If a single surviving vessel might be said to exemplify the heyday of Maine's commercial fishery, it could easily be the Jacob Pike.
Built in Thomaston, Maine, at the Newbert and Wallace Shipyard in 1949, the Pike was constructed of oak and hard pine - two species used by generations of shipbuilders because of their durability.
And durable the Pike has proved to be. Now 60 years old, she is still in commission, her heavily built hull quite seaworthy for a vessel of her age.
For more than 50 years the Pike earned her keep as a sardine carrier, literally "carrying" herring from fishermen to sardine canneries along the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and the Maritime Provinces in Canada. With a capacity of 125,000 pounds of fish, she could reportedly run - fully loaded - at 12 knots. The herring fishery is inshore, meaning vessels aren't regularly exposed to rougher conditions offshore, so even a wooden boat like the Pike could survive longer than vessels used in other fisheries.
"Who knows how many fishermen knew the Pike," wrote an admirer in a magazine profile a couple of years ago. "How many factory workers depended upon the sardines the Pike delivered; how many people just knew the Pike because it looked so darn good steaming down the coast?"
New owners acquired the Jacob Pike from her last fishing captain in 2007. Last year, after she spent two seasons of semiretirement in Rockport, Maine, they gave the her to the Penobscot Marine Museum in hopes she'd become the centerpiece of a program focused on the history of commercial fishing.
What attracted the museum was this 83-footer's near-original condition. Her engine had been replaced at least once and she'd had the usual additions to her electronic gear. However, experts like the museum's curator Ben Fuller and Maynard Bray of WoodenBoat magazine assert that the Pike is essentially as she was built six decades ago.
Planks and fastenings have probably been replaced here and there as part of standard maintenance. A strip of fiberglass cloth protects her waterline from ice. There's evidence of changes in the structure of the wheelhouse and repairs below the waterline. Still, compared with other sardine carriers of her age - a few have been converted to other uses, most are simply gone - the Jacob Pike is museum-worthy.
Yet turning an aging vessel into an educational program isn't proving easy. The costs of maintaining a vessel of this type are high. One estimate has them running more than $1 million just in initial repairs, another is just under $1 million, and today's economy isn't kind to expensive projects. Annual maintenance once she's put into shape can easily exceed $100,000. The Pike, being an old boat whose needs will only be fully known once she's taken apart and the museum is committed, could prove to be very expensive.
Meanwhile, the museum is doing what it can. The Hinckley yard in Southwest Harbor, Maine, donated a fall haulout and winter storage in 2009-10 so the vessel could be assessed in detail. In late March, Fuller orchestrated a high-tech measuring project in hopes of preserving the lines of the Pike's hull and other structures as accurately as possible. David and Katherine Cockey of Rochester, Mich., both retired General Motors engineers and experts in the use of photogrammetry to measure hulls and other shapes, came to Maine to document the Pike.
Affixing more than 100 "targets" - large and small black dots on white backgrounds, strips of masking tape, special black-on-white shapes - to the hull, the Cockeys proceeded to shoot hundreds of digital photographs of the Pike from varying angles and distances. Taping and targeting the Pike took about an hour, during which another photographer, Peter Mathews, took large-format black-and-white pictures for the Library of Congress - another form of documentation that could outlive the Pike.
Using PhotoModeler - a computer program that constructs 3-D images using the targets for reference - the Cockeys will be able to build an extremely accurate digital model of the Pike. (Other uses of PhotoModeler include documenting historic buildings and accident reconstruction, and it's employed in the film industry as well.)
David Cockey says it would take "a couple of days" to assemble his 3-D images of the Pike. With the agreement of the museum, he's documenting only the port side of the vessel on the assumption that she's still symmetrical - and that anyone who might want to reproduce her would be interested in a vessel with both sides the same. Cockey did take pains to target the quarter-inch-thick fiberglass along the waterline - a later addition - and a square of added planking near the stern, explaining that he can digitally reconstruct the surfaces underneath if he knows and allows for the thickness of their coverings as he shoots his pictures.
Once Cockey's digital model is complete, it will join the Penobscot Marine Museum's collection of lines of historic vessels, many of which were once used in Maine's fishing industry. Maintaining the Pike and creating the digital model are first steps in what the museum hopes will be a long-term effort to commemorate Maine's fishing industry.
"She's the last of the large wooden commercial vessels," says Fuller, noting that a few draggers and other boats were built after the Pike, but nothing as large.
Fuller and others at the museum initially thought of using the Pike as a floating classroom, teaching students and others about a historic Maine industry that's nearly gone today. Such a project would require a full rebuild; the Pike would have to comply with Coast Guard requirements if she's to carry more than a handful of passengers. Fuller is enthusiastic about this approach.
"It would be showing the flag, a maritime Sunbeam," he says. Sunbeam, based in Northeast Harbor, is a 75-foot single-diesel workboat operated by the Maine Sea Coast Mission, providing services to isolated communities along the coast. While the museum would like to mount such a visible program and the Pike would fit the bill, Fuller stresses the need to be realistic about cost. "What's the financial strength of the museum to do that?" he says.
Meanwhile, there's an alternate plan: hauling the Pike to Searsport and installing her in a building to be built on the museum's campus there. "I call it the ‘Fram' approach," Fuller says, referring to the Norwegian Arctic exploration vessel that's on dry-land display in Oslo. This idea, however, has cost implications as well. "We'd have to build a building," he says.
Watching the digital photography project back in Southwest Harbor, WoodenBoat's Bray expressed some concern that any wooden vessel placed behind glass in a museum display would deteriorate. Still, even dry storage and slow deterioration is preferable to breaking up the Jacob Pike or just letting her sit and rot.
Deciding on an approach, devising a program and raising money for an 83-foot wooden vessel will take time. But Fuller says he has every intention of relaunching the Pike this season, even if she only sits on a mooring somewhere. "She's got to go in the water," he says.
So once again, the venerable Jacob Pike will wet her feet and be part of the Maine summer scene. What happens after that is anyone's guess, though her advocates will now have a three-dimensional digital model to help them make their case.
David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront, the monthly newspaper published by the Island Institute.
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This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.