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It's a car, it's a boat, it's Ca'-boat

A Pontiac Sunbird rides piggyback on a Silverton hull for this summer’s Maine lobster boat races

It started with a pair of 17-year-old 200-hp Yamahas. Steve Johnson’s friend would give him the outboards for free — on one condition.

Maine boatyard owner Steve Johnson succeeded in his attempt to draw attention to the annual Maine lobster boat races with his Ca'-Boat.

“He said, ‘I’ll give them to you if you cause a scene with them — you know, stir up some trouble,’ ” says Johnson. The “trouble” would take place on Maine’s lobster boat racing circuit this summer.

Notorious for concocting oddball vessels for the races, Johnson did not disappoint. Over a couple of beers last spring, he and his design team — a mix of lobstermen, fishermen and mechanic friends — decided to saw off the top of a 1973 26-foot Silverton, glass a deck over it, and strap a 1994 sapphire-blue convertible Pontiac Sunbird to it.

Johnson, 54, named the vessel Ca’-Boat. And it’s a real boat — registered in the State of Maine, with navigation lights, GPS and a VHF radio. You operate Ca’-Boat from the driver’s seat … of the car, that is. “We just made up a coupling and put a hydraulic steering pump on the end of the steering column,” says Johnson, who has run his own business, Johnson’s Boatyard on Long Island, Maine, since 1993. “We just had to run hydraulic hoses back from there. We put the shifter in where the console was. It turns beautifully, like a sports car.”

Maine lobstermen have raced against each other since 1903, when sailing lobster boats chased one another other off Jonesport, says Jon Johansen, president of the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association. Racing continued through the 1920s with the first engine-powered boats, says Johansen. The races became organized in the ’40s and, as decades passed, the annual summer event grew, with more ports holding their own races, says Johansen.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the competition became truly organized, with the formation of the association, which grouped the boats into classes based on size and engine type, established rules, and offered money and other prizes. About 450 boats from 12 to 46 feet participate each year in a series of races held in such ports as Rockland, Searsport and Stonington.

“The speed record is 64.5 mph, set by Foolish Pleasure, a 30-foot Riley Beal-built boat with a 632 [cubic inch] Chevy and a blower,” says Johansen, who has attended every race since 1988. The owner of Foolish Pleasure, Galan Alley, aims to shatter that record next summer after he converts the engine to fuel-injection. “Oh, I got plans — I got big plans,” he says.

There are four gas-engine and 14 diesel-engine classes. Boats in the gas and diesel groups must be single-

Ca'-Boat is a registered vessel, with nav lights, GPS and a VHF radio. The convertible top even works.

inboard powered. There also are four workboat classes, which comprise boats less than 24 feet. Johnson races in one of these classes, which allows outboard propulsion.

The Yamahas push Johnson’s

Ca’-Boat to a top speed of 50 mph. “We beefed up the stern to hold the outboards,” says Johnson, whose boatyard finishes off Calvin Beal-designed hulls and provides boat storage, hauling, repairs and maintenance.

To secure the car to the deck, Johnson used chains lag-bolted into wood blocks fiberglassed to the deck. He mounted a fuel tank and batteries in the trunk compartment of the car and ripped out the car engine to free up storage space under the hood for life jackets. The powered convertible top even works.

The Ca’-Boat may turn more heads than any other Johnson raceboat, but it’s not his craziest craft, says the former commercial lobsterman and fisherman. That would be Kathleen II, powered with a 1,350-hp Packard Rolls Royce engine from a 1942 Navy PT boat. That boat topped out at 57 mph and burned 250 gallons of aviation fuel per hour. “At idle, she went 17 mph,” says Johnson. “It was pretty crazy around the docks.”

Even with all that power, Johnson’s boat was beaten by the infamous Red Baron, whose engine was taken from a drag-racing car. And its house was sawed off to reduce windage, says Johnson.

However, it’s not about winning for Johnson. In fact, he’s not sure how many races he won this year in the Ca’-Boat. “Four or five, three or four,” he says. “I never kept track.”

Other notable Johnson creations include a 28-footer powered with an 892 Detroit that had so much torque “it wanted to roll over,” says Johnson. “We had to attach sponsons to each side of the boat to stop it from doing that.” Last year, he mounted two 454 gas engines in line to maximize horsepower while abiding by the single-shaft rule for inboards. “She was the fastest thing going there last year,” says Johnson. “It handled real good. I think it went 45 mph.”

There’s been some mild grumbling by other participants about Johnson’s Ca’-Boat falling well outside the definition of a lobster boat, even though he has mounted a faux pot hauler on the port side. “Some guys have said that boat doesn’t fish,” says Johansen, the racing association president. “And I say, yeah, well it generates interest in the races, and that’s good.”

How will Johnson top the Ca’-Boat? Word is he’s trying to secure an Oscar Meyer Weinermobile.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.