LOB­STER BOAT LEGACY

Passage Maker - - Electronics Products - Decades of Yachts In­spired by Time­less De­sign BY PETER A. JANSSEN

The ever-grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Downeast boats to­day—rang­ing from out­board-pow­ered mini­cruis­ers to mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar lux­ury yachts—dates back to 1912 when Wil­liam Frost moved from Whale Cove in Nova Sco­tia to Beals Is­land, off Jone­s­port, Maine, and started build­ing boats for lo­cal lob­ster­men. Then, as now, form fol­lows func­tion, and Frost’s Beals Is­land boats had a fine en­try to part a head sea, a hull with mod­est dead­rise amid­ships that flat­tened aft for sta­bil­ity, a large work­ing cock­pit with low free­board for pulling in pots, and a full-length keel to pro­tect the run­ning gear and pro­vide di­rec­tional sta­bil­ity. The boats were pop­u­lar in eastern Maine, where Frost and his son-in-law, Ri­ley Low­ell, built hun­dreds of them be­fore mov­ing down to the Port­land area, where Ri­ley’s sons, Royal and Car­roll, took over as builders and de­sign­ers.

Af­ter World War II, Maine’s boat­build­ing ac­tiv­ity cen­tered around South­west Har­bor at the en­trance to Somes Sound, where Ray­mond Bunker, a fore­man at what is now the Hinckley yard, and Ralph El­lis, a lo­cal fish­er­man, got to­gether to start a new com­pany. Both were in their mid-30s, and in the post­war boom thought they could make a liv­ing build­ing lob­ster boats. Launched in 1947, Bunker & El­lis turned out 58 boats, all wood, all plank-on-frame. But what’s im­por­tant to us to­day is the Downeast look they fea­tured—all their boats had a sweep­ing sheer­line and iconic tum­ble­home aft. Even at a glance, the pro­por­tions were just right; each of these semi-dis­place­ment boats was nar­row and pretty (3:1 beam-to-length ra­tio), had a fine en­try, flat­ter sec­tions aft, and an un­bal­lasted keel. The fact that the boats were fast, fuel-ef­fi­cient, and in­cred­i­bly sea­wor­thy were all added at­trac­tions. The lob­ster boat, or Downeast, look and per­for­mance caught on, and soon the area’s wealthy sum­mer res­i­dents started or­der­ing plea­sure-boat ver­sions. (To date, David Rock­e­feller, the banker, has bought no fewer than six Hinck­leys.)

In those early days, the hulls were the same in both the work­ing lob­ster boats and the plea­sure-boat ver­sions. What changed was the in­te­ri­ors, with the plea­sure boats hav­ing a com­fort­able V-berth, some kind of small gal­ley, lots of teak and ma­hogany and var­nish, and a head. Re­call­ing those days, Don El­lis, Ralph’s son who now runs the El­lis Boat Com­pany in South­west Har­bor, laughs and says, “God for­bid that a fish­ing boat had a head.”

Also in South­west Har­bor, Jarvis New­man, a na­tive, was work­ing for the Hinckley yard for $1.95 an hour. When the com­pany changed from wood to fiber­glass con­struc­tion, he man­aged the fiber­glass shop. New­man mar­ried Ray­mond Bunker’s daugh­ter, Su­san, and, in the best Maine tra­di­tion, de­cided he wanted to build his own boats. In 1971, New­man made a fiber­glass mold of a Bunker & El­lis 36. His fa­ther-in-law was not happy with the new ma­te­rial, but New­man kept go­ing. Even­tu­ally the Jarvis New­man 36 be­came his most pop­u­lar boat (sought af­ter even to­day); he built 90 of them, plus 100 more in other sizes. At one point, Jarvis New­man was build­ing a new boat ev­ery two weeks, lam­i­nat­ing ten lay­ers of fiber­glass on each one.

New­man was so busy that he often built the hulls, in­stalled the en­gine, and then took the boats to Lee Wil­bur, a for­mer teacher and prin­ci­pal at the lo­cal school, for com­ple­tion. You can see a theme go­ing here. Not sur­pris­ing, Wil­bur de­cided to start his own com­pany, Wil­bur Yachts, also in South­west Har­bor. His first boat, a 38, was de­signed by Ralph El­lis in 1979 and he started his most pop­u­lar boat, a 34, in 1983. By 2001 when he sold the busi­ness to his daugh­ter, In­grid, and his son-in-law, John Kach­mar, Wil­bur had built some 200 boats, in­clud­ing 70 34s.

Over the years, lob­ster boats were built with two dif­fer­ent kinds of hulls, each with its own ad­vo­cates. In the skeg-built model, pop­u­lar with the Beals Is­land crowd, the hull is ba­si­cally per­pen­dic­u­lar to the skeg; in the built-down model, more pop­u­lar with the South­west Har­bor builders, the hull curves into the skeg. The skeg-built boat is usu­ally faster (many served as rum­run­ners

dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion), while the built-down boat is sup­pos­edly bet­ter in heavy weather and is able to carry a larger load.

For most of the 20th cen­tury, Downeast lob­ster-boat build­ing ac­tiv­ity was con­fined to, well, Downeast. All that changed in 1993 when Grand Banks launched its first Downeast-style boat, the C. Ray­mond Hunt As­so­ciates-de­signed East­bay 38, which was built in Sin­ga­pore. The East­bay 38 was a home run from the start. It had ev­ery­thing: a clas­sic de­sign, low pro­file, springy sheer line, teak toe rails, dark blue hull with a bright gold stripe, a pair of diesels, and a turn of speed. I owned a tra­di­tional eight-knot Grand Banks 36 at the time and when I first saw the East­bay 38 I thought, holy smoke, I want that boat. So did a lot of other peo­ple. In many ways, the orig­i­nal East­bay 38 cre­ated the en­tire in­ter­na­tional genre of Downeast pro­duc­tion boats. To­day, Downeast-style boats are built in Malaysia, Aus­tralia, Tai­wan, Turkey, Italy, and other spots around the world, as well as in Florida, Wash­ing­ton State, Ohio, and other parts of the U.S. well be­yond the con­fines of New Eng­land.

Shortly af­ter the launch of the first East­bay, Hinckley Yachts in­tro­duced Dasher, its first Pic­nic Boat, in May, 1994. De­signed by Bruce King, Dasher went on to de­fine a genre, with its iconic tum­ble­home, low pro­file, flow­ing lines, gor­geous fit and fin­ish, all pow­ered by a sin­gle Yan­mar 350 and a Hamil­ton wa­ter­jet. As op­posed to the larger East­bay, the pic­nic boat by de­sign and by def­i­ni­tion was a day boat, not a cruiser, and it too has been sold and copied all around the world.

I drove Dasher that first sum­mer in Somes Sound with Shep McKen­ney, who de­vel­oped the Pic­nic Boat as the pres­i­dent of Hinckley (and is now the head of Sea­keeper, the gyro-sta­bi­lizer com­pany). I loved the boat both for its head-turn­ing looks and for its per­for­mance. With the wa­ter­jet, it turned on a dime; it sim­ply was fun to drive. My wife and youngest daugh­ter, who were with me at the time, have been Hinckley fans ever since.

The dis­ad­van­tage, as I found out at the end of my test drive, was that dock­ing a boat with a wa­ter­jet was counter-in­tu­itive. You have to learn how to dock all over again. McKen­ney solved that prob­lem three years later when Hinckley in­tro­duced its first patented JetStick con­trol. Now, sim­ply by mov­ing the teak (of course) joy­stick, you could walk the boat side­ways or turn it in any di­rec­tion at all. Hinckley’s JetStick pre­ceded all the now ubiq­ui­tous IPS, Zeus, and other joy­stick con­trols by many

years. Af­ter the JetStick, Pic­nic Boat sales took off, and Hinckley in­tro­duced jets to its en­tire fleet. Last sum­mer the com­pany an­nounced it had made more than 1,000 jet-pow­ered boats, and to­day, the Pic­nic Boat has been stretched to 37 feet and comes with twin diesels.

All that is a long way from Beals Is­land and a skeg-built lob­ster boat with a bolt-on keel and a mas­sive gaso­line en­gine that could out­run other lob­ster­men (or the feds) to safe har­bor. To­day, the ques­tion is, other than a mar­ket­ing la­bel (or a builder’s wish­ful think­ing), what ac­tu­ally counts as a Downeast boat? Some of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics in­clude the afor­men­tioned sheer, low pro­file, use­ful cock­pit, and great sea­keep­ing which are di­rectly trace­able back to the Beals Is­land and South­west Har­bor work­boats.

Kevin Burns, the VP of de­sign and prod­uct de­vel­op­ment for Sabre and Back Cove, says it all comes down to a “dis­tin­guish­ing Downeast style,” wherein “the hull is the prin­ci­ple de­sign el­e­ment” with a lob­ster-boat sil­hou­ette and lots of (prefer­ably) Maine-built crafts­man­ship. A Downeast boat gets “bonus points if built in New Eng­land, and ex­tra bonus points if built in Maine,” he said. But most im­por­tant is what Burns calls “nau­ti­cal sen­si­bil­ity, which re­sults in over­all pro­por­tions, qual­ity of ma­te­ri­als and a time­less ap­peal that have be­come as­so­ci­ated with Downeast de­signs.” A Downeast de­signer, Burns says, re­lies on nau­ti­cal sen­si­bil­ity over ev­ery­thing else. “For ex­am­ple, when faced with the choice be­tween mod­i­fy­ing the for­ward berth shape so that it fits in the de­signed hull or mod­i­fy­ing the hull shape so it fits around the for­ward berth, a Downeast de­signer will al­ways choose the com­pro­mised berth shape be­cause that’s the nau­ti­cally sen­si­ble thing to do.”

For Bent­ley Collins, the VP of mar­ket­ing and sales at Sabre and Back Cove, it all comes down to the Downeast aes­thetic: “The sheer­line de­fines this sec­tor. The proud, ris­ing sheer­line of a Downeast deck looks strong, work­boat-like. And these de­signs will look right in 20 years.” Collins says fuel econ­omy is im­por­tant for Downeast buy­ers, even the most af­flu­ent. “Fuel econ­omy is crit­i­cal,” he says. “They may have a Fer­rari but there’s prob­a­bly a Prius in the fam­ily some­where.” But econ­omy can’t come at the ex­pense of per­for­mance, a de­sign chal­lenge. In Collins’ view, to­day’s buy­ers want com­fort, mod­est per­for­mance (a 25-knot cruise), sta­bil­ity, good vis­i­bil­ity from the helm sta­tion, stor­age for longer cruises, fuel ef­fi­ciency, and a quiet boat—75 dB(A)—at cruis­ing speeds. Com­bin­ing all those char­ac­ter­is­tics, of course, is a tall or­der.

Winn Wil­lard, the pres­i­dent of C. Ray­mond Hunt As­so­ciates, prefers to call Hunt Yachts, with their deep-V hulls, clas­sic de­signs, even though he re­al­izes that most peo­ple in­clude Hunts in the Downeast cat­e­gory. “The clas­sic style ap­peals to peo­ple who have a mem­ory of boat­ing when they were young,” he said. “Peo­ple have a feel­ing that boats should look this way.” But the trade­off in a clas­sic de­sign can in­volve stor­age and in­te­rior vol­ume. “Vol­ume is cer­tainly one chal­lenge in both a true lob­ster

“THE PROUD, RIS­ING SHEER­LINE OF A DOWNEAST DECK LOOKS STRONG, WORK­BOAT-LIKE. AND THESE DE­SIGNS WILL LOOK RIGHT IN 20 YEARS.” BENT­LEY COLLINS

hull and a deep-V, be­cause to get a proper look, a clas­sic hull will not be bloated,” mak­ing the same point that Kevin Burns refers to as the nau­ti­cal sen­si­bil­ity. But Wil­lard dis­agrees with Collins about the buyer’s em­pha­sis on fuel econ­omy. “Ev­ery­one wants it all,” he says, “But for the av­er­age boater—50 to 100 hours a sea­son—fuel ef­fi­ciency is not a real con­cern. Maybe for Loop­ers. It’s nice to talk about, but in re­al­ity it’s not a big fac­tor. Most would read­ily give up ef­fi­ciency for speed.”

For Bob John­stone, the founder of MJM Yachts (and co­founder of J/ Boats), both fuel ef­fi­ciency and speed are mea­sures of de­sign and qual­ity of con­struc­tion. “Per­for­mance is how fast a de­sign can go with a fi­nite amount of horse­power,” he says. “Not speed, per se. You can make a barn door go 50 mph with six out­boards at­tached.”

John­stone thinks that the Downeast style ap­peals par­tic­u­larly to more sea­soned own­ers. “Boaters learn from ex­pe­ri­ence what func­tions and what doesn’t,” he said, “so they are less likely to put up with styling gim­micks that can de­tract from a good, sea­wor­thy boat.” And he traces the clas­sic aes­thetic of MJM Yachts back to the lines of an Elco PT boat, or “the tum­ble­home, spacious flush cock­pit, and bridgedeck of a work­ing Maine lob­ster boat.”

All MJM Yachts have a low pro­file, low cen­ter of grav­ity, and a rel­a­tively nar­row hull, de­sign char­ac­ter­is­tics which could af­fect in­te­rior vol­ume or stor­age space. “Stor­age is not a prob­lem if you can re­tain a low pro­file and have the propul­sion sys­tem un­der the cock­pit rather than un­der the bridgedeck,” John­stone said. In­deed, the MJM 50z has space for four bi­cy­cles un­der the bridgedeck, plus the stan­dard Sea­keeper gyro. “That’s why we went with three smaller D6 Volvos in­stead of D8s, which are 8 or 9 inches taller,” John­stone said, trad­ing off a higher speed for the space. Even with the smaller en­gines, how­ever, the MJM 50z is an im­pres­sive per­former. I drove one to a top speed of 38.7 knots on Long Is­land Sound.

Doug Zurn, who’s de­signed power boats for MJM (the “z” in MJM Yachts’ 50z stands for Zurn), Mar­low, Van­quish, Duffield, and Samoset, plus the Shel­ter Is­land Run­about and Vendetta for Billy Joel, spe­cial­izes in a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of the tra­di­tional Downeast style from his stu­dio in Mar­ble­head, Mas­sachusetts. He de­signs a boat “for how it is used 90 per­cent of the time, and com­pro­mises on how it is used the re­main­ing 10 per­cent.” In other words, rather than de­sign­ing a 50-footer to ac­com­mo­date eight guests sleep­ing aboard, de­sign it to ac­com­mo­date four guests and there will be plenty of room for stores and com­fort­able liv­ing, even in a nar­row, fuel-ef­fi­cient, smooth-rid­ing Downeast de­sign. Like the other de­sign­ers, Zurn thinks Downeast boats are pop­u­lar to­day be­cause “Downeast de­signs harken back to a by­gone era when aes­thet­ics, per­for­mance, and func­tion were at the fore­front of de­sign, and in­te­rior vol­ume was sec­ondary.”

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With a lit­tle more rise in the sheer, the Wil­bur 34 is an­other strik­ing ex­am­ple of the lob­ster boat-in­spired cruiser.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more el­e­gant ex­am­ple of Downeast style than the Doug Zurn-de­signed Shel­ter Is­land Run­about.

A newer El­lis 36 Ex­press Cruiser shares lines with an early gen­er­a­tion Bunker & El­lis (light blue hull in back­ground).

The Palm Beach 42 is the new­est and small­est en­try in the line from the Aus­tralian boatbuilder, now owned by Grand Banks Yachts.

An­other suc­cess­ful Doug Zurn-de­sign, the high-per­for­mance MJM 50z will be joined by an out­board driven 35z this year.

One of the most suc­cess­ful pro­duc­tion builders,Maine’s Back Cove Yachts keeps hitting home runs. Their lat­est is the 32.

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