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Workboat evolution: survival of the seaworthiest

Working boats of the last century had hull forms attuned to geography and weather patterns. In fact, every aspect of their decks and interior layouts were dictated by specific utilitarian purposes.

Working boats of the last century had hull forms attuned to geography and weather patterns. In fact, every aspect of their decks and interior layouts were dictated by specific utilitarian purposes.

Dimensions, capacities and handling characteristics have boiled down over the decades to establish the nascent qualities of what does and, maybe even more importantly, what doesn’t work at sea. Modern-day boaters are treated to unprecedented choices as to how they can make their time afloat fun and safe, and we can trace much of what makes good boats good today to their working roots.

One great example of someone figuring out what does work was the prolific designer John G. Alden. Alden created myriad race-winning offshore sailing yachts of a genre directly descended from speedy Grand Banks dory fishing schooners that were charged with bringing their crews home safely and delivering their hard-earned catch to market. That he designed both working and pleasure versions is all the more significant in that those qualities that made the working schooners commercially successful also made her leisure-class sisters superior on the race course, and thus much sought-after by the yachting elite.

The venerable Friendship Sloops, whose origins are traced to that town on Maine’s MuscongusBay, were derived over hundreds if not thousands of editions to evolve into a working platform for harvesting lobster, a crop that became more and more in demand on the dinner tables of the affluent. A high clipper bow, long bowsprit and sweeping sheer with low freeboard amidships presented a then state-of-the-art platform for getting pots aboard, and baiting and setting them again.

It’s my guess that no formally trained naval architect ever had a hand in their designs; Friendship Sloops were cobbled together and built up from lines lofted from hand-carved models, based upon the stark realities of trial and error, success and failure, perhaps even life and death. A bad design could mean total disaster, while a good one, combined with the skipper’s good skills, could spell prosperity for a family and the chance to fish another day or season.

With the passage of time, the internal combustion engine rendered less dependence on the wind as the determining factor on where and when a coastal fishing vessel might go out. The genesis of the modern Maine lobster boat (and lobster yacht for that matter) lies in the best attributes of her sailing ancestors, recast to accommodate higher speeds and greater capacities. However, where the sea meets the hull, certain constants always remain. How will she ride in a nasty chop on the nose? Will she behave in a menacing following sea, or snap-roll you when seas are abeam? How is the balance of beam, waterline length, draft and horsepower calculated to achieve the objective of the end-user? The answers are remarkably numerous and, until relatively recently, highly non-scientific.

In terms of lobster boats, I am an unapologetic admirer of the boats conceived and built by Raymond Bunker and Ralph Ellis on Mount Desert Island, Maine, in the 1950s and ’60s — even a few in the ’70s. I don’t know of a more perfect evolution from workboat to pleasure craft than the boats of Bunker & Ellis. Ellis was a working lobsterman during three seasons of the year, and he had a good-size shed attached to his home in SouthwestHarbor. Bunker was a well-respected builder and foreman of Southwest Boat Corp. Their initially casual acquaintance became a significant working partnership, launching a remarkable 58 work and pleasure vessels over 30 years … working part-time.

The perfect proportions of Jericho, Waterbed and Bagpiper, to name a few, inspired and informed my visual concept of Wolf, the Chuck Paine/Mark Fitzgerald-designed 44-foot Able Downeast Express that my crew and I built in the 1990s. Derived from that “look,” the explosion of modern, traditionally styled express cruisers came about, in the form of Grand Banks Eastbays, Wilburs, Aldens, Little Harbors, Legacys, Sabres, San Juans — and many more.

The “lobster yacht” had much deeper roots, however, thanks to the likes of Messrs. Rich, Lincoln, Newman, Stanley, Lowell and numerous others whose round-bilge hulls are the legitimate interpretation of working boats — because many of them actually are working boats on the same hulls — unlike the modern hard chine/deep-vee examples I just mentioned. This is where performance criteria, style and hull form have parted ways, for better or worse. That’s the divergence of intended use that has always driven development.

Fortunately, in my view, the general “Down East” look prevails and never gets old, while the egg-shaped, top heavy, overaccessorized, floating entertainment platforms constantly need to reinvent themselves. Fortunately for the boat business, and in order to attract new customers, there are admirers of both.

Lobster boats aren’t the whole story, either. If you’ve watched the Discovery Channel series “The Deadliest Catch,” you’ll get a cold-water-in-your-face idea of what a brutal winter serves up. No thanks; I’ll stick with palm trees! The look of a modern Alaska crab vessel scaled down to fit the means and abilities of latter-day explorers has attracted a burgeoning population of admirers, taking on almost cult proportions. Magazines have sprung up, owners’ rendezvous abound, builders’ shops are booked, and it isn’t accidental.

Grand Banks were among the first mass-marketed recreational “trawlers,” and while they little resemble a Bering Sea crabber, their small-ship appearance — with a real wheelhouse — clearly evoked a workboat image. Pleasing proportions made (and make) them easy on the eye, and their seakeeping abilities have made them a “socially acceptable” favorite of the cruising coastal sailor who is tired of cranking winches. Art DeFever’s enduring Alaskan trawler yacht designs are clearly influenced by their workboat heritage and are aimed at the more adventurous offshore passagemaking crowd … or perhaps not.

The elements that make a boat good offshore can arguably make a coastal cruiser even better. Maybe it’s just dreaming that you could, if you wanted to, take off for Tahiti tomorrow that trips the emotional switch that leads to a Purchase and Sale Agreement. The brilliantly marketed Nordhavn trawlers, and others of the genre, may never have landed a single giant tuna or king crab, but they have promoted the concept that an amateur crew might take on the challenges of the world’s oceans at a pleasant pace and with high confidence of making it home safely. The availability of various forms of stabilizing equipment, heavy scantlings and commercial-duty propulsion and mechanical systems has made it realistic to take on a transoceanic passage — even in a relatively small trawler yacht — with a high level of comfort and safety.

Like a classic Brooks Brothers button-down Oxford, boats borne of proven capabilities and clean lines never go out of style. Good looks are eternal. Seaworthiness, allied with good judgment, is a winning formula. Model years are irrelevant. The elements of design and execution that made their working forebears successful are clearly aligned with those characteristics that appeal to a strong and loyal following of admirers and happy owners. A visit to the Maine Boatbuilders Show will leave you either in awe or incredulous. If you are of the latter ilk, you probably haven’t read this far.

As stewards of the sea, responsible boaters adhere to a creed closely associated with those who hike and camp on wilderness trails: leave nothing behind but your footprints — or your wake. Beauty is in the beholder’s eye, but please find me anyone who understands boats who doesn’t appreciate the sublime beauty of a Jock Williams Stanley 36 effortlessly running down Somes Sound, or at least acknowledge the purity of a vintage Huckins up on plane, echoing its PT-boat ancestry.

Whatever your taste, we all got here from somewhere. So did our boats. Thanks again to those hard-working blokes huddled around the warming stove in the fo’c’sle of some stinkin’ offshore fishing boat for doing the heavy lifting that lets us go boating today in such ease, safety and comfort. We owe them, their skippers and their builders’ eyes a great debt. Little did they suspect that what was once to them perhaps little more than a working vehicle would become revered for its artistry and honored for its purity.