Taylor Allen never imagined it would take him 12 years to turn an old sardine carrier into a personal cruising boat.
“Are you kidding me?” the co-owner of Maine’s Rockport Marine says as he bursts out laughing. “If I thought it was going to take 12 years, I don’t think I would have done it.”
Allen’s desire to turn an iconic Maine coastal workboat into his retirement cruiser evolved over time. In 1962, his family moved from Massachusetts to Rockport, where his father had purchased a boatyard. At the time, the 12-year-old paid little attention to the herring factory across the harbor, or to the sardine carriers that would come and go from the cove. Instead, he performed chores at the boatyard, got a college degree, spent a year building boats with Joel White at Brooklin Boat Yard, and then took over Rockport Marine from his father in the 1980s. By then, Maine’s sardine industry was in trouble.
“I became aware of the carriers after I started building boats,” Allen says, recalling how fishermen would block off Rockport Harbor with nets and how the carriers would pump sardines from the water.
Sardines became a big industry in Maine after the 1871 Franco Prussian War disrupted the importation of sardines from Europe. The first Maine sardine factory opened in 1875 and by the early 1900s, 68 Maine canneries had cornered the market, even though they used juvenile North Atlantic herring instead of the pilchards the Europeans caught. Once canned, steamed, smoked or drenched in various oils or sauces, the herring were called sardines, despite French protestations.
Sardine carriers did not catch the fish. That was done by smaller fishing boats. The carriers were purpose-built to “carry” fish. They had to have capacity, but also have shallow enough draft to work alongside the fishing boats that worked the ledges and shoals.
They also had to be efficient and safe. A big load of sardines could drive a carrier’s gunwales right down to water level. It was not uncommon for a carrier’s decks to be nearly awash, with only the spars, pilothouse and bow showing.
One of the biggest employers in Maine’s sardine industry was the Underwood Co., which had perfected food-canning in the 19th century. Underwood’s Jonesport fish-packing plant was the largest in the world, generated its own electricity and included an enormous “housing tenement” for its workers. In 1926, the company put out 11.75 million cans of sardines, containing an estimated 107 million fish or about 10 percent of that year’s catch.
To ensure a constant supply of sardines, Underwood operated its own carriers, assigning four or more smacks to a plant. In 1941, they added a new 70-footer to their fleet, the William Underwood. Named in honor of the founder of the company, the new boat was drawn by the accomplished Boston naval architect Walter McInnis. Built of wood by the Simms Bros. yard in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the William Underwood was christened by the founder’s great-great-granddaughter Helen Underwood and assigned to the company’s Jonesport factory.
Most of the sardine carriers had disappeared by the time Allen took over Rockport Marine. By the 1990s, only a handful were still operating commercially. The others had been worked to the ends of their lives and left to die. Only a couple had been converted to cruisers. The 1948 Pauline was refitted as a passenger vessel in 1988, and the 1915 sardine carrier Grayling was converted to a yacht by Benjamin River Marine in West Brooklin, Maine, in the 1990s.
Allen likes double-enders. A friend of his knew this, so when in the early 2000s the 83-foot double-ended sardine carrier Jacob Pike came up for sale, he alerted Allen.
“I met the boat’s owner, Dana Rice, and really liked him,” Allen says. “Dana had used the Jacob Pike to supply bait for the lobstermen. Buying it seemed like a good thing to do. It turned out to be just that.” Allen ran the boat for a few years and then donated it to the Penobscot Marine Museum.
Soon after, in 2007, he heard about another sardine carrier: the William Underwood. After the Underwood Co.’s Jonesport factory closed in 1962, the William Underwood continued to carry fish for Underwood’s other plants until she was sold to the Stinson Canning Co. Stinson renamed her the Marion H. for the wife of owner Cal Stinson, Sr. The boat worked out of Rockland until the sardine market contracted in the 1980s. Then, a private owner acquired her.
When Allen found her, the Underwood was sitting under a cover at Atlantic Boat Co. in Brooklin, Maine. The private owner had hired local boatbuilder Todd Skoog to replace most of the frames, but before Skoog could finish the planking, the owner ran into financial difficulties. Allen bought the Underwood and credits Skoog for saving the boat’s original shape.
“Todd did a beautiful job reframing her and created a good foundation for me to do my work,” he says. Allen chuckles when asked why he decided to undertake the complete rebuild of a 66-year-old 70-foot wooden sardine carrier. “Ignorance and hopefulness combined,” he says. “I liked the lines. Walter McInnis drew a gorgeous hull.”
To get the Underwood across Penobscot Bay and into the shed at Rockport Marine, Allen brought in Tom Brownell of Brownell Boat Transport in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. Brownell loaded the sardine carrier on a truck and drove it onto a barge. “It was a foggy day,” Allen recalls. “The front of the truck was sort of sticking out the front of the barge, and a lobsterman on the water saw a truck coming out of the fog.”
The Underwood had been completely stripped. The boat was, in essence, a partially restored hull, an engine and a propeller. The 855 series Cummins engine was of early 1980s vintage. Allen sent it to Billings Diesel & Marine in Stonington, Maine, where Billings’ mechanics took it apart and completely rebuilt it. Allen says it’s about 250 horsepower.
“If there’s anything that’s original,” he says, “it might be the propeller.”
The 44-inch-diameter, three-bladed screw is a whopper. The engine’s top speed is 1800 rpm run through a 3:1 reduction gear. “The fastest that prop is ever going to turn is 600 rpm,” Allen says. “It’s a very easily driven hull. She should run in the 9- to 10-knot range.”
For the first 10 years, the rebuild went at a snail’s pace. “There were many years we did nothing on the boat,” Allen says. “It was a spare time thing, and only if we had time.” Client boats took priority, but that changed a couple of years ago, when Sam Temple, his stepson and the yard’s co-owner, took over day-to-day operations.
“When Sam took over leadership of the yard, I was able to work on the boat full-time,” Allen says. “Sam was gracious enough to let me have Tim Watts, who did a lot of the woodworking.”
Watts, a Rockport Marine employee, is not only a fine woodworker, but he also had experience with sardine carriers. “I helped rebuild the Double Eagle, a working sardine carrier out of Rockland, and I worked on the Pauline too,” Watts says. “My dad, Bentley Watts, built working sardine carriers at Newbert & Wallace in Thomaston. That’s where I first started.”
Using Mcinnis’ drawings, they replaced the backbone and finished replanking the hull. The bottom three planks are now purpleheart, and the rest of the planks are Douglas fir. The planking is 2 inches thick, except at the top where it’s 2¼ inches thick. Allen believes that the dimensions were specified to give a little more beef to the boat when she’d come alongside. “That may not have been common,” Allen says, “but that’s what Walter McInnis drew.”
To turn the boat into a cruiser, Allen turned to Rockport Marine’s in-house designer Sam Chamberlin. Because the fishhold would become the living space, they wanted to build steps from the pilothouse down into the living quarters. “We enlarged the pilothouse and moved it forward a few feet to get past the main bulkhead,” Allen says. “Part of the idea was to retain the intent, so it still looked like a carrier.”
Most of the interior and exterior are painted, but there is some varnish. In the pilothouse, the Alaskan yellow cedar wheel and accents of varnished mahogany brighten the space. A padded bench—where carrier captains would bunk—stretches across the after end of the house and is the only seating. Doors to starboard and port provide access, and hinged windows on either side allow ventilation. Electronics are minimalist, especially by today’s standards. The wheelhouse has everything necessary to safely navigate Maine’s often foggy waters, including radar and GPS, but not much more.
The fishhold made for a large living space. A day head is to starboard, and a U-shape galley is to port. Forward of the galley, the salon has built-in bench seating to port and starboard. Allen included a desk for his wife, Martha White, a writer who is the granddaughter of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little author E.B. White.
The boat’s fo’c’sle, which served as crew quarters in the sardine-carrying days, now has a head and shower to starboard and a stateroom with twin bunks to port. Forward in the bow is the master stateroom with a queen berth. There’s a diesel-fired heater with unit heaters in various places, and a woodburning stove in the salon. Two butterfly hatches and numerous dorade vents bring in fresh air.
The engine room is belowdecks, abaft the pilothouse. It has standing headroom throughout. For gearheads, it’s droolworthy. The Cummins is accessible from three sides, and benches to port and starboard allow engine work to be done while comfortably seated. Aft is a workbench with a vise. It’s a man cave.
Despite the Herreshoff-like yacht finish inside and varnish on exterior handrails and butterfly hatches, there are plenty of industrial-strength reminders of the William Underwood’s working life. The carrier sports two 165-pound anchors on her bow, thick stainless bash plates to protect her wooden hull, and an oversize Ideal windlass with bronze wheels that’s a throwback to another era. There’s more bronze in all the right places, including at the hawseholes, and the bronze deck cleats are longer than a man’s foot. The yard fabricated a lot of the hardware, including stainless ladders, the bronze bow chocks above the hawsepipes, and the stainless opening hardware for the locust butterfly hatches.
The bows are graced with a nice finishing touch: Rockport Marine employee Colin Burns painted trail boards of sardines in motion.
The William Underwood relaunched on July 13. In attendance were descendants of the Underwoods, along with Rockport Marine employees and Allen’s friends and relatives. He says the launching was an emotional affair. White, who approved her husband’s purchase 12 years ago, performed the christening.
The launching ended Allen’s concerns that the accommodations and equipment he had added would make the boat heavier than McInnis’ design. “I was nervous,” he says. “I was worried it was gonna leak like a sieve and that it was gonna be too heavy on her lines, but the launching turned out to be a surprising amount of relief, and I had more sincerely terrific conversations at that launching than I ever had before.”
LOA: 70’7” / Beam:15’6” / Draft: 5’ 11” / Fuel: 720 gals. / Water: 200 gals. / Displ.: 50 tons / Power: 250-hp 855 Series Cummins diesel
Allen makes it clear that he did not rebuild the Underwood alone: “The reality is that I had a boatyard at my disposal that can do all this stuff. If I was just a guy with that kind of a dream, I probably couldn’t have pulled it off.”
The work is not done. Allen says he will eventually add a spar abaft the pilothouse to get a skiff or dinghy aboard. For now, though, the William Underwood is ready to get underway.
“We’ll use it locally this year to get used to it,” Allen says. “Next year, we’ll see. I’d like to get up to eastern Canada, and the thought of going into the Great Lakes holds some appeal to me. The boat is shallow enough and not too high that it can go through the canals.”
And, he says, the William Underwood will carry sardines again. “In cans,” he says. “I actually like the small European ones.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.