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The looks may be classic, but many craftsmen in Maine are giving their Down East builds something extra nowadays, whether working in wood or fiberglass. 

Farrins Boatshop in Walpole, for instance, has done everything from installing a lockable wheelchair space at the helm to building a doggie door on board. John’s Bay Boat Company in South Bristol designs ergonomic helm seats with curved backs to avoid wasting the valuable inches that cushions take up in tight spaces. Sabre Yachts in South Casco installs Volvo Penta IPS pod-drive propulsion, saving engine room square footage while giving skippers joystick control. Wilbur Yachts in Southwest Harbor recently built a custom base for a green stick, used in tuna fishing. These are not your granddaddy’s Down East boats.

Builders and finishers

It’s a sunny day in early May, and Moonshot is flying across the water. “You can drive a lobster boat, but this is a whole new ballgame!” declares Josh Gray, who is at the helm and wearing a big smile. “This is not even the same realm. The handling, the speed, the pickup — it’s crazy!”

He and his brother, Seth Gray, own Newman & Gray Boatyard on Great Cranberry Island off midcoast Maine. Their team spent the winter finishing this boat, a new model called the Williams 38. She’s an example of the kind of boats that made Maine famous — that classic Down East style — but she also shows how much these boats have evolved. When her modern planing hull hits 40 knots, you realize that this is no ordinary lobster cruiser.

Doug Zurn of Zurn Yacht Design in Marblehead, Massachusetts, modified the lines of the Stanley 38, designed by Lyford Stanley and built for years by John Williams Boat Company, of Quarry Hall, Maine. Zurn drew a modern planing underbody with the classic style of a lobster yacht above the waterline. Williams built the boat’s hull and structure with e-glass and Core-Cell and installed twin Volvo Penta IPS600 diesel pod drives. Rubber mounts under the engines reduce hull vibration, and a Zipwake dynamic trim-control system eases pitch and roll. Teakdecking Systems provided modular decks and soles, and the engine hatch tilts from flat to vertical on an electric actuator with the touch of a button. At the helm — just as on a luxury car — the boat wakes up with the flash of a “key” in front of a chip reader.

 She rides as smooth as silk.

“Hold on, I’ll turn,” Josh Gray says, banking at high speed. A shiver of delight runs up my spine.

“I know!” he says, seeing the look on my face. “It’s like, I can never drive another boat again!”

Hull No. 1 of the Doug Zurn-designed Williams 38 was finished and splashed at Newman & Gray, owned by second-generation boatbuilders Seth and Josh Gray, on Great Cranberry Island.

 “Josh and Seth are the most professional people I’ve ever dealt with in any business venture,” says the boat’s owner, who lives in Darien, Connecticut, and has a summer home on Great Cranberry. “The craftsmanship they and their crew exhibited is just unbelievable.”

Seth Gray says the innovations on the engine hatch, in particular, were a matter of trial and error for employee George Richards. “He would say, ‘We’ll build a couple of mock-ups, and we’ll keep adjusting it until we get it right.’ ”

Standing at the Great Cranberry dock in sight of classic wooden boats built by Bunker & Ellis and Ralph and Richard Stanley, the Gray brothers considered what working on Moonshot has meant to them.

“Last year’s project was restoring a 1960s wooden lobster boat, and this year we built a spaceship,” Seth says with a laugh. “And everyone’s been really excited. People in the community come down to see the boat.”

Josh adds, “A lot of boats have been built out here, historically, but this is definitely different. … This is 21st century.” Newman & Gray Boatyard, (207) 244-0575.

The Family Farrin

Farrin’s Boatshop calls itself a custom finisher of classic hulls, which means its craftsmen use their creativity differently than the team at Newman & Gray does. At Farrin’s, the goal is to fill any basic hull with whatever the owner can imagine, want or need for the interior.

As a reminder of that mission, Kelly Anne, a 34-foot Calvin Beal sportfisherman finished a few years ago, is memorialized with her name painted on the shipyard’s wall. Farrin’s finished the boat for a man who was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident. The crew made the boat usable for the owner, with features that include a transom door combined with an extendable aluminum ramp, and a place at the helm to lock in a wheelchair.

Kelly Anne is one of two boats Farrin’s has finished for people with such physical needs. The level of specialization is practically the yard’s calling card.

“If people have thought of it, we’ve done it,” says Brian Farrin, whose parents, Bruce and Judith, opened the shop in 1970. “We’ve had hidden computer monitors — push a button and they pop up out of the bulkhead. We’ve put dog doors in. We’ve done four yachts for one individual where he had a children’s stateroom under the galley so they had their own little area.”

Sabre 45 Salon Express.

At the moment, Farrin’s has a 43-foot Carroll Lowell yacht and a 42-foot Calvin Beal sportfisherman under construction. The designers are known for their Down East boats. Construction of the 43’s hull and superstructure are by Lowell Brothers in Yarmouth; SW Boatworks in Lamoine molded the Beal.

Before opening his own shop, Bruce Farrin got his start at nearby Harvey Gamage Shipyard, helping to build the 125-foot Antarctic research vessel Hero and the 125-foot schooner Shenandoah, among other vessels. He then began doing fiberglass construction, learning by doing and consulting with other builders as he went. In the beginning, he mostly built commercial lobster boats. Today, his family-run yard mostly builds pleasure boats, though commercial boats remain an important part of the business. Counting everything down to 8-footers, the yard has produced more than 200 boats.

The all-composite 42-foot Calvin Beal is a lot different from the big wooden boats he started out building. It has a lot of custom features, including a tuna door with a ramp to water level, a 30-foot green stick and an outside helm.

“We’re a small yard,” Brian Farrin says, “so we can take the time to work with the owners and build the boat they want.” Farrin’s Boatshop, (207) 563-5510.

The Perfectionist

John’s Bay Boat Company owner Peter Kass doesn’t make it easy to find his yard. He began building on the shorefront in 1983, after working at other yards, including Harvey Gamage. Drive down a long peninsula road to a narrow lane with a bunch of dirt offshoots and no sign. Take a lucky guess on which dirt road is the correct one, and you’ll find the shop, marine railway and a pile of lumber, with the bay beyond.

“It keeps out the riffraff,” Kass jokes as he clambers up from the muddy deck of the workboat Jamie-K, which his crew built 27 years ago and is seeing again to repair an engine problem.

Kass is one of the last adherents (among commercial builders, anyway) to traditional plank-on-frame boatbuilding. But that doesn’t mean he’s an old fogy. Wearing greasy jeans, sneakers and a John’s Bay sweatshirt, he’s known for meticulous work, a high-caliber crew, integrity in design and construction, and gorgeous carpentry. Customers range from high-lining fishermen to high-end yachtsmen.

Buddy B, a 45-foot Young Brothers hull finished by SW Boatworks.

A 42-foot Down East cruiser named Rhum was recently launched. She has a wooden deck, trim and furnishings; bronze and brass hardware and light fixtures; a double door to the wheelhouse; and custom windows. For strength, the transom was built with five layers of cold-molded wood, then cut in half and refined to create a gate from the cockpit to the swim platform.

At the helm, the captain and mate’s bench seats have curved backs designed to be comfortable without cushions.

“When you’re trying to pinch inches, the thickness of the cushions adds up to a lot,” Kass says. “So if you don’t have the cushions because you’ve got a chair that’s ergonomic, it’s a big help.”

Raised paneling and curved corners complete the cabinetry, and dark and light woods alternate in the trim. The old-fashioned feeling continues with Sipo beams, wood joinery throughout the master stateroom and around doors and windows, a paneled door enclosing the refrigerator and granite countertops. You can practically smell the sea salt.

In the next bay over, the crew is building the 47-foot workboat Sailor’s Way for a Stonington fisherman. He’s a third-time customer, each boat bigger than the previous. This one fills the shop end to end.

The customer was debating how big to go, Kass recalls. “Then he saw the last boat we built, the Outer Fall.” That was Kass’ largest boat, built for Spruce Head fisherman Jim Tripp. At 47 feet with a cherry-red hull, Outer Fall stands out on the water. “He said, ‘I want one like that!’ ” Kass recalls. “And that was that.”

Given the level of detail in his work, Kass might best be described as a perfectionist who keeps the bar high for longtime Maine standards while still evolving with his fellow builders, to add something original in each Down East package.

The Farrins — Bruce Sr. and his sons Brian and Bruce Jr. (from left) — are known for their custom work.The crew is finishing a 42-foot Calvin Beal hull, molded by SW Boatworks in Lamoine, as a sportfisherman for a New York customer.

“I’m not this way about everything,” Kass says with a chuckle. “I’m not interested in making my house perfect. But the boats we work on? Yeah.” John’s Bay Boat Company, (207) 644-8261.

More boats from Down East, production and custom

Sabre Yachts: The Sabre 45 Salon Express (49 feet length overall, including the swim platform) is the new midrange offering. Hull No. 1 launched this past April in Stuart, Florida. She has a two-stateroom, two-head interior.

Back Cove Yachts: The Back Cove 32 (37 feet length overall, including the swim platform) was introduced in August 2016. Back Cove is building three hulls a month. 

SW Boatworks: A 45-foot Young Brothers sportfishing boat recently launched for a first-time customer from Shelter Island, New York. In the shop are a 36 Calvin Beal marine patrol vessel, a 38 Calvin Beal pleasure boat for a Connecticut customer and a 45 Young Brothers sportfishing/pleasure boat.

Hinckley Yachts: Thirty-two jetboats of various length are under construction at the Trenton plant. Expected to deliver in July, for a California customer, is the new Talaria 48 MKII, a refresh of the original T48. Features include a redesigned interior with the galley up in the pilothouse, tailored for entertaining.

Ellis Boat Company: The Ellis 36 bowrider express cruiser launched in early 2016 for a repeat customer looking to scale up. The boat has extra seating in a recessed area forward, custom cockpit and shelter seating, cantilevered Stidd seats at the helm and a transom door.

Atlantic Boat Co.: The yard is finishing a custom Duffy 39 sportfishing boat for a repeat customer from Gloucester, Massachusetts, who’s scaling up from a Duffy 31. The boat will have a Herreshoff-style interior with mahogany doors and trim, a V-berth forward, upper and lower Pullman berths for guests, a galley up in the main saloon with a booth settee, rod holders, a fishbox, a live well and a stern door.

Farrin’s Boatshop launched Phase III, a no-frills, solidly built 38-foot Holland hull finished as a lobster boat in 2015.

Wilbur Yachts: Family Ties, a 45-foot sportfishing boat, launched early this year. Homeported in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Millennium 45 is fitted with lots of fishing gear, including a custom base for a green stick, fighting chairs in the cockpit, a pot hauler for lobster fishing, rod holders and outriggers. The pilothouse is air conditioned.

Wesmac Custom Boats: Wesmac is a busy shop these days, with two 54-foot sportfishers, a 38-foot cruiser bound for Rhode Island, a 46-foot cruiser on its way to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a 42-foot kit boat underway as well as some commercial builds.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue.