You would think a pandemic would put a dent in the boatbuilding business, but it has not. In fact, in Maine, as elsewhere, it has been quite the opposite. A tour of six Maine yards showed there is no shortage of work with boatsheds jammed full of new builds and refits.
Maine continues to attract buyers from around the country and the world who want to have their dreamboats constructed to the designs of the best naval architects. They come to Maine for new builds, rebuilds or refits, in modern and classic styles in custom or semi-custom designs. Yards are operating at the highest capacity they want to be building, while still emphasizing quality.
Are there trends? When it comes to boats, the Pine Tree state can deliver whatever you want, but outboard power seems to be gaining momentum. And thanks to Penobscot Bay—one of the world’s great sailing grounds—new sailboat models continue to be in demand.
As always, the focus is on a quality-built, attractive boat, but Maine boatyards stay on the cutting edge. The latest technologies are being embraced for efficiency and accuracy. At least two yards added large 5-axis CNC cutters to their tool kits, including what may be the largest in all of New England, but there is still plenty of old-world craftsmanship. Workers continue to use mallets and chisels, apply gold leaf by hand and paint details with tiny brushes. Attention to detail is still the hallmark of the state’s boatbuilding industry.
BROOKLIN BOAT YARD
Ever since Joel White opened Brooklin Boat Yard (BBY) in 1960, the business has had a reputation for beautiful boats with classic lines. White passed away, but under his son Steve’s direction the yard’s reputation has not changed, and it is as busy as ever.
Late last year, BBY launched Legend, the first Wheeler 38 (a modern version of Ernest Hemingway’s famous boat Pilar), for the revived Wheeler Yacht Company now run by Wes Wheeler. Wes is the great grandson of Howard E. Wheeler, who built Hemingway’s boat.
The new Wheeler 38 looks like Pilar but has a cold-molded hull and deck and uses the latest technologies, like iPad and iPhone control for most onboard systems, and the latest touch-screen marine electronics. It has other equipment that Papa Hemingway did not have, including air conditioning, autopilot, a Seakeeper stabilizer, a generator and refrigeration.
In May, BBY delivered the Aroha 29, a 29-foot, 10-inch classic coastal cruiser that’s now traveling around Jamestown, Rhode Island. The Peter Sewell design was discovered in New Zealand by Off Center Harbor founder Maynard Bray and is available as a CNC kit for home builders. BBY used the kit to construct the first boat. With a 38-hp diesel the Aroha 29 only burns .26 gph at 7.5 knots and 2.1 gph at 17 knots.
In June, BBY employees were putting the final touches on a Jim Taylor-designed 44-foot sailboat, Equipoise, which will be headed to a client in Marina Del Ray, California. It will be the client’s fourth BBY boat.
Inside the main shed, BBY employees steadily work to complete a BBY 32 Express Cruiser that will be powered with twin 250-hp outboards for a 40-knot WOT. The scheduled launch date is in early August.
A 65-foot Sparkman & Stephens motorsailor that was built in the 1960s for former New York Yacht Club commodore Henry Morgan sits in the same shed as the 32. BBY is installing a new bottom, interior, systems and deck. “Lots of mahogany,” says Brian Larkin, BBY general manager, about the motorsailor.
When asked about the yard’s many projects and his official title, Larkin responds, “border collie.”
A lot of people at Rockport Marine are wearing tie dye T-shirts. It looks like a Dead Head gathering, but it’s simply Tie Dye Friday.
Inside the shed, Nick Horovitz uses a chisel to fine-tune the fit of two Alaskan yellow cedar covering boards on the deck of Mist, a new 45-foot Bill Tripp-designed sailboat. Inside the cabin of the wood composite hull, Greg Pugh hand planes the Douglas fir deck carlin to apply a paper-thin curly tiger ash veneer. Behind Mist, Collin Burns uses the tiniest of brushes to paint the blue outlines around the gold leaf he’d applied to the 1936 70-foot William Fife III yawl Latifa, while inside the hull a mechanic works on the newly installed twin engines.
Rockport Marine president and co-owner Sam Temple, wearing a tie dye shirt of his own, is getting ready to build the second of two laminated steering wheels for Mist. Working with Michael Gove Lamb, the two men roll up the 100-foot scarfed length of wood on the shop floor. It looks like they’re playing with hula hoops. Temple likes to keep his hands in the work, but he’s building the wheels to help out his crew because there’s a lot of work to do.
Latifa is close to getting launched after a winter of systems work, interior carpentry and cosmetics. She is widely considered the finest example of the famed Scottish yacht designer’s work. Her current owner, a former charter captain, hired Rockport Marine to install a new forward cabin, to repower the boat with larger engines and to make her look like new again.
Rockport Marine is known for building and refitting traditional wooden boats. Their small dock area always brims with lots of Concordias, peapods and other wooden craft. But the modern-looking Mist is a bit of a departure for this yard.
The hull was laid up out of carbon, foam core and wood laminates. It has a carbon fiber lifting mechanism and a bulb keel built in England, and carbon fiber spars from Offshore Spars in New Baltimore, Michigan. The carbon fiber sprit will be clad in Sitka spruce. It’s Rockport Marine’s first time building a boat for Bill Tripp III, who is known for his high-end contemporary superyacht sailboats. “It’s kind of nice to do a modern boat once in a while,” Temple says.
FRONT STREET SHIPYARD
Front Street Shipyard was established in 2011 when a condo complex was planned for the Belfast waterfront and the town fathers were convinced that a working shipyard would be better for the local economy. Their instincts would prove them right.
In the past decade, the yard has become a heavy hitter in the Maine boatbuilding industry, employing more than 100 workers and handling vessels up to 200 feet with its 440-ton lift. But Front Street also handles much smaller boats.
Inside the nearly 70-foot-tall Shed 6, company president JB Turner points out a new Holland 30 lobsterboat that will be fitted with twin outboards. Front Street took over production of the Glenn Holland hulls, which are now built at the company’s Bucksport facility. The Holland 30 was built in a Holland 32 mold. The new owner wanted outboards, but his dock couldn’t handle the 32 with the engines on the transom, so they shortened it in the mold.
Behind the Holland 30 is a former Cape Cod pilot boat that’s being converted into a mailboat for Swans Island. And behind that is a 1980s-era Hood 50 that’s getting a new cabin sole, windows and engine parts. Every square inch of Shed 6 is used for building, repair or refit. Boats are jammed in and around the 1996 151-foot Palmer Johnson expedition yacht Pioneer. It’s getting a paint job, HVAC, engine work and seven new heads.
Right outside his office window, which faces into another shed, Turner points to the massive 5-axis CNC cutter they’ve just installed, which is capable of cutting up to 7 inches of steel with its 90,000-psi waterjets. It has a 16,000-pound vacuum lift.
The yard is operating at maximum capacity and is turning away clients who are looking for a paint job, as the painting crew is maxed out.
Off to the side, by the public walkway, which allows locals and tourists to enjoy the waterfront while also allowing boat nuts to entertain themselves with a close-up view of the busy seven-acre yard, Maine Maritime Academy students paint the hull and bottom of the 100-year-old Arctic exploration schooner Bowdoin.
The painting process is supervised by Bowdoin Capt. Will McLean and second mate Brandy Curran. McLean shares how Front Street Shipyard management agreed to pull the schooner out of the water if the crew could do the painting themselves.
While sitting in the shade of another boat during a break from unseasonably hot Maine weather, McLean laughs and points to the other boats around Bowdoin. “They said while we were at it, we could paint that one, and that one, and that one, too.”
JOHNS BAY BOAT COMPANY
In Maine, if a lobsterman’s knees start hurting, he’ll go see Peter Kass.
Kass is no doctor, but he is probably the last person to exclusively build traditional plank-on-frame lobsterboats. Aficionados say a wooden boat is easier on the knees, is quieter and has a better motion. Some lobstermen buy a Kass-built boat because they are great boats, but others eventually get one to extend their careers as their knees are giving out. The line to get a Kass-built boat is long, and filled with more than just lobstermen. That’s because these boats are things of beauty—and because Kass builds one boat at a time.
He once built two boats at the same time, but he didn’t like running between them, because he felt he was giving both boats short shrift.
Kass started his career in the 1970s at Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol. They would build a wooden boat next to a steel one, but when they started building all steel boats, he left. “I wasn’t interested in steel,” he says. He spent five years working for other local yards, then opened his own shop. For the pasts 38 years he’s been building wooden lobsterboats for commercial fishermen and Downeast cruisers for recreational boaters.
The most recent person to get one of Kass’ new boats was Rich Armstrong of Westport, Massachusetts, and Friendship, Maine. The 42-foot Downeast cruiser named Never Better was launched in 2020 with a 450-hp Cummins. It was Armstrong’s second John’s Bay Boat Company.
It is not unusual for a customer to come to Kass for a second vessel. Not because the first one wore out—Kass’ boats will last a long time if properly cared for—but usually because a buyer just wants a different size.
At Kass’ shop at the end of a dirt road in South Bristol, workers mill around what Kass believes to be his 75th build, a red-hulled 46-footer with a 16-foot beam. One look at the wooden trim in the forward cabin and you’d bet money this one would go to a yachtsman, but you’d be wrong. She’s going to a lobsterman from Friendship, who is moving up from his 1990s 42-foot John’s Bay Boat. “That’s how we do it,” Kass simply says about the beautiful wooden interiors that go into all his boats.
Once the boat is finished, a crowd will gather for the launching, but Kass is a man of few words. He lets his boats do the talking. And when people see one, it leaves them speechless.
After the 2008 recession when the boatbuilding industry took a massive hit, Lyman-Morse diversified its business. The Lymans, who own Lyman-Morse, built an upscale, boutique hotel in downtown Rockland, bought and refurbished the marina in downtown Camden, and added a metalworking manufacturing facility.
Business picked up after the recession—the 2018 launch of the cold-molded 65-foot modern classic sloop Anna was just one example of the yard’s boatbuilding chops—but the last 18 months have proven especially productive for the Thomaston-based builder.
Last year, Lyman-Morse launched a head-turning Hood 57 LM Express Cruiser Yacht. Currently, the first two LM46 sailboats and the first Hood 35 motorboat are under construction.
The cold-molded wood composite LM46s are the brainchild of Cabot Lyman, who figured it was time to design a sailboat for modern needs. He wanted a wash-and-wear performance cruiser for those who don’t have a lot of time to put the boat away. The design is a collaboration between Cabot and New Zealand yacht designer Kevin Dibley, a longtime friend. “This boat’s time is now,” Marnie Read, the head of Lyman-Morse marketing and PR, quotes Cabot Lyman as saying about the LM46s.
Hull number 1 sits upright in the yard’s giant Shed 11, where it’s being finished out, while hull number 2 sits on the molds next to it. The cold-molded hulls are built upside down out of Douglas fir and Western red cedar, then flipped and finished out right side up. At press time, the first LM46 was scheduled to launch in late June 2021. The company’s goal for the LM46 is to have someone sailing within five minutes of stepping aboard and to be able to step off within five minutes of picking up the mooring. “Everybody is excited about it,” Read said. “A boat shouldn’t be a waterborne house.”
Also slated for a 2021 launch is the first Hood 35 Express Cruiser. Hull No. 1 will be powered by twin Yanmar diesels and Hamilton jets and is advertised as capable of a 30-knot cruise and a 38-knot WOT. It is also cold-molded out of Douglas fir and Western red cedar and is designed for day and weekend jaunts. Asked why the company went from a 57-footer to a 35-footer Read said, “We wanted to get into the market at a certain price.”
The Lymans’ efforts are paying dividends. The hotel is filling up with post-pandemic visitors and the metalworking business is creating products for industrial, architectural and marine customers, including a private marine railway for a Camden resident. The marina took a hit in 2020 when a fire started in the restaurant and burned it down with the brokerage offices and a storage shed, but a rebuild is underway. The new facility is set to open by early 2022. Meanwhile Camden waterfront operations continues serving transient sailors.
But it’s the boatbuilding that gets the Lyman-Morse crew excited. “When the pandemic began, we all held our breath,” Read said, “but to have four boats in one and a half years is thrilling.”
WESMAC CUSTOM BOATS
Wesmac Custom Boats general manager Dan Hitchcock has a boat under construction in each of the Surry yard’s bays.
A 46-footer in bay 1 is going to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. There are two 46-foot refits, a 42 sportfish that’s getting a raised top for a tall owner, and a 54 with an enclosed flybridge pilothouse that’s going to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where it will be put into service as a floating aquaculture classroom for city schoolchildren.
He then points to the next bay where a 2008 Wesmac 50 formerly named Kathleen IV has been stretched and turned into a Wesmac 58. It’s about to become Linda Greenlaw Wessel’s new Wesmac, Select. (Greenlaw is the wife of Wesmac owner Steve Wessel, and the author of the best-selling book The Hungry Ocean.) A number of the boat’s original features—the twin Cummins diesels, the Hamilton jets with low hours and a lot of the interior cabinetry—will remain, but the boat’s cockpit has been dramatically expanded for the private tours Greenlaw will be offering.
In the yard’s office sits Steve Wessel, who acknowledges that demand for the Wesmac brand is high. He says he could double the size of the yard, but at age 70 he’s not willing to do it without an investment partner.
A month later, Greenlaw is at a dock in Surry just a few days after her boat has splashed. The 58-footer still needs some finishing touches, and Greenlaw’s still waiting for Coast Guard approval to take as many as 47 passengers out on the water. The woman whose actions as a swordfishing boat captain during a massive 1991 storm were famously described in Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book The Perfect Storm admits that she is adjusting to handling a boat with twin jets. “I got some learning to do,” she says.
Earnest, the 1998 wooden lobsterboat she’s been running for the past nine years, pulling lobster pots and taking people out on six-pack tours, sits at its mooring. “Earnest is my ‘interim’ boat,” she says as she rolls her eyes at the word interim.
“They sold three boats on me,” she says without specifying who “they” were. Every time she was supposed to get her Wesmac, a customer would come along and buy it. “That boat in bay 1, the one that’s going to Georgia? That was supposed to be my boat,” she says. But Greenlaw is happy to finally have her own Wesmac.
Wesmacs, with their wide beams and hard chines, are known for their seakeeping abilities. She remembers the first time she went out on one when sea conditions suddenly deteriorated. “Where’s everybody going?” Greenlaw recalls. “Why are we the only ones out here? We thought we were so tough, but it was the boat, not us.”
This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.