Maine boatbuilders find a ready market for semi-custom fiberglass lobster boats among experienced yachtsmen.
Charlie Harriman, a sport fisherman, is planning a journey that would make a lot of his friends envious: He’s working all the salmon rivers from Portland, Maine, to the north shore of Quebec. The Portland fisherman will be making the trip in his Holland 32, a Down East-style lobster boat that has never hauled a trap, but has taken Harriman and his wife on cruises to most of the Gulf of Maine islands as well as New Brunswick.
Running across the Bay of Fundy and along Canada’s Atlantic seaboard in a lobster boat hull doesn’t bother Harriman. “It’s a maneuverable, seaworthy boat,” he says.
Frank Bissell raced sailboats on the ocean and had a motorsailer for 29 years before he went looking for a powerboat that would be seakindly, maneuverable and he could single-hand from his home on the Chesapeake to Cape Brittany in the north or the Bahamas in the south. He chose the same style of boat as Harriman, only it was a Jarvis Newman 46.
Using the Maine lobster boat for anything but lobstering and maybe winter scalloping was almost unheard of before the early 1970s. Oh, there were well-heeled summer rusticators on Islesboro, North Haven and Mount Desert who corralled some of the better builders of fishing boats and told them to build a hull just like the ones they’d watched working traps. Of course, they didn’t have any use for a pot hauler or want the lobsterman’s spartan accommodations, so they told the boatbuilder to fancy her up with wainscoting, mahogany houses taken from 1930s cruiser designs and then cover everything above the sheerline with 12 coats of spar varnish.
They were beautiful boats – and some of them are still running out of Maine harbors – but they were a relatively well-kept secret. With a couple of exceptions, local boatbuilders didn’t advertise to build lobster boats, let alone yachty versions. Anybody interested in one of the boats had to be familiar with the Maine coast to have appreciated the boats’ grace and ruggedness. They also needed a bit of change to buy the boat, have it maintained and hire a captain.
But with fiberglass construction and more people having discretionary money and time for leisure, what was not well-known 30 years ago as a pleasure boat has become widely accepted. In fact many Maine boatyards that went into business to build fiberglass boats for lobstermen now find that much of the business comes from non-fishing customers.
“I sold a handful in the early ’70s as pleasure boats,” says Glenn Holland of Holland Boats in Belfast. “But now it averages out to about 50-50. “In December, it was leaning toward yachts. Now, we’ve got more workboat orders.”
Flye Point Marine in Brooklin builds about six lobster yachts a year, says yard owner Jerry Monahan. “We’ve been pushing these boats more,” he adds, “and now they make up about 50% of the business.”
Richard Duffy of Duffy & Duffy Boats in Brooklin has been in business 18 years, but it wasn’t until 13 years ago that he built his first lobster yacht. “Six years ago, we started doing a few more, and four years ago it was half the business.” That 50-50 split between the commercial and pleasure-boat market is echoed by many of Maine’s lobster-boat Southwest Harbor says that 60% of his 46′ model go to pleasure boat owners.
Robin Roulston in Salem, N.H., bought a Duffy 42 with a flying bridge and tuna tower. Roulston comes from a boating family, and the selection of a Down East-style lobster boat was a reflection of his early years on the water.
“My father had a Cape Islander, which has a lot of similarity [to a Down East lobster boat] as far as the ride, stability and room. I can remember trips as an eight-year-old kid coming out of the Merrimack River, running through rough conditions and the waterline to the deck – go into a wave and then seeing the wave go 6′ over the cabin – and the boat made it.”
Like Harriman, Roulston hasn’t been disappointed with his boat’s performance. “When I was going to look at a Hatteras, Richard Duffy told me that a Hatteras is a good boat and has good resale value, but his 42 would run through a 4′ to 5′ chop wide open and your eyeteeth won’t fall out, but with a Hatteras or Bertram they would. He was right.”
Roulston and most of the people attracted to the Maine lobster boat for recreational purposes have been prior boat owners. They are not first-time buyers. “They know boats and know what they want. They don’t want what 100 other people have,” says Duffy.
“They’ve been around boats for a while,” agrees Holland. “Some have had a Bertram or Hatteras. But a lot of people are going from sail to power. They are looking for something that rides better than a Bertram and looks more traditional.”
Monahan agrees with Holland that customers like the traditional look of the lobster boat. They don’t want flash; they don’t like the fancy plush carpets of the production boats. Those all have the same look, and don’t feel like a boat,” Monahan says. But, he adds, “it’s all there in the boat. These people like their comforts.”
Keith Otis of Otis Marine Enterprises in Searsport says that a lot of his customers have been “pretty sincere sailors. “They’ve come from big sailboats, and they want to buy a heavy-weather power boat, and most lobster boats are built for miserable weather.”
“The seakindliness and seakeeping hull qualities have made the sale possible for our boats,” agrees Moore. One of his customers wanted a boat that would take him from Connecticut to Martha’s Vineyard every weekend, good weather or bad.
In a few cases, prospective customers of lobster yachts know enough to participate in the building process. At least that’s what happened at Young Brothers boatshop in Corea when the owner of a boat being built moved into town and worked with the crew on his vessel, says Dwight Rodgers, Young Brothers’ general manager.
“To purchase these boats does require a certain level of knowledge,” says Moore, but he isn’t referring to the ability to build a boat. He’s talking about the semi-custom nature of the lobster yacht, as opposed to a production boat where you buy a complete package and choices are limited.
With Maine’s Down East yards, the hulls of a particular builder are standarized because they all come from the same mold. But everything else – decks, tankage sizes and location, engine placement, cabin design, interior accommodations, etc. – is open to discussion. “We start with a profile and arrangement plan,” says Moore, and work with the customer on what he wants the final design to be.
“The first-time guy doesn’t have a clue what we are telling him. They go to Bayliner or Seaway,” says Weldon Leonard of Mount Desert Island Boatworks in Southwest Harbor. He says that the people “interested in a Maine lobster boat are more discriminating buyers. They ask questions like, |What is the laminate plan? What do you use for resins?'”
Though the customers are knowledgeable, boatbuilders agree that some educating is necessary if the customer is to get what he wants. “What you have to watch,” says Otis, “is that the hulls don’t get loaded down, and sometimes it’s a trade-off” between keeping the lobster boat characteristics and overloading the boat. “Because they do want all the accommodations,” he adds.
“You have to educate them about a lobster boat being a light-displacement boat,” says Duffy. “With our 35, you can add 14,000 lbs. to 15,000 lbs., but then you add another 2,000 lbs. to 3,000 lbs. and the boat gets so heavy it won’t perform.” With bigger models, he notes, there is more leeway for carrying extra weight.
“Some people understand that you don’t load weight in the ends of a semi-displacement boat,” says Moore. He says his boats designed displacement and still maintain most of the boat’s handling characteristics.
Holland feels that with his boats, he has to keep extra weight out of the bow. “If you get too much weight in there, they won’t lift; they are wet and won’t work so good in a following sea. People want to put a lot of stuff in there; if they put it in the right place an extra 1,000 lbs. is all right.”
“You have to keep stability in mind as well as the safety of the boat,” says Leonard. “And if the guy wants to put something in that’s not right, I won’t hesitate to say so.”
The so-called lobster yachts or luxury lobster boats come in a variety of forms. Some are kept plain – like a working fishing boat – and weight and trim are not a problem. “We kept ours simple,” says Harriman. “We’ve got a hot plate, bed in the bow, a settee and keep the food in coolers. I wanted to be able to turn on the batteries and know they hadn’t been drained by a piece of equipment that is hardly ever used.”
Other boats are more elaborate with a flying bridge, extended cabin, cooking range, microwave oven, T.V., twin staterooms, shower, mahogany ceiling, teak sole, a full complement of electronics and hundreds of gallons more tankage than a lobster boat would ever have.
For instance, Bob Flynn’s Knot Loafin’, an MDI 43, has an enclosed fly bridge with a hard top. On the main deck there is a galley and salon and down below, a queensized bed in one stateroom and two bunks in the other stateroom. The two sleeping areas share a head and separate shower; there’s a head-only compartment in another part of the boat. The 43-footer carries 600 gals. of fuel and 150 gals. of water.
“It was the heaviest boat MDI had built,” Flynn says, but with twin Caterpiller 3208s, he says, she cruises at 20 knots and has a top speed of 24 knots.
What has made it possible for the semi-displacement lobster boat to carry the weight of this equipment and not lose the characteristics peculiar to its type is the development within the past 10 years of composite construction.
Above the waterline, “we’ve saved 60% in weight by using cored fiberglass, as opposed to glass-over-plywood or solid wood,” says Moore. Most lobster-boat builders are proficient with sandwich construction, which requires a core material to be encased in fiberglass. This type of construction provides strong, lightweight panels that can be used in decks, bulkheads and cabin sides. “Every pound saved with this technology can be turned into creature comforts that the owner appreciates,” says Moore.
One-off building and composite construction are big parts of the building process at Duffy & Duffy, especially on pleasure boats. “We try to keep up with all the new materials,” says Duffy. On some of the company’s models, all the interiors and most of the cabins and deck areas are of one-off construction.
Depending on the stresses that a part of the boat is subjected to, Duffy & Duffy uses a variety of foams, composite panels, lighweight putties or different weights of fiberglass to build the structure so it is light but strong. “We’ll do anything we can to save a pound,” says Duffy.