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Lobster Boat kings Convene

A symposium in Castine, Maine, brings sailors and Down East boatbuilders together. 

Sailors who gathered in the Penobscot Bay village of Castine, Maine, this past summer for a weekend of classic yacht racing had a rare opportunity to learn about the history, development and construction of the Maine lobster boat from some of the foremost builders of these vessels, which — with the men and women who fish on them — are the foundation of the state’s $380 million lobster industry.

The sailors were mostly skippers or crew from the 32 sailing yachts in the harbor for the start of the Castine Classic Yacht Race across Penobscot Bay to Camden. The Castine event, with a fleet that this year included, among other boats, the Sparkman & Stephens-designed New York 50 Spartan, launched in 1912, and six of the remaining S&S-designed New York 32s, still racing more than 75 years after their launching, was followed by a race from Camden to Brooklin and the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta, organized by the Brooklin Boat Yard and Rockport Marine and hosted by the WoodenBoat School.

The Maine builders gathered for the informal symposium hosted by the Castine Yacht Club and Maine Maritime Academy. Three of the five panel members — Doug Hylan, Peter Kass and Richard Stanley — build only in wood. Jamie Lowell builds both wood and fiberglass lobster boats, and Glenn Holland builds only fiberglass boats.

There are two basic forms of the Maine lobster boat hull: built-down and skeg, the latter more popular with fishermen in the eastern part of the state, where Will Frost and other early builders developed the design on the waters of Moosabec Reach between Beals Island and the mainland town of Jonesport. Right off the bat, participants learned that each type has its proponents and that their opinions as to which is better are strongly held.

The consensus was that built-down hulls — on which the planking curves down into the keel — have “a more comfortable ride,” but that they generally won’t be as fast as a comparably sized skeg boat, on which the bottom planking runs almost perpendicular to the top of the keel with little or no deadrise aft.

“Some of those Jonesport [skeg] boats are pretty good sea boats, but a semidisplacement [built-down] is much easier to work out of,” Stanley said.

“That’s absolutely true,” said Lowell, adding that skeg boats are easier to build, whether in wood or fiberglass.

Holland had a different take. “I’m the only one here who’s built skeg boats,” he said. “A whole lot of guys fishing love them, and I’ve got a whole shelf full of [lobster boat racing] trophies,” most of them earned by the Holland 32 Red Baron. With a 1,000-plus-hp Ford engine, the boat reached nearly 60 mph in racing trim, but most of the time Holland’s father used the boat to go lobstering with a smaller engine.

There was no disagreement among the panelists that Maine lobster boats, both skeg and built-down, have gotten bigger, heavier and, with ever more powerful engines, more expensive to operate. When Frost designed and built the first modern Maine lobster boats in his shop on Beals Island, they were powered by automobile engines of the era. His narrow, easily driven skeg hulls with a length-to-beam ratio of about 3.5-to-1 or 4-to-1 were said to be twice as fast as traditional boats from other builders. Today, lobster boats with a 15-foot beam are not uncommon, and one Down East builder just launched a fiberglass 47-footer with a beam of 18 feet, 8 inches, a ratio of about 2.5-to-1.

Big boats are heavy and require big engines to drive them. Lowell said one of his 38-foot boats might weigh 24,000 pounds finished as a yacht, and 15,000 to 17,000 pounds in fishing trim. Holland said the 38-footer he designed during the 1980s with input from Lowell’s father weighs in at about 16,000 pounds. Several Holland 38s that lobstermen brought to run on the Maine lobster boat racing circuit this summer were powered by diesels of 550 to 650 hp or more.

Kass said that one of his 38- to 40-foot lobster boats would weigh in the “mid 20s.” The 42-foot lobster yacht Abigail & Carter, built at John’s Bay, “probably weighs 32,000 pounds.” It is powered by a 1,000-hp diesel.

“Lobster boat design has been hijacked by a combination of cheap fuel, high [lobster] prices and lots of lobsters,” Hylan said. Although “it takes four to eight times the horsepower to go twice as fast,” he said, with modern engines “per dollar, horsepower is cheap.”

Most lobstermen would argue about both the cost of fuel and the price they get for lobsters, but “fishing’s changed,” Kass said. Over the past few years, more of the fishery has moved offshore and extended into the winter months. “People are going a whole lot farther than they used to,” Kass said. “They want to get there safely and get home again.”

Meet the experts

Glenn Holland, Holland’s Boat Shop in Belfast. Since its first 32-footer was launched in 1978, the shop has built hundreds of that model and its 38-foot sister for lobstering and offshore sportfishing.

Doug Hylan, D.N. Hylan & Associates. Located on the Benjamin River in Brooklin, the company is noted for its restoration of such classic wooden boats as the 65-foot Grayling, a 1915 sardine carrier converted to an elegant yacht. Hylan got his start working for Joel White at the Brooklin Boat Yard 30 years ago.

Peter Kass, John’s Bay Boat Co. in South Bristol. Kass has been building traditional plank-on-frame lobster boats based on the designs of Carroll Lowell since 1986.

Jamie Lowell of Lowell Brothers (Even Keel Marine). He is the son of Carroll Lowell, nephew of Royal Lowell and grandson of Will Frost, considered the father of the modern Maine lobster boat. He builds Lowell-designed lobster boats on the Cousins River in Yarmouth with his brother, Joe.

Richard Stanley, Ralph W. Stanley’s son, managed the building shop at his father’s Southwest Harbor yard for decades, turning out wooden lobster boats and Friendship sloops. He continues that wooden boatbuilding tradition at his own shop in Bass Harbor.

November 2014 issue