LOBSTER BOAT LEGACY
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.”
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.