Skip to main content

Business or pleasure

Workboat designs grow out of necessity, but the traits that make them good for work make them good for play, too

Workboat designs grow out of necessity, but the traits that make them good for work make them good for play, too

Taking some time off from his liveaboard life, Mitch Sorbera was driving

through Nova Scotia when he came across a rugged-looking 21-foot fiberglass fishing boat coming out of an island builder’s shop. With her round bottom, tall bow, broken sheer and upright pilothouse, she had the traditional look of the big NovaScotia-builtCapeIsland fishing boats he’d seen in every harbor he’d been to. This one, however, was a Bay of Fundy-bred workboat in a pleasure boat package.

A ride on the single-outboard cuddy revealed the virtues of the CapeIsland semidisplacement hull, the origins of which stretch back through 100 years of workboats. “I was so impressed,” says Sorbera, 63, of Salem, Mass. “It makes a stable platform for fishing, with an easy entry and a soft ride. You don’t need a great deal of power to run it, so it’s pretty economical. The boat is also easy to move around on, and lots of [CapeIsland hulls] have been built over the years, so it’s a well-tested design.”

Sorbera “signed on,” and for the past four years his Retro Marine has marketed the Retro 21 to an ever-widening pleasure boat market that extends beyond its Canadian Maritimes origin. To date, 15 boats have been delivered to customers in New England, New York and the Carolinas, as well as Eastern Canada.

Why does a blue-collar boat with 19th-century roots still sell in the “so-five-minutes-ago” culture of the 21st century? The old-fashioned values bred into working-class vessels over the years — soft ride, seaworthiness, economy — are still appreciated today. “What’s good for the workboat is good for the pleasure boat,” says Sorbera.

And he’s not the only believer in the “workboat ethic.” When Annapolis, Md., builder Eastport Marine designed a shallow-draft 32-footer from scratch, the goals were comfort, moderate speed, plenty of dayboat cockpit space, and just enough cabin for an overnight. Naturally, Eastport turned to the region’s signature working boat: the traditional deadrise known and used by generations of Bay watermen.

“They were very practical boats,” says Tom Weaver, 43, Eastport Marine managing partner. “They had a dry, comfortable ride in the Bay chop. They were maneuverable with a shallow draft, and easily-powered by a single engine, and so were not expensive to run. Practicality was their biggest thing. That’s what we wanted in our new boat.”

The Maine workboat Jock Williams builds has evolved over the past 30 years into a pleasure boat icon. Yet the Stanley 36, designed by Lyfford Stanley of the legendary Stanley family of builder/designers, has changed little since Williams starting building fiberglass hulls in the 1970s. Largely used for pleasure today, the basic design remains working-class.

“Years ago, each boat was individually built — each was a little different as the builder tried to improve on the one they’d built before,” says Williams, 68, owner and president of the John Williams Boat Company, Mount Desert, Maine. “It was a constant process of refinement, and it’s turned out some pretty good boats.”

The ride

As great as all this sounds, a working/pleasure boat obviously isn’t for everyone. Those with cabins rarely match the interior space afforded with mass-produced family cruisers that might sleep six. And by deep-vee standards, semidisplacement boats aren’t fast. But one thing they are designed for is a safe, comfortable ride. Whether from Nova Scotia, the Chesapeake or the Pacific Northwest, those old-time fishermen went out and stayed out — for hours, days, even weeks — and they needed a boat that wouldn’t shiver their timbers.

Over the decades, regional workboat designers and backyard builders gradually developed hull shapes that delivered on that promise. “The Maine lobster boat is very comfortable underfoot — it had to be when you’re working 10 or 12 hours a day,” says Bill Sweetland, salesman at Atlantic Boat Company, the Brooklin, Maine, builder of the popular Duffy 35 (400 sold). Comfort comes from the fine entry, the flat aft sections and a “built-down” bottom with keel and skeg. “It settles into the water; it doesn’t pound; and it’s an easy-moving hull,” says Sweetland, who often represents the company at boat shows.

The quest was no different in the Chesapeake. “In the deadrise boats, the ride was dry and safe, and it worked perfectly for getting to and from the grounds they needed to get to,” says Weaver. “They were maneuverable, versatile boats with a very comfortable ride. We’ve built that into the Eastport 32.”

For Williams, ride was and remains the bottom line. “We agreed that we wanted to make a good pleasure boat, but it had to be a good sea boat, first,” he says. “We weren’t going to sacrifice for speed. We wanted the safest, most comfortable ride — fishing boat character and fishing boat performance.”

Seaworthiness is another trait that’s been bred into workboats over the years — how a boat handles when winds and waves are high and the chips are down. Designers and builders whose workboats were manned by family and friends — even themselves — put a lot of thought into it.

The Duffy 35 has handled a lot of heavy weather in 25 years of commercial and pleasure use. “To us, ‘seaworthy’ isn’t just a concept; it’s something concrete,” says Sweetland. “I know a few Duffy owners who fish the canyons [off New York] 140 miles out. And they’re getting passed on the way out by the big deep-vee boats doing 30 knots. Then the weather turns nasty, and it’s the old Duffy 35, doing 12 or 15 knots in heavy seas, that passes them on the way in.”

The fishing boats that inspire Pacific Northwest designer Sam Devlin stayed out for as long as six months in the rough and tumble waters off Alaska, seldom touching shore. “Talk about seakeeping,” says Devlin of Olympia, Wash., an experienced commercial tugboater himself.

To match the conditions, designers and builders settled on a sturdy, round hull with a partial keel and a skeg; a tall, plumb bow; and a fantail stern. “They produced good, seakindly boats, not overly wide, not overly tall,” he says. “They were bred for the conditions and covered 1,100 miles of waterways, all the way up to the Bering Sea.”

The power

And what kind of fisherman of the past would spend hard-earned money on fuel to feed an oversized engine? Not many, and that’s where workboat economy comes from. They wanted smaller engines, and only one of them. That would keep costs lower and profits higher.

Today’s workboat ethic still mostly calls for single-engine propulsion, and the power plants are often smaller than you might imagine. Devlin’s Sockeye 45, a passagemaker he’s based on the region’s oceangoing salmon trawlers, can run on a single 85-hp diesel. And the fuel consumption at its 8.5-knot cruising speed: 2.2 gallons an hour, says Devlin. “Not much horsepower and you’re sipping fuel.”

Sweetland insists that the single-engine (225 hp to 500 hp) Duffy 35, with its built-down semidisplacement hull, at times can match a twin-engine deep-vee for speed. “And while he’s burning 32 gallons an hour, the Duffy’s burning 11 or 12,” he says. “It’s the perfect hull shape at the speeds it’s designed for.”

Powered by a 70-hp outboard and riding a round-bilge semidisplacement hull, Sorbera’s Retro 21 shows some modern get-up-and-go. It has a top speed of about 30 mph. “A lot of the hull is flat, with an easy entry and a small keel,” he says. “You don’t need a whole lot of power to get up and go. It’s not a speedboat, but it’s fast enough to get out of bad weather.”

Even with its strong ties to tradition, the workboat ethic leaves plenty of room for change, even innovation. With a nod to modernity, the Eastport 32 is a twin-engine deadrise, a pair of 190-hp diesels delivering a 35-knot top speed. Prop tunnels keep the draft less than 2 feet, and composites are used in construction. There’s also a hydraulic drop-down transom “tailgate/swim platform” to enhance its pleasure role.

Work space turns into living space on Devlin’s fishing trawler, reflecting its new use as a cruising boat. The space abaft the pilothouse, normally devoted to a working fish hold, is a saloon with comfortable seating, a galley and dinette. And for versatility, the Duffy 35 comes in a variety of models with different tops, or superstructures.

“The idea is to match different recreational purposes,” says Sweetland. “The cruiser top adds some shade and weather protection. There’s a flybridge top for fishing, a workboat top for that classic Maine lobster boat look, but it’s the same good-riding, seaworthy bottom.”

The future

Who’s buying into the workboat ethic? It takes a special kind of boater, the builders say. Most are in their 50s or older and have owned boats. They’re able to look past the production boats and see the old-time values — soft ride, seaworthiness and economy — not to mention the traditional lines.

“First-time buyers don’t get it,” says Sorbera. “I don’t think we’ve sold one [Retro 21] yet to a beginning boater. It takes an experienced boater, someone who’s been in trawlers. They know they’re getting a versatile, time-tested design that doesn’t cost a lot to run and maintain. And a salty look, too.”

Some of these older, knowledgeable buyers are looking to simplify their boating lives, says Devlin. “One owner and his wife, both longtime cruisers, are downsizing to the Sockeye 45 from a 65-foot bluewater sailboat,” he says. ”They don’t want to bother with raising a crew anymore, and they want a seaworthy, comfortable boat they can go out in by themselves.”

Williams concurs. “I see buyers in their 50s and up, a lot of experienced people, and many sailors moving over to power,” he says. “And they’re very particular about their boats.”

The market is small and the boats few when measured against production powerboat offerings. But the workboat word is spreading. In a few years, it might not be so unusual to see a CapeIsland boat in the Carolinas, or a Maine lobster boat in Florida, a deadrise in Mississippi. “These boats are beginning to move out of the areas in which they originated,” says Sweetland. “The Maine lobster boat is as adaptable to different conditions as any hull. We’ve got them in Buzzards Bay, we’ve got them in the Gulf of Mexico, and they do well.”

And why wouldn’t they? The lobster boat, the deadrise, the Cape Islander, the salmon trawler — they’ve all been tested by time, backed up by countless working watermen spinning yarns and telling tales. “There’s always been scuttlebutt at the dock when lobstermen and fishermen come in, and a lot of it is about their boats,” says Williams. “Designers and builders would go down and listen — I used to do it myself. What they said was very revealing, and it helped shape the boats they used.”

And the workboat ethic.