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Under Way

Boats with a purpose, at work and at play

Boats with a purpose, at work and at play

Looking out across the small cove where I keep my boat, it’s hard not to notice the green-hulled Duffy lobster yacht, with a white pilothouse, tall bow rail and mast-mounted radar. Handsome — and very able.

A few moments later, an 18- or 20-foot outboard-powered Eastern — a descendent of a Maine lobster skiff — heads up the river, looking equally proud and capable on this windy afternoon. Earlier in the day, I motored past a 22-foot Pulsifer Hampton skiff swinging happily on her mooring in the harbor. This versatile strip-planked gem with its little diesel can trace its lineage back more than 100 years, to the early Casco Bay lobster boats.

The bloodlines of these and a dozen or more other boats anchored in the bay or running for open water on this summer day are obvious. Their commercial cousins worked (and in many cases still work) for a living, carrying pots and bait barrels, lobsters and maybe a gill net or small scallop dredge.

The boats fish in fair weather and foul; spring, summer, fall and winter; inshore and offshore. They are run by watermen who know better than to get too sentimental about a boat; that’s an indulgence for those of us who don’t earn our paychecks from fishing. These stout vessels are designed to carry their skippers and crews out to the grounds and back again in one piece, economically, safely and consistently. Not a lot of frills but not a lot of surprises, either.

In a word, these boats are proven, which is one of the reasons they make such fine pleasure boats. Starting on Page 39 of this issue, you’ll find several stories about boats with workboat roots. They range from a 32-foot Chesapeake Bay deadrise hull to the sturdy, elegant 38-foot Petrel II built by Jock Williams to a 45-foot trawler designed and built by Sam Devlin in the Pacific Northwest. Boats with good parentage, boats from good stock.

That’s not to say that these workboat descendents are “better” than the myriad boats that will never transport a lobster that isn’t cooked, picked, mixed with mayo and laid out in a grilled hot dog roll — better depends on the particular yardstick you’re wielding and what’s being measured. Traditional craft typically aren’t as fast or commodious as contemporary express cruisers or small motoryachts, but is that such a bad thing? More importantly, I believe, they are singularly reliable, seakindly and, for the most part, more easily driven than boats designed purely for pleasure use. (There are exceptions, of course, such as the MJM 34z, Page 38.)

Interestingly, one can see the same incremental improvements and refinements in many of the (mostly) single-purpose pleasure boats that have been evolving in some cases for more than 50 years — everything from convertibles, center consoles, flats boats and trawlers to boats designed specifically for water skiing, wakeboarding and freshwater bass fishing. Boats with a purpose.

Designer Dave Gerr recently lamented the fact there aren’t more workboat-inspired vessels left on the water today. Where have the skipjacks and sharpies, the Sea Bright and Florida mullet skiffs, and the great fishing schooners of yesterday gone?

We talked about lobster boats, for which we both share an affection. “They’re good sea boats,” says Gerr, director of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology. “They’re handsome, and if you drive them at the speed they were intended — semidisplacement or low planing speeds — they’re economical, reliable, safe and strong. They’re balanced, and they handle well.”

My dockside research continued when I ran into Bruce Ladd, an old friend who used to fish for a living. When Ladd was 24 he was running a 72-foot dragger out of Galilee, R.I., fishing south of Block Island out to 100 fathoms. Before he retired, he was the owner and operator of an 80-foot steel-hulled fishing boat. I hadn’t seen him in years.

Ladd showed up at the marina this summer with a boat that he’d just moved aboard full time. So what kind of boat does a former draggerman own? A 38-foot Repco commercial hull that he and a boatwright converted over 2-1/2 years from a working lobster boat with an open transom to a lobster yacht. The boat has a 12-1/2 foot beam, weighs 19 tons, and is powered by a single Volvo diesel.

To be sure, there’s plenty of nicely varnished mahogany and custom woodwork in the pilothouse and below. But look closely and you’ll see examples of Ladd’s experience running offshore commercial fishing boats: clean, uncluttered rigging; reliable, redundant systems (two radars, two GPS units, and so on); easy accessibility to machinery spaces; heavy hull and overbuilt hardware, fasteners, brackets and the like.

“I don’t know if you can call it overkill on a boat,” says Ladd, who is 53. “It’s a brutal environment. And this boat is an animal. You can’t get hurt on her. Probably half the other boats here,” he continued, looking out over the marina, “you’d have stuff flying all over the place if you took them to sea.”

In the working world where Ladd cut his teeth, you can’t make something too strong.