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Made in Maine

The Penobscot Bay—Mount Desert Island region in Maine has a robust boatbuilding history and a high concentration of craftsmen with skills that are envied the world over

A gentle, salt-infused breeze blows in from Seal Harbor as I tuck into my seat at McLoon’s, a rustic, red-shingled lobster shack alongside a working wharf on Sprucehead Island, Maine. Outside, a steady stream of steam rises from a boiling cauldron as an early summer crowd of people eagerly await their picnic-table suppers.

Beyond my table are 20 or more commercial lobster boats of diverse shapes, sizes and colors, their proud, high bows following the wind around their mooring balls like a nautical version of The Nutcracker ballet. It doesn’t take a highly trained eye to see the distinct similarities between these hard-working vessels and the Downeast-style recreational sail and powerboats we all know and love.

At Front Street Shipyard, a technician touches up a prop.

At Front Street Shipyard, a technician touches up a prop.

I came to Maine—the geographic triangle between Thomaston, Belfast and Mount Desert Island, specifically—to learn more about its storied boatbuilding history. And there’s no better spot, really, given the heavy concentration of boatbuilders with names you’ll likely know, such as Lyman-Morse, Back Cove, Hinckley, Sabre, Morris, Jarvis Newman. French & Webb; you get the idea. Freshly nourished with McLoon’s sweet lobster meat (five out of five stars) and a Maine Root blueberry soda, I set out to connect the past, present and future of some of the many boatbuilders still operating and building Downeast boats here today.

Driving up from Rockland along the lupine-lined back roads that run up the west side of Penobscot Bay, I make my way toward Front Street Shipyard in Belfast. While Belfast wasn’t the first place where boats were built in Maine, I learned that the cozy town was home to some early settlements based on lumber harvesting and processing for the Royal Navy’s shipbuilding activities back in England.

A hammer meets the bottom of a large steel motoryacht.

A hammer meets the bottom of a large steel motoryacht.

“Boatbuilding in Maine goes back to the early 1600s with construction of the pinnace Virginia in the Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in 1608,” says Cipperly Good, a curator at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine. “But it’s not until 1760 when British sawmill operations started to pop up around Penobscot Bay. Belfast was one of a number of those areas, and, as you might guess by its name, it was populated by settlers who were primarily Irish.”

Today’s waterfront scene in Belfast is very different than it was 400 years ago, but when you roll onto Front Street from Main Street, you immediately see that shipbuilding still takes place at the aptly named Front Street Shipyard. The operation dominates the Belfast waterfront with its massive green buildings and the wheeled behemoths used to shuffle large yachts around. Just down the street is French & Webb, a builder with some extremely handsome sail and power designs in its portfolio.

The exterior and interior of a classic Ellis 36.

The exterior and interior of a classic Ellis 36.

“We’re capable of building and servicing yachts as long as 200 feet,” said Front Street Shipyard President and General Manager JB Turner. “Refits and repairs are a large part of our operations here, but we’re also set up to build sail and motor vessels of all different types.” The yard also produces Calvin Beal 36 and 42 lobster yacht hulls.

Inside one of the green sheds is a craftsman working on tooling for a U.S. Navy project. Nearby, Sunbeam, a huge steel vessel, is being prepped to be blasted down to bare steel from her bilges to her bridgedeck. “She runs all winter long,” Turner says. “The condensation that the temperature difference causes got the better of her in many places.” Behind her is a salty, handsome steel motorsailer that catches my eye and is getting some needed TLC.

 The interior of a classic Ellis 36.

 The interior of a classic Ellis 36.

Boutique Lobster Yachts

Next, I head for Young’s Lobster Pound in Belfast. While eating a lobster roll (four out of five stars), I thumb through a “who designed the first lobster boat” Google search on my phone. There are many opinions about the matter, but I find some insight from Jon B. Johansen. He’s the publisher of Maine Coastal News and president of Maine Built Boats. “Some folks debate this, but most agree that Will Frost’s 1920s torpedo-stern boats, like Red Wing, are the original design from which all lobster boats and yachts descended,” Johansen said. “She had a high bow, open cockpit and rounded stern with a slick bottom. You can also trace Maine’s boat heritage back to birch canoes, pea pods and the Friendship Sloop, but as far as lobster boats go, Frost is the father of this design.”

Frost came from Digby Neck, Nova Scotia, and settled in the Jonesport, Maine, area in the early 1900s. Some of his boats were used to smuggle rum; their semi-displacement hulls have influenced the design of lobster boats ever since.

Next, I head to scenic Southwest Harbor with an eye toward visiting a couple of boutique lobster yacht builders. There are several companies in the area Hinckley, Morris, Newman & Gray and John Williams Boat Company are a handful—but I homed in on Seawall Road, where today Ellis Boat Company and Wilbur Yachts keep busy with new Downeast builds and refits.

 A salty  46 from Wesmac that was built in Surry, Maine, heads for the open sea. 

 A salty 46 from Wesmac that was built in Surry, Maine, heads for the open sea. 

“My grandfather Ralph Ellis started out working the coast in the early 1900s,” says third-generation boatbuilder Shane Ellis, who walks me through a storage building containing a pair of Ellis 36 lobster yachts, both for sale. “Sometime later, around 1947, he was shooting pool with Raymond Bunker, who said he needed a place to build boats. My grandfather told him he had a shop, but no boatbuilding know-how. The rest is history.”

Though there are many Ellis models still available, the 36—a stylish and graceful lobster yacht with true pedigree—is the backbone of the lineup. “We’ve got six different styles for that hull, but we just launched a 36 Express Cruiser that I plan to charter out,” Ellis says as we walk down the dock at Dysart’s Great Harbor Marine to get a closer look at the new boat. She’s gorgeous and fitted out with a Downeast interior, large cockpit and expansive bridge deck. “The ‘lobster yacht’ style became popular with summer residents who wanted this type of boat to cruise the coast,” Ellis says. “They have that beautiful Downeast style but also have hulls that can handle almost any condition out there, just like the rugged commercial lobster boats you see all over the place in Maine.”

Just up the street from Ellis’ boatyard is Wilbur Yachts, which shares a unique connection with its neighbor, says John Kachmar. He bought the business with his wife, Ingrid, in 2001. “Ingrid is the daughter of Lee Wilbur,” he says. “Her father often sought out help from Ralph Ellis and Raymond Bunker.”

Amid refits on two Wilbur 38s Kachmar explains, “The first boat to be completed by Wilbur was a sportfishing boat named Quest. The hull was based on a Newman 36 by Raymond Bunker. The very first Wilbur-branded model was a 38-footer designed by Ralph Ellis that received a write-up in Yachting by editor Jack Smith, who coined the term “lobster yacht” in describing the boat. Wilbur and Ellis collaborated on a lot of boats.”

The menu at McLoon’s; local color; lobster roll at Sprague’s in Wiscassett.

The menu at McLoon’s; local color; lobster roll at Sprague’s in Wiscassett.

Kachmar shows me a new model he is hoping to build with twin 425-hp Yamaha 4-strokes. “The boat is a departure for us with the deep-V hull and outboards,” says Kachmar. “It’s an exciting new phase and it’s a design I’ve been hoping to build for years.

A few hours later, my Instagram friends are beginning to worry that I’ll come down with a case of gout as I post the two-pounder I’ve ordered at Thurston’s Lobster Pound (four out of five stars), on Bass Harbor, only a short drive away from Kachmar’s Wilbur yard. Gout or no gout, it was the right spot to watch lobstermen and women returning from the sea with their fresh catch. While I’ve always loved the lavish lobster yachts and Downeast-style boats derived from them, I was
craving a look at some purpose-built boats. That leads me to Wesmac Custom Boats in Surry, Maine.

Hardscrabble Meets Work Boat

Steve Wessel founded Wesmac in 1984, quickly developing a reputation for building some of the best-built, sweetest-riding lobster boats in the business. His boats are a bit different than built-down lobster yachts with their rounded bottoms, full keels and skegs. Wessel’s boats can often be identified by their hard chines and large, fully developed beams.

“We build a 50-year boat here, for commercial fishermen and pleasure boaters,” Wessel says. “All of our boats come with a lifetime warranty, and we finish the bilges and mechanical spaces with as much care as the rest of the boat.”

“We’re running a two- to three-year backlog at the moment,” says Wesmac General Manager Bill Grindle as we peer inside a new build named Select. Down
inside the boat, I find out that Wessel’s claim regarding how well they finish everything is no exaggeration. Grindle tells me a humorous story that goes with this kind of work ethic. “The joke around here is that you can run a pair of silk panties over our under-deck fiberglass work and never snag them,” he says. “There’s a lot of pride in workmanship here, that’s for sure.”

Farther down the road from Wesmac in Brooklin I find Atlantic Boat Company, best known for its Duffy and Blue Hill Marine (BHM) lobster hulls. “We build nine different Duffy hulls,” says owner Cy Hannon. “Both Duffy and BHM have hulls that have been developed over the last 150 years fishing off the Maine coast. These are “built-down” boats, which means they have a full keel, rounded chines, flat after sections and a fine entry.”

Scattered around the vast yard are handsome boats of all shapes and sizes—both power and sail—that make it feel like a museum of Maine boatbuilding. It’s the kind of place where a boat nut could spend hours wandering around.

A red Wilbur 34.

A red Wilbur 34.

Schooners, Square-Riggers and Sailboats

I drive back through Southwest Harbor on the way to Beal’s Lobster Pier for yet another lobster supper (five out of five stars) and notice signs for the Hinckley and Morris, companies that have built stunning sailboats over the last 60 years. I’ve been on windjammers before, but otherwise, my knowledge of Maine sailboat building is limited. Luckily, Penobscot Marine Museum’s Good is able to offer some insight to Maine’s sailing past.

“Sail-driven shipbuilding in the area came into its own in the 1700s when schooners were being built to ferry lumber, ice and fish back and forth to Europe,” says Good. “Square-riggers were being built in the area in the 1740s, but by the 1840s lumber of sufficient size to build them had been exhausted. Clipper ships were prolific in the 1850s and Downeasters like the windjammers you see today
followed. The last gasp for sailing ships was during World War I when many were built to ferry cargo and troops to Europe.”

I’d missed a chance to get into Brion Rieff’s yard in Brooklin, but another great place to get a close-up view of modern yacht construction is at Brooklin Boat Yard. “This used to be a sardine factory a long time ago, but now we build new yachts and refit old ones,” says Project Manager Eric Blake, as we look over scenic Center Harbor. Designer Joel M. White founded the yard back in 1960, and today his son Steve runs the place. It’s one of the more prolific sailing yacht builders in the area, having constructed such notable boats as the Joel White-designed Wild Horses, a high-tech, 76-foot racing sloop, and Foggy, a unique German Frers 74-footer that was built using cold molding and carbon fiber.

“We’re currently building a new Sou’wester 53 for Hinckley, and just launched a 55-foot cold-molded sailing yacht designed by Botin Partners in Spain,” says Blake. On the power side of things, we are building a cold-molded version of Pilar, Ernest Hemingway’s famous 38-foot Wheeler Playmate sportfishing boat.”

The yard has a full-time crew of 60 craftsmen with a variety of skills. “This whole area, from here to the other side of Penobscot Bay, is a boatbuilding melting pot.” says Brian Larkin, who has overseen most builds at Brooklin since 1987.

Boatbuilding skills can also be found on the west side of Penobscot Bay, where I travel to see Lyman-Morse, Sabre Yachts and Back Cove Yachts. “The towns of Rockland, Rockport, and Castine were built around rock quarries in the 1840s, so that created a need schooners to ship stone and stone products around the world,” says Good.

Lyman-Morse built this 54-foot twin jet named Whistler at its yard in Thomaston.

Lyman-Morse built this 54-foot twin jet named Whistler at its yard in Thomaston.

A few miles southwest of Rockland is Thomaston, Maine, where Lyman-Morse has been building power and sailing vessels since the early 1920s. “We’ve got more than 200 boats under our belt,” says marketing representative Marnie Read. “Our biggest project now is a custom Hood 57 motoryacht.” The new build is an exciting combination of the old and new, using strip-planked fir and resin-infused fiberglass along with high-tech composites in strategic locations. The boat will have twin Volvo-Penta IPS 1350 drives and was designed in collaboration with C.W. Hood and Stephens Waring Yacht Design.

Only a building away, I see a master carpenter using traditional techniques to put finishing touches on a wooden stowage cabinet for the Hood. “You still need skilled hands doing the job,” says Read. “One thing we love about this operation is the mix of traditional and high-tech work we do.”

Heading north from Thomaston, it’s difficult to miss the grey-colored scar in the earth at a huge rock quarry on my GPS when I arrive at Back Cove Yachts in Rockland. It ties in nicely with Good’s mention of the early quarrying industry here and how it led to the shipbuilding activities in the area. Rockland is an excellent place to see some traditional sailing craft, but I’m more interested in the high-tech, 270,000-square-foot operation where Back Cove and Sabre Yachts build luxury Downeast yachts.

A Back Cove 34O with twin outboards cruises past the Owl Head Lighthouse.

A Back Cove 34O with twin outboards cruises past the Owl Head Lighthouse.

“Of course, we draw inspiration from those tough lobster boats that you see everywhere in Maine, but we spend a lot of time designing out the parts that can be frustrating from a recreational point of view, all the while designing in luxury, comfort and performance,” says Kevin Burns, vice president of design and product development. “Our boats all still ride on hulls inspired by those working boats, which is what our customer love about them, but you’ll see our techniques are very different from the way most lobster boat hulls are built.”

Both Sabre and Back Coves are built in this factory. In one part, the Sabre 66 Dirigo and soon-to-be-launched 58 Salon Express models are assembled, while Back Coves proceed down two parallel manufacturing lanes ahead of those boats. It’s an impressive operation, where composite hulls, decks and interior components come together as workers prep resin lines and vacuum bags. “We get such precise, reproducible results with the infusion process,” says Burns. “It’s a far cry from plank-on-frame, but the result is a strong, lightweight hull that gives us the ride and performance our customers expect.”

Attention to detail permeates the entire facility. On one hull, two craftsmen scurry around on movable scaffolding with handheld lights to hunt down any imperfections on a glossy, blue hull. Not far away, another craftswoman preps one of the hardtop molds with pre-cut fiberglass and intense concentration, as if she is doing delicate surgical work.

The modern, efficient factory is a great way for me to wrap up this boatbuilding tour of the areas surrounding Penobscot Bay and Mount Desert Island. The journey has encompassed 800 miles on the road and eight builders, as well as multiple pounds of butter-drenched lobster. Still, I wish I had more time to visit the other great yards and craftsmen in the area who are still practicing the trade. Maybe next time. I have more lobster shacks in mind, and in Maine, there’s seemingly always a builder close by. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.



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