Some people go to the opera. In South Bristol, Maine, people go to a John’s Bay Boat launch.
John’s Bay Boat Company owner Peter Kass has been building his traditional plank-on-frame lobster boats from a waterfront property in South Bristol, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He started his boatbuilding career down the road at Gamage Shipyard, but when Gamage started building steel boats, he went to Padebco and then opened his own shop in 1983. Kass designs and builds recreational and work boats, but his wooden vessels are admired for their easy motion, a feature that’s prized by all the lobstermen who swear by his boats.
When Kass gets ready to launch one of his new boats, other John’s Bay Boat owners, curious onlookers and friends and family of the recipient of the latest build converge on the company’s wooded property at the end of Poorhouse Cove Road. Sometimes as many as 35 current owners will drive for hours from as far away as Massachusetts and way Downeast just to watch Kass’ latest masterpiece slide down the ways.
The launch is an opportunity to check out the latest build, but it’s also a chance to share the passion for Kass’ boats with other owners. “Peter calls all the owners a week ahead of time,” said Scott Dugas of Yarmouth, Maine, who owns a 42-footer. “We come here because we’re all friends.”
Last October, when Kass launched Twilight II, what he believes to be his 75th boat—a fire-engine red 46-footer for Douglas Blasius, a 29-year-old lobsterman from Friendship, Maine—the weather deterred attendance, but not by much. Even though it rained cats and dogs, more than 100 people, from young to old, including babies and octogenarians, all in their slickers and some armed with umbrellas, showed up early for the 8:30 a.m. high-tide launch. Trucks and cars lined the narrow dirt road for the half mile back to Thompson’s icehouse on Route 129. “There’s a lot of people here,” one lobsterman said. Another attendee explained the draw. “People like Douglas,” he said. “That’s why they’re here. They respect him. He shipped out, lived small and saved his money.”
Inside the bay, where until recently Twilight II had filled the shed to within inches of the doors, tables were covered with donuts and coffee, but also Kahlua, Prosecco, Bloody Marys, bourbon, rum, Champagne, and all kinds of other things. The fruit salad was basically untouched.
Before Kass sent Twilight II into her watery domain, the crowd sheltered from the rain inside the bay, under the trees and beneath the flare of the boat’s bow. As the rain lashed the yard with particular intensity, a first-time guest expressed surprise that the launch had not been called off. “Boats are meant to be wet,” one man said. A lobsterman asked about the new boat’s length. “Same length as mine,” said another with no lack of pride.
Kass’ boats hold their value. Bernadette, a 32-footer launched in 2005, recently sold for around $300,000. There is a zeal about Kass’ boats. Many John’s Bay Boat Company owners are on their second or third boat. They’ll go from a 32-footer to a 36, and onto a 40, 42, 46 or 47. Kass says you can get a bigger boat, but he’d have to extend his shed.
Blasius commissioned his boat in fall 2019 and he pretty much maxed out its beam. “She’s 16 feet wide,” he said. “There wasn’t much more room left for the hull to the side of the boat shop.” Kass says he could build them wider, but he bucks the current trend among lobstermen to go super beamy. He believes too much beam for a given length forces the bottom of the hull to flatten out too much.
With Twilight II, Blasius joined the club of two-time Kass-built boat owners. He started setting lobster traps with his brother at age 12. A Maine Maritime graduate, he shipped out for five years as an engineer on oil tankers, bought a 23-year-old, 40-foot John’s Bay boat in 2017, and liked it so much that he commissioned the 46-footer. “The original Twilight was really comfortable for her size,” Blasius said. “I go 20 to 40 miles offshore, and I knew a bigger one would be even more comfortable in the weather.”
Blasius’ new boat features twin side-by-side helms, one outside to starboard for pulling pots, and one inside to stay out of the weather while motoring to and from the fishing grounds. “When I get there, I put my oil gear on and go outside while I haul my traps,” Blasius said. “At the end of the day, it’s a really comfortable ride home.”
Each Kass boat is unique. The client tells Kass what they have in mind and Kass then carves a half hull and takes the lines from that. “I can’t draw anything,” Kass says. “I’m still kind of old world.”
Blasius had Twilight II built with an open transom and outfitted with an 800-hp Caterpillar engine for a top speed of almost 22 knots. But he cruises at 1800 rpm, which gives him 16 knots to get to and from his 800 traps, half of which he can pull in one day with his two stern men.
There is one thing the new boat doesn’t have: a head. Most lobstermen consider it an unnecessary luxury. They believe a 5-gallon bucket is less troublesome and more reliable. “We’re only going lobstering for the day, not staying overnight,” Blasius said to explain the absence of a head. His girlfriend, Hannah Shute, tried to persuade Blasius to install one, but he declined.
Head or no head, at the launch, all the John’s Bay Boat owners gathered in front of the new build for a group shot with Kass, Shute smashed a bottle of champagne against the boat’s stem, and Kass sent Twilight II down the railway and into the water. Blasius backed his new boat onto the dock, took Kass and a load of people aboard for a short inaugural spin on the water and returned to take a second load of people around for another ride.
Blasius was effusive about the boat, Kass, and his crew. “It’s one hundred percent to my liking,” he said about Twilight II. “I chose a Peter Kass because they make a beautiful boat, they put their heart in it and they are well built. They do a great job. They’re almost like family.”
Kass is used to bringing people together for launches, but he said it never occurred to him that one of his boats might play a part in a love match, which was the case with Blasius and Shute.
A year before the launch, Blasius spotted Shute on a dating site where her profile picture featured a John’s Bay boat in the background. Asked if the boat in Shute’s profile picture inspired him to pursue Shute, Blasius, who is not a big talker, was restrained. He paused, then, with a classic Mainer’s sense of understatement said, “I thought it was promising.”
This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue.