Wild, Wild Ride

MAINE'S LOB­STER BOAT RAC­ING CIR­CUIT IS AN IN­TENSE EX­CUSE FOR LOB­STER FISH­ER­MEN TO THROT­TLE UP AND FOR­GET THE GRU­EL­ING WORKWEEK. JUST DON’T FOR­GET TO HOLD ON.

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS ISSUE - BY SI­MON MUR­RAY

Lob­ster boat rac­ing is a cel­e­brated sport in Maine, and a chance for hard­work­ing fish­er­men to let loose.

Be­fore I even set foot in Booth­bay Har­bor, Maine, for the 2018 open­ing day of lob­ster boat rac­ing, I am warned not to be­lieve most, if any, of the things the rac­ers tell me. The rac­ers are typ­i­cally men, many of them full-time fish­er­men, who come from all over the state to com­pete. The rea­son to keep a bull­shit de­tec­tor handy doesn’t stem from any­thing ma­li­cious. In fact, many of the rac­ers and spec­ta­tors I end up meet­ing are salt-of-the-earth types: gen­er­a­tions of fish­er­men who have learned the trade from their parents, who learned from their parents be­fore them. The warn­ing, given with a wink and a nod, is from Jon Jo­hansen, pres­i­dent of the Maine Lob­ster Boat Rac­ing As­so­ci­a­tion. “They’re go­ing to tell you one num­ber,” says Jo­hansen. “Don’t be­lieve it.”

The num­ber is the “the­o­rized” horse­power of Gold Dig­ger, an un­de­feated 36-foot Beal driven by Heather Thomp­son. Thomp­son hap­pens to be one of the only fe­male lob­ster boat rac­ers, though Jo­hansen could have eas­ily been re­fer­ring to any of the idio­syn­cratic pi­lots of the souped-up lob­ster boats rum­bling into Booth­bay Har­bor, a quiet, small coastal town with a pop­u­la­tion just north of 3,000.

One of 11 fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Maine, Booth­bay is the first mile-long sprint in an ob­scure cir­cuit that runs from late June to the end of Au­gust. Races dou­ble as week­end di­ver­sion for hard­work­ing fish­er­men, diehard fans and flab­ber­gasted tourists. Any­one can com­pete, but mostly it’s the same fam­i­lies from the same towns rep­re­sented at the start­ing line each year. Kids start out rac­ing 16-foot out­board-pow­ered skiffs, and grad­u­ate into classes that range from 24- to 40-foot lob­ster boats. To en­ter, work­ing lob­ster­men and recre­ational lob­ster boat own­ers pay $20 per race and $50 for an­nual mem­ber­ship to the Maine Lob­ster Boat Rac­ing As­so­ci­a­tion.

But the true price of en­try might be travel ex­penses. Getting up and down Maine’s rugged coast­line isn’t cheap, and rac­ers have been known to shell out more than $500 on fuel alone. Once you fac­tor in the pal­try size of the purse, which is usu­ally any­where from $50 to $150, re­al­ity sets in. It begs the ques­tion: Why do these fish­er­men, who in­di­vid­u­ally pull in hundreds of thou­sands of dol­lars each year catch­ing lob­sters, feel the need to com­pete at all? It comes down to pride, mostly. And brag­ging rights. Which is why 28-foot lob­ster boats have their in­nards gut­ted to ac­com­mo­date colos­sal diesel en­gines, and tur­bocharged gas guz­zlers are in­jected with il­le­gal rac­ing fuel. In lob­ster boat rac­ing, sec­ond place is the first loser, or the one fool­ish enough to get caught cheat­ing.

When I pull into Booth­bay Har­bor the day be­fore the race, there is hardly a cloud in the sky: per­fect rac­ing weather. (Though Jo­hansen as­sures me they will race in just about any­thing, heavy fog is the rare ex­cep­tion.) Scan­ning the docks, I pick out Jo­hansen al­most im­me­di­ately. He is hold­ing court in front of Browns Wharf, a his­toric 70-room wa­ter­front inn, restau­rant, ma­rina and the cen­ter of the uni­verse for lob­ster boat rac­ing fans, at least for the next two days.

Browns Wharf, dis­tin­guished by a large statue of Brown—a gruff, old fish­er­man in bright yel­low oil­skins—is only a few ine­bri­ated steps from the docks. As far as com­mutes go, it’s an easy one. Though the bac­cha­na­lia of light beer and tube tops has dis­si­pated since the sport’s hey­day in the 1970s, there is still a NASCAR-tail­gate at­mos­phere to the fes­tiv­i­ties. But un­like other sport­ing events, it’s tough to say who gets af­ter it harder: the spec­ta­tors who raft up on ei­ther side of the har­bor to watch the races or the rac­ers them­selves.

“If you party with these guys, be care­ful,” adds Jo­hansen. “They’re pro­fes­sion­als.” Jo­hansen has been pres­i­dent of the Maine Lob­ster Boat Rac­ing As­so­ci­a­tion for over 12 years, and in that time, he has wit­nessed just about ev­ery­thing. Wear­ing brown boat shoes, khakis and a blue but­ton down, he is by far the most dressed up per­son on the docks.

Much eas­ier to spot is Ste­vie Carver, sport­ing a shock of white hair, one of his sig­na­ture tie-dye shirts and a rain­bow beer koozie. The 58-year-old tells me he’s known as the “old hip­pie,” and has sin­gle­hand­edly re­vived the mar­ket for tie-dye ap­parel in his home­town of Jone­s­port, widely con­sid­ered to be the birth­place of lob­ster boat rac­ing. He and his crew ar­rived this morn­ing on his 35-foot lob­ster boat Another Dirls, hav­ing trav­eled about 100 miles by sea. Carver has been a lob­ster fish­er­man since he was 13. “There is no re­tire­ment plan in this busi­ness,” he says. “You work un­til you’re dead.”

But if that’s a sober­ing re­al­ity, no­body told these guys. With Carver is a mot­ley crew of young men drink­ing Twisted Teas and Pabst Blue Rib­bon, with more cool­ers as­sem­bled on board than peo­ple. One of the young men, Eric Black­wood, mans the grill—a We­ber lashed to the boat’s cock­pit with bungee cords. “Ched­dah dog here if you want one,” he of­fers at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. With his red beard, large build and boom­ing voice, he re­sem­bles Carver in per­son­al­ity alone, but he as­sures me that they’re re­lated.

“I’ve known this bird since I was born. I’m his nephew,” says Black­wood. “You guys blood re­lated?” I ask. “Un­for­tu­nately,” says Carver. His re­ply elic­its whoops and rau­cous laugh­ter from the crew, not the least from Black­wood him­self.

The mood is light, as it should be. But two years ago, there was less to cel­e­brate. As Carver tells it, one fall morn­ing, a seem­ingly spon­ta­neous fire con­sumed his 32-foot Hol­land, Big­ger Dirls, while the boat rested on a moor­ing. For­tu­nately, no one was in­jured in the blaze, but it was Carver’s only boat, and, more than that, it was his liveli­hood. The fol­low­ing sea­son he was forced to work as crew for an older lob­ster fish­er­man. He grew de­spon­dent.

But friends and fam­ily ral­lied to his cause. In a lit­tle over a year, he saved up enough money to buy a new boat, propo­si­tion­ing the fa­mous semi­cus­tom builder Glenn Hol­land to make a unique 35-footer just for him. With the help of over 15 peo­ple—“many of them here to­day”—Carver was able to get the boat ready in time for rac­ing sea­son. A phoenix splayed on the bow is a sym­bol of how he over­came the hand dealt by fate and rose from the ashes.

For these lob­ster fish­er­men, fam­ily is ev­ery­thing. (You don’t

weather one of the state’s no­to­ri­ously long win­ters alone.) Steve John­son of Long Is­land, Maine, came with a flotilla of boats, all tied up to­gether at the dock. Aboard the 28-foot Bud & Dawn—John­son’s cus­tom tor­pedo-stern, recre­ational lob­ster boat “with ni­tros”—he has a card­board cutout of his de­ceased parents, Bud and Dawn John­son. “They al­ways went rac­ing with me,” says John­son. They still do.

As we chat, John­son’s fam­ily and friends are hang­ing out aboard one of the ves­sels in the flotilla, a com­mer­cial-sized lob­ster boat. The lucky ones are en­joy­ing a makeshift hot tub, cre­ated by in­ge­niously heat­ing a large livewell. Ever the tin­kerer, John­son tells me he has been rac­ing since he was 6 years old. In the past, he has raced aboard all man­ner of out­landish in­ven­tions, in­clud­ing a con­vert­ible-car-boat and a craft in­spired by a tiki bar. On the cir­cuit, he has a rep­u­ta­tion for us­ing ni­trous ox­ide—bet­ter known by its nick­name NOS—to edge out the com­pe­ti­tion. “He’ll be the first one to beat you, but he’ll be the first one to help you when you’re in trou­ble,” says Jo­hansen.

To­mor­row, John­son hopes to have the fastest ves­sel in the free-for-all, a race that ev­ery boat can com­pete in to see who has the fastest lob­ster boat over­all—that is, if Wild Wild West doesn’t show up. Through­out the day, I’ve been hear­ing about the le­gendary ex­ploits of Wild Wild West and her even wilder crew. About death-de­fy­ing rolls and ejected helms­men, bro­ken arms and “too much testos­terone.” But so far they are no-shows.

Piles of lob­ster traps stand empty, for the mo­ment un­used. A white clap­board church gleams ma­jes­ti­cally on the hill­side in the fad­ing light. It seems far off. From where I’m stand­ing, across the har­bor from a Maine lob­ster pound in­un­dated with tourists pick­ing out high-priced lob­sters from salt­wa­ter tanks, the crus­taceans seem to be a re­li­gion unto them­selves. “Can I just give you my dues now so I don’t spend it all tonight?” an am­bi­tious carouser and lob­ster fish­er­men asks Jo­hansen. The nightlife beckons.

As the sun starts to set on this rus­tic tableau, I meet a mar­ried cou­ple from Utah, of all places. They’ve never heard of lob­ster boat rac­ing and are vis­it­ing Booth­bay this week­end by chance. The way their eyes take in ev­ery­thing—spec­ta­tors, lob­ster boats, over­stuffed trash cans full of empty beer cans—they might as well have boarded a space­ship for Saturn. In a few hours, the docks will be strangely quiet; the party will have moved on with­out us. Start time is 10 a.m. to­mor­row, or when­ever enough rac­ers can be roused awake, which­ever comes first. The lucky ones will get some shut-eye at the inn. Most will sleep on their boats. A few won’t sleep a wink.

In the morn­ing, I awake to a chest-rat­tling rum­ble. By break­fast, I hear the news: un­der cover of dark­ness, Wild Wild West has come into town. Its ar­rival seems to have caused quite a stir, like a swash­buck­ling hero or a thief in the night, de­pend­ing on who you ask. I gulp down my cof­fee and scarf down some blue­berry pan­cakes be­fore rush­ing over to meet Cameron Craw­ford, owner of Wild Wild West, out­side Browns Wharf.

“Usu­ally we take a max­i­mum of four, just cause it’s fast and any more than that—” “Will slow you down?” I ask. “Yeah, ba­si­cally,” says Craw­ford. “Well, it’s about the speed, but the risk, too. There’s al­ways a risk in goin’ fast. The less peo­ple the bet­tah.” Nev­er­the­less, I make plans to hop aboard for the fi­nal race.

In no time, a lob­ster boat picks up me and my col­leagues—along with a con­tin­gent of vol­un­teers and judges—and drops us off at the “judge’s booth,” a float­ing dock in the mid­dle of the har­bor. With us is 88-year-old Andy Gove, owner of the in­fa­mous Un­cle’s UFO. Though Gove isn’t rac­ing to­day, he still races on oc­ca­sion. But even more im­pres­sive, he’s still fish­ing, out there work­ing 500 traps alone. You can’t help but won­der, is there some­thing in the wa­ter up here?

To­day, it might be logs or tele­phone poles, the de­tri­tus of a har­bor. As the races be­gin, the first to go are the larger diesel boats. It quickly be­comes ap­par­ent the lit­tle dock we’re stand­ing on is way too close to the fin­ish line. As we bob in the wake-strewn chaos af­ter each race, the fin­ish­ers come by in an or­derly line to re­ceive their times, deftly ma­neu­ver­ing their boats along­side the dock as if they had done it a thou­sand times be­fore. Rac­ing these lob­ster boats are all man­ner of peo­ple: young fam­i­lies, old salts, twenty-some­thing par­ty­go­ers, the kid who sold me a lob­ster the night be­fore. Amer­i­can flags, dogs, farm­ers’ tans, inked sleeves, Mo­hawks. As they go by, the older fish­er­men stare wist­fully at the pass­ing boats.

Fi­nally, it’s our turn. “You’re go­ing on that boat?” asks one of

the older fish­er­men, wear­ing a camo hat and large sun­glasses. “I wouldn’t go on it. It looks like they have patches in the bot­tom.” Too late. As we climb aboard the 28-foot Wild Wild West—its gi­ant, ex­posed diesel en­gine pok­ing up through the cock­pit like a chim­ney—Cameron Craw­ford’s fa­ther, Glenn, tells us to sit on a cooler and hold on tight. The en­gine, a 1,200-hp Isotta Fras­chini, erupts black smoke as we rum­ble our way to the start­ing line.

Glenn has been work­ing on en­gines for 25 years, and rac­ing nearly as long. He talks about chang­ing en­gines as eas­ily as you or I would change a light­bulb. When he found this en­gine in Vir­ginia, he drove all the way down with Cameron to haul it back up. Re­plac­ing a head gas­ket costs around $275. Says Glenn, “It’s ex­pen­sive play­ing with these toys.”

The Ital­ian en­gine grinds and shud­ders as its shifted into gear. Im­me­di­ately we start to pick up speed. On our left is Heather Thomp­son and her al­leged 675-hp Gold Dig­ger, some­where on our right is Steve John­son, no doubt in­ject­ing some NOS. It doesn’t mat­ter. We pass them all. The radar gun clocks us go­ing 56.9 mph, and in a teeth-rat­tling flash it’s over. “That’s why we worked all week,” says Glenn, “to have a cou­ple min­utes of fun.” I can barely hear him over the ring­ing in my eardrums and the thun­der­ing of the en­gine. But still, I nod and smile.

On the ride home, I’m still think­ing about these part-time speed freaks. To­mor­row, some of the fish­er­men will go on to Rock­land for another day of races. Oth­ers will go back to pulling traps, the thrill of win­ning re­placed by the gru­el­ing fa­tigue of back­break­ing la­bor. Why do they do it? For a purse, sure, but maybe more im­por­tant than money is the cul­ture and ca­ma­raderie the races en­gen­der. Cheat­ing isn’t so much to gain an ad­van­tage—al­though it cer­tainly helps—as a means to an end to fly across the wa­ter be­side old friends; the win­ner be­ing the first one to leave be­hind the week’s col­lec­tive wor­ries in his or her wake. Ev­ery­thing is fair in love, war and lob­ster boat rac­ing. Just don’t ask to see what’s un­der the hatch.

Glenn and Cameron Craw­ford, Wild Wild West

Lob­sters aren’t just food­stuff in Maine, they’re ba­si­cally a re­li­gion; (right) Eric Black­wood mans the grill aboard Another Dirls.

Lob­ster boats head to the “judge’s booth”—a float­ing dock pre­car­i­ously lo­cated in the mid­dle of the har­bor—af­ter a race.

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