Down East Goes Global

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Design covers the globe

The design that has served the needs of Maine lobstermen for decades is finding its way to the far reaches of the world

A gleaming 44-foot luxury sportboat idles in the blue waters off the Italian coast. Its pastel coral hull with tall spoon bow, sloping sheer and fast-back stern matches the tile roofs of the buildings lining the “porto.” The white fiberglass superstructure, with its low trunk cabin, wheelhouse and teak trim, gleams against a perfect Mediterranean sky. Twin 575-hp diesels rumble in the depths of her deep-vee bottom.

A European head-turner, the Italian-built Mochi Craft Dolphin 44 from Ferretti is as contemporary as any boat can be. Yet there’s something vaguely familiar about it: that bow, that sheer, that profile … is there a bit of Down East Maine lobster boat in there somewhere?

Read the other stories in this package:  A growing fleet of Down Easters Daysailers with New England charm

And what about the Gorbon 29 runabout, built in Turkey by Gorbon Yachts? There’s the same Down East “look” — spoon bow, sweeping sheer, trunk cabin — but a little more obvious. In fact, with its dark blue hull, red-and-white boot stripe and wooden-frame windshield, the single-engine dayboat looks like it’s puttering around Penobscot Bay on a picnic.

That’s apparently the idea. As the folks at Mochi Craft put it: “With the 44’s raised prow, harmoniously linked to the classical reverse stern … teak trim and spacious cockpit … Mochi Craft reinterprets with Italian sensitivity the style of the New England lobster boats.” And they’re not alone in doing so. Similar vessels sharing a Down East look and promoting a salty Maine heritage are coming out of the Pacific Northwest, Holland, Hong Kong and elsewhere. In marketing terms, Down East is “hot.”

In fact, in the last 15 years the Down East boat of Maine has been redesigned, repowered and refined into one of the most varied niches in recreational boating. And redefined, too. Where “Down East” once was reserved for the semidisplacement, round-bottom lobster boats of northern Maine, the term today takes in twin-jet-drive deep-vee speedsters, big modified-vee sedans with twin diesels, and a host of glamorous dayboats. Now describing a stylistic look and feel, “Down East” is used — with considerable license — by scores of builders selling to a worldwide audience.

“Globalization and the competition in the boatbuilding industry call for aggressive marketing strategies,” says John Williams, whose John Williams Boat Company of Mount Desert, Maine, builds the original type of Down East boat. “Today, the term ‘Down East’ can help sell boats in Italy or Australia — anywhere around the world. I certainly never imagined that when I started out back in the 1970s.”

Not inexpensive and typically well-appointed, many of the new custom and semicustom Down East boats incorporate some of the most advanced building materials and sophisticated equipment available. As Stanley Pendleton of Pendleton Yacht Yard in Islesboro, Maine, puts it: “When you say Down East now, you’re not just talking about the old round-bottom lobster boat anymore.”

So how did a hard-working, no-frills provincial fishing boat — developed over years by trial and error for use along the rocky, lonely coast of Maine — become the darling of yachtsmen from Newport to Naples, Miami to Monaco? Equal parts evolution … and revolution.

In the beginning

The original Down East lobster boat was shaped in the early decades of the 1900s for hard work, says Mark Fitzgerald, designer with C.W. Paine Yacht Designs in Camden, Maine. Usually run by a single lobsterman, the boats had to handle well — almost by themselves — and they did.

“They performed best at the low speeds at which they hauled traps,” says Fitzgerald. “The soft-bilge bottom was very flat, the transom was immersed just a few inches in the water, and they were relatively deep in the bow. They could maneuver easily around a lobster trap, and with that full-length keel, the boats would lay to the wind as the trap was being pulled up.”

The look was born of necessity, too. The high bow shed waves, and the sheer swept back to a low point where pots could be handled. The distinctive wheelhouse with its open starboard side offered some protection from the harsh Maine weather while making it easy to lean out and grab lobster pots for hauling. The raised trunk cabin was used mostly for storage, but it also afforded a (hopefully) dry place to ride out a squall.

“Lobstermen of the day ran their boats every day for hours on end. The boat was under way constantly,” says Fitzgerald. “The round bottom gave them a comfortable motion, an easy roll. And when they turned for home the bottom planed nicely with a single engine, as well. The [old Down East hull] was really a multitask shape.”

It made a pretty good pleasure boats, too. Jericho, a 42-foot lobster boat built in Maine in 1956 by the renowned team of Raymond Bunker and Ralph Ellis, had the same Down East bottom as commercial craft, but that’s where the similarities diverged. The big white hull was topped by an oversized, swept-back wooden-framed windshield that became the boat’s signature feature. There was a long camber-roof trunk cabin and lots of varnished trim. The Down Easter’s usual single-engine power was passed over for a pair of big Chrysler gas power plants, and Jericho sped along at a phenomenal (for the time) 30-plus mph. The old Down East lobster boat had evolved into what designer Glenn Holland decades ago dubbed a “lobster yacht.”

A revolutionary boat

The revolution came in 1994 in the form of a 36-foot powerboat from The Hinckley Co. of Southwest Harbor, Maine, perhaps best-known at the time for its hardy cruising sailboats. The new powerboat was planned as a traditionally styled Down East dayboat and casual overnighter, an update of Jericho and the lobster yachts that followed, with a big cockpit, modest cabin, head and small galley. “A boat you could have a picnic on,” says Phil Bennett, Hinckley vice president of sales.

Technology, however, turned the Hinckley Picnic Boat into something more. “Our inspiration for the look came from the old wooden Down East lobster boats and yachts,” says Bennett. “But we also wanted to build something that embraced modern technology.”

Here’s what the Picnic Boat’s designers took advantage of:

• Building materials: Using the SCRIMP resin-infusion process and incorporating Kevlar into the construction helped reduce the weight of the boat, which set off a chain of events. “That gave us the ability to look at different propulsion systems,” says Bennett.

• Propulsion: The boat was expected to sell with a single diesel, but newly developed waterjet propulsion systems for smaller boats were coming out of Australia and New Zealand at the time. “We looked at the jet and liked its potential for speed and maneuverability,” says Bennett. The new generation of compact, powerful diesel engines from Yanmar and other builders, coupled to the new jetdrives, delivered speeds in excess of 30 mph.

• Equipment: Bow thrusters were incorporated and, after that, the JetStick, Hinckley’s joystick control, which turned the 36-footer into a “point-and-shoot” boat, says Bennett. “It turned in its own length, backed up, side-slipped — all with two fingers at the controls.”

The Hinckley Picnic Boat ended up as much an example of new technologies as it was of the “new” Down East style. “All those innovations and new products were there at the right time for us to use,” says Bennett. “And Down East [Maine] builders are very creative.”

There was more. If the planned boat was to do 30 mph with a jetdrive, the old Down East soft-bilge bottom wouldn’t do. The lobster-boat keel went, chines appeared, and a modified-vee shape replaced the nearly flat stern. “First, we needed to redesign the old Down East bottom into something modern,” says Bennett. “With the success of the jetdrive, we optimized the bottom for [waterjet propulsion].”

But it was the new Down East look, designed by Bruce King of Newcastle, Maine, that caught the public’s eye. The spoon bow and cabin top were old Down East, but the wheelhouse was swept back, pierced by gently curving windows that accented the sculpted ends of the wing curtains. The sheer was pronounced, the long cockpit ending in a graceful tumblehome that outdid the lobster yachts. It was, as one writer put it, an “absolutely stunning profile.”

“We didn’t want to violate the laws of aesthetics, particularly when we wanted to be looked at and admired in the Northeast, so the signature features [of the lobster yacht] were incorporated in the cabin top, the sheer, the tumblehome transom,” says Bennett. “They may have no longer been needed from a functional standpoint, but we wanted the boat to look like a Down East boat.”

Many things to many people

Today, it’s the Down East look, not the old hull, that’s got boaters the world over turning their heads. It’s a fertile field for designers and builders alike, and Down East boats now run the gamut, from the traditional to the contemporary, even as the innovation continues.

Take the retractable “centerboard” on the newly launched twin-jet York 42, built by York Marine Rockland, Maine, for a New England couple. Developed by York, it’s a centerline appendage just abaft the engines acting as a steering aid in quartering or following seas. (The boat also uses a state-of-the-art joystick steering control developed by Rolls-Royce.) Elsewhere, the hull incorporates vinylester resin and lightweight Core-Cell foam, and the double-chine modified-vee shape is meant for 30-plus-mph speeds.

“Below the waterline, there’s no similarity to the old Down East boats,” says Fitzgerald, the designer. “The center of gravity has been further refined, and the deadrise is more suitable for jet propulsion. The York 42 is very aggressive.”

The look is, too. Topping the long, low hull is a pilothouse and windshield that looks like it’s being blown back in the wind. “It’s all about art; it’s about beauty,” says Fitzgerald. “There’s something about beautiful curves that people like. And a lot of the Down East boats are very elegant, especially in a day when production boats are filling the marinas.”

The look of the Liberty 44 from Bass Harbor, Maine, builder Morris Yachts harkens back 50 years to the lobster yacht days. “Tradition is beautiful,” says Cuyler Morris, company president and son of founder Tom Morris. The Liberty has a “classic look that is honest and clean, and an alternative to the overstylized look of the Euro boats.”

It, too, tops 30 mph with a pair of twin 480-hp diesels, riding a modified-vee hull. Construction is of vinylester E-glass and Kevlar composite over Core-Cell foam. “It’s designed for speed, but it’s also as fuel-efficient and seakindly a boat as you’ll find,” says Morris. “The idea was to build classic-looking boats from modern materials, and deliver great performance.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the Stanley 36 from John Williams Boat Co. has changed little in 30 years, and the round-bilge keel-bottom Down Easter designed by Lyford Stanley remains one of the builder’s most popular boats. “We’ve been building lobster boats since 1971, and all we’ve done is taken that and applied it to pleasure boats,” says Williams. “Our hull hasn’t changed, and we’ve sold 260, 270 of them, so we must be doing something right.”

The fiberglass hull is old-school Down East, as is the look, almost like the lobster boats that preceded Jericho. The upright, angular varnished-wood pilothouse has a three-panel windshield, and most of the boats are built with an open starboard side (with cloth weather curtains). Power comes from a single gas or diesel engine, and she cruises at a comfortable 20 mph or so.

“We put a lot of effort and time into making the boat look good, and it has an appeal for those who appreciate the origins of the lobster boat,” says Williams. “They’re after quiet and comfort on the water. A good boat should be like a place or a room, and every time you go into it, it feels pleasant and comfortable.”

It seems Down East now is “many things to many people,” as Islesboro builder Pendleton puts it. “It’s a global boating world, and the Down East boat of today is a mix and match of so many things,” he says. “There’s a Down East boat for the guy who goes out at 25 mph, gets to the dock, ties up and talks with his friends all day. There’s a boat for the guy like me, who wants to go 10 knots, and not see a soul. It’s a very dynamic style of boat.”

Bennett and others agree. “The array of Down East boats is amazing,” he says. “And they are, as a whole, wonderful boats.”