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Heart and Soul

As always, the Maine Boatbuilders Show is considered a 'jewel' with boats of 'elegant simplicity'

The Maine Boatbuilders Show is more than just varnished mahogany, polished brass and plank-on-frame construction, although you certainly get your fill of that, too.

The quality of materials and construction can be seen clearly in the deck framing of this classic catboat from Pleasant Bay Boat and Spar Company.

The first thing that greeted visitors walking through the front doors of the show this year was the vivid green hull of Zogo, a striking 29-foot launch with hybrid power that is anything but old-school. Designed by Stephens, Waring & White Yacht Design of Brooklin, Maine, and built by French & Webb in Belfast, Zogo's propulsion system consists of a 75-hp Steyr diesel with a

7-kW electric motor/generator, lithium-iron-phosphate batteries and solar panels on the canopy.

The narrow, "slippery" hull is built of strip-planked cedar sheathed in unidirectional carbon fiber for strength and light weight. Under electric power, she will cruise for about five hours at approximately 5 knots. Powered by the diesel, Zogo has a top speed of 14.5 knots.

"This really is the most unique vessel here at the show," says designer Paul Waring. "It's stopping all kinds off traffic. The color [sets] off the tone, and once people really take a closer look, they realize this is something special."

Designers Paul Waring, Steve White, and Bob Stephens, combined tradition and technology in the (literally) green hybrid-powered solar rechargeable launch built by French and Webb.

Boats like Zogo are one of the attractions of this "gathering of the clan," to use the words of show founder Phin Sprague. You never know exactly what will roll out of one of these small New England boat shops and into the old railroad foundry where the show is held each March.

The vessels on display represent a good range of materials, design, propulsion and construction methods. Some are leading edge, as with Zogo. Others are as old as the hills, a traditional pulling boat, for instance, or a catboat.

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Sail, human power and plenty of 21st-century iterations of the iron breeze (gas and diesel) are well-represented, as are wood, fiberglass and various composites. Some designs have yet to make it off the drawing boards and into production, but renderings or models were enough to spark conversation and start the dreaming.

"It's not a plastic boat show where people come just to kick the tires," says Steve Holt, owner of Shaw & Tenney of Orono, Maine, the world's oldest builder (at 152 years) of oars and paddles, and the second-oldest manufacturer of marine products in this country. "It's a place where people who really care about boats come to the show."

One thing that makes this event different from others is that Sprague requires the builder, rather than salespeople, to be present at each display to answer questions. That makes for some good boat talk.

Rowing and sailing are part of the appeal of these boats from The Landing School.

"It's a rare place where you can have a conversation with someone, particularly if you're in the industry, [who] is knowledgeable enough to push back a bit," Sprauge says. "We try very hard to keep the quality up."

While waiting to interview Sprague, I listened to a conversation he was having with a visitor aboard Lions Whelp, the "robustly built" 65-foot Alden-designed Monterey Bay/Port Yacht Services schooner. Here's a snippet from that conversation: "I've seen a lot of boats go aground," Sprague, a co-owner of Lions Whelp, told the fellow sailor, "and what happens is they bruise their way through the planking. Then it's into the ceiling, and then there's no stopping the water."

You don't hear that every day.

Perhaps the most 'traditional' boat in the show was the beautiful plank-on-frame International One Design sailboat Enigma built by Tern Boatworks of Nova Scotia.

Exhibitors and attendees alike have an appreciation for what came before. It's a belief that not everything "old" is headed for the scrap heap. This gathering celebrates craftsmanship, tradition and a certain look or aesthetic rather than interior volume, gadgetry and top-end performance.

"Of all the boat shows we attend, the clientele here is probably the most knowledgeable," says Mitch Sorbera, president of Retro Marine of Salem, Mass. "As much information as I try to impart regarding our Canadian-built boats, every year I probably learn more [from attendees] than I actually impart."

While taking photographs, I met Don Fiske, a retired commercial captain who used to guide 800-foot oil tankers out of Alaska. A Maine Maritime Academy graduate, Fiske has been coming to this event for two decades.

Details from a variety of displays show an affinity and appreciation for varnished wood and polished brass.

"This show," he says, "is a jewel."

As a rule, these small builders don't try to fix problems by throwing more equipment into the boat or by making the boat bigger or heavier. To my mind, they are at their best when they are striving to achieve what designer Bob Stephens calls an "elegant simplicity." The philosophy that the simpler you make a boat, the more you will enjoy it.

It's not that the Maine Boatbuilders Show is any better or worse than others; it's merely different. You don't hear the phrase "boat camping" much anymore at the Miami or Fort Lauderdale shows, for instance. I heard it twice in Portland. Just a different yardstick, a different standard.

And it's about passing things on. One builder told me about a Long Island, N.Y., family considering buying a peapod for their son so he could tend a few lobster traps by hand, the old way. A nod to the value of a calloused hand and the efficiency of Norwegian steam.

Zogo, a striking 29-foot launch with vivid green hull and hybrid power greeted visitors walking through the front door.

To see a video of Zogo, the Maine-built hybrid boat, and an overview of the Maine Boatbuilders Show visit and search keywords Zogo and Sprague.

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.