, so we added a life raft to the roof for a possible trip to Nova Scotia,” St. Hilaire says.

The boat is set up for cruising, but he installed a couple of rod holders, just in case the mood strikes. The boat was relaunched this past June. “Over the summer, we cruised the waters of both Casco Bay and Penobscot Bay. We took the boat up to Castine for the month of July while we were at our cottage, which gave us some great opportunities to cruise Penobscot Bay, getting as far north as Northeast Harbor,” he says. “August, for the most part, was spent in the Casco and Muscongus bays, spending overnights in Boothbay Harbor and Monhegan Island.”

As summer waned, St. Hilaire planned to extend his cruising well into the fall.

Through the looking glass

With Thorobred finished, “It’s a totally satisfying feeling because the boat does everything we hoped and expected,” says St. Hilaire. Builder and client can chortle at the disagreements resolved during the process — for example, the color of the hull. “I wanted a red hull. Not off-red — I wanted red-red because it seemed traditional for a lobster boat, and I would not bend on that.”

The Lowells pushed hard for either white or gray Awlgrip. “White or gray seems like a natural hull color for the boat because it’s accentuated against a dark gray,” Jamie Lowell says. “Red is loud, and I thought with the stainless hardware it would look too much like a firetruck.”

St. Hilaire says that just when he was starting to doubt himself, his wife and a buddy urged him to stick with red. “It was one of the best decisions I made through the whole building process,” he says. “The color just draws people in, and the increased visibility was also a factor for safety.”

Another dispute came over the Lowells putting their nameplate on the finished boat, as is their practice. St. Hilaire was adamant about leaving it off, and the reason was simple: It prompts admirers to approach him and ask about his boat and who built it. “It’s good for the pride,” he says.

His wife describes the experience as both stressful and rewarding, but satisfying and well worth the trials and tribulations. “She was my anchor. I couldn’t have done it without her,” St. Hilaire says. “I’m extremely fortunate that my wife loves to boat.”

For those looking to follow in his wake, St. Hilaire offers some advice. Before taking the first step, do your homework and decide what you want and don’t want in as much detail as possible. “And I’d probably take more time in the design and possibly get a marine architect involved,” he says. “The Lowells are perfectly capable, and the proof is in the pudding. It would be someone to help the owner in decision making.”

Above all else, be patient. “Allow extra time toward the end of the process,” he says. “If you’re told it will take two years, throw another year on there. Maybe it will take that long, maybe it won’t, but you will be prepared, and it won’t be as stressful.”

St. Hilaire also came away with a prized souvenir: a framed copy of the boat’s lines, which hangs in his office and reads, “For John St. Hilaire.”

That, he says, is the “museum piece in my life.”

See related article:

- It's the hull shape that sets it apart

December 2013 issue