Even Todd French, who knew something special was happening, wasn’t expecting this kind of a response. In October, the 104-foot USS Sequoia arrived at his French & Webb shipyard in Belfast, Maine. The National Historic Landmark had to be brought by barge, with her 1925 hull, a John Trumpy design, needing what French says will be a three-year refit to make her seaworthy again. Even despite her condition, hundreds of people showed up just for a glimpse of her—perhaps thinking about how President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation on her aft deck, how President Kennedy celebrated a birthday on board, and how President Nixon decided to resign the presidency aboard this ship.
“The hometown band came down here and played ‘Hail to the Chief,’” French says. “This is a much bigger thing than just the boat. It’s not like any other refit project at all.”
Indeed, the Sequoia refit is arguably the most special among a number of interesting projects happening at shipyards in Maine. The state’s boatbuilders are known for turning out noteworthy new builds in Downeast and other styles, but right now, a handful of older hulls being made new, along with a new hull based on the old, are capturing the attention of boat lovers in the state and far beyond.
At Front Street Shipyard in Belfast, Maine, the team is working toward a spring or summer 2020 relaunch of the 75-foot-long Sunbeam V, which came to life in 1995 at Washburn & Doughty in East Boothbay. She is used to provide telemedicine services and more to remote islands. Getting her back on the water will mean getting those services back into people’s lives.
“They run year-round, all winter, and get tremendous amounts of condensation when it’s zero degrees outside,” says JB Turner, Front Street’s president and general manager, adding that the project turned out to be more complicated than originally envisioned. “The whole main deck area was supposed to be pretty much intact, but then we realized that behind everything, there was corrosion. We had to go in and sandblast all areas, not just the lower areas. It ended up the main deck and the pilothouse, both got gutted, reinsulated—it was everywhere.”
The Sunbeam V work is creating a camaraderie at Front Street because of its scope and what the boat means to people. “We’ve done a lot of different projects on steel boats, but one of the nicest things about this one is that it really involves everybody in the shipyard,” Turner says. “Almost all 100 staff will have touched this boat in some way—fabricators, electrical, plumbing, painting, all the trades.”
At Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine, all eyes are on a modern interpretation of Pilar, the Wheeler Playmate that Ernest Hemingway made famous after she launched in 1934. Back then, Howard Wheeler owned the shipyard that built her. Today, his great-grandson Wes Wheeler is behind the Bill Prince-designed version of the boat that Brooklin Boat Yard has been building since May 2019.
From the waterline up, project manager Eric Stockinger says, “the boat looks exactly the same as the Playmate series that Pilar was. This boat won’t have a flybridge or outriggers because Hemingway added those afterward, but the overall outside dimensions of the boat are the same as the Playmate. From the waterline down, though, it’s a modern vessel that’s designed to carry heavier engines, and while it will look like a boat from the 1930s, we’ve packed it with modern technology.”
The idea is for Hull No. 1 to be a prototype for additional hulls to come. The twin 370-hp Yanmar diesels are expected to allow for a 25- to 30-knot top speed—“which will be odd,” Stockinger says, “because at rest, she’s not going to look like a boat that can do that.” Also on board will be a generator, a Seakeeper 3 stabilizer, trim tabs and a proper interior for modern cruising. “It’s only a 38-foot boat, but there will be a galley, a head and a stateroom up forward,” he says. “There will be a nice salon table and two leather-covered chairs. Hemingway didn’t have that, but it will have that classic 1930s style. Very traditional and classic.”
Yet another project to watch in Maine is Avocette III, which is at Yachting Solutions in Rockport. The oldest known Huckins in existence, she’s a Fairform Flyer that dates to the 1930s. But don’t call that work a refit or even a restoration, says yard founder and CEO William Morong. She’s a resto-mod project, which means restoration and modernization all at the same time. “Think of it as if you were going to take a ’68 Corvette and put a new motor in it and new brakes and rear end,” Morong says. “You make it into a new vehicle with an old shell.”
Avocette III is not being restored to her former glory, he says. She’s instead going to come out of the yard running Volvo Penta D6-IPS engines with a Seakeeper stabilizer and modern helm electronics. The backbone for the electrical system will be CZone, making her a modern boat in a 1931 shell.
“It’s a boat that was existing; we brought it in and did 3D scanning of it," says Morong. "We modified the lines to accept pod propulsion, and then painstakingly cut the deck off of it. A CNC machine cut forms, and we dropped them into the old, existing hull. We tortured the old girl back into shape and then set about pulling apart the old hull and cold-molding a new hull around the CNC-cut mold.
“There’s a tremendous amount of hardware that’s original,” he adds. “We were fortunate to work with Cindy Purcell at Huckins, who provided us with the original line drawings. This is completely off the hook. It’s taking an old structure and completely re-envisioning it.”
And as different as all of the projects in Maine’s shipyards are, they are creating an unusual level of interest among boat lovers of all stripes. So much so, in the case of Sequoia, that French & Webb’s team will construct a building around the yacht so that spectators can come, stand together on a mezzanine and watch the work take place. At a time when polarization is so strong and politics have become so heated, French says, people are finding the act of looking at a boat with a shared, common history to be almost therapeutic.
“The public is connected to it,” French says. "We’ve had so many people show up and look reverentially at this project; it’s like people are just in awe, taking pictures. It’s like they’re coming to church.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue.