Down East, By Tra­di­tion

A CLUS­TER OF BUILDERS ON MAINE’S MOUNT DESERT IS­LAND STILL DO IT THE OLD WAY.

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS ISSUE - BY JEFF MOSER

While the Down East style has evolved in re­cent years, some boat­builders in Maine still build ’em the old-fash­ioned way.

At the south­west­ern end of Mount Desert Is­land, Maine, past the Bass Har­bor Head Light­house, sits Thurston’s Lob­ster Pound. Here pa­trons sit shoul­der to shoul­der at pic­nic ta­bles and look out on a work­ing har­bor, its moor­ings oc­cu­pied by lob­ster boats that sup­plied the ma­rine crus­taceans on which they’re feast­ing. A se­ries of neat, wood-framed homes, stacks of lob­ster traps and work build­ings are scat­tered on the op­po­site shore. Just be­yond that, all one can see is the deep green of Aca­dia Na­tional Park. The set­ting is picture-post­card Maine.

The Bass Har­bor Light is said to be the most pho­tographed light­house in Maine, and maybe all of New Eng­land. The light and its keeper’s pitched-roof house have re­mained the same since 1900; how­ever, the light has been un­manned since au­to­ma­tion took over in 1974. I thought about this as I hop­scotched the rocks at the light­house’s base. Au­to­ma­tion, it seems, is ar­guably the an­tithe­sis of Maine’s sig­na­ture ves­sel, the lob­ster boat, and the way it’s built.

Here in Maine, the art of boat­build­ing is a skill that’s passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next, and each crafts­man be­gins his ed­u­ca­tion sim­ply by liv­ing in this cor­ner of the world, among some of the best builders in the coun­try. It’s hard to cal­cu­late how many builders there are in the state—with its 3,478 miles of coast­line—and on Mount Desert Is­land alone, where there’s an in­ter­est­ing mix of es­tab­lished names with large pro­duc­tion runs and in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion, as well as many small, bou­tique-style com­pa­nies. Each time I visit here, I come across another cedar-shin­gled shop with its barn doors open re­veal­ing ves­sels un­der con­struc­tion or restora­tion.

I was here to find out what de­fines a Down East boat. The term is no longer re­served for the semi-dis­place­ment, sin­gle-en­gine, full-keel work­boats run by lob­ster­men. Over the last 20 years or so, Down East has be­come as­so­ci­ated with a cer­tain style of

boat, which var­i­ous builders have been in­ter­pret­ing in their own way. Some of these boats aren’t even built in New Eng­land. There’s the Ital­ian-made, hot-as-Mt. Strom­boli Mochi-Craft Dol­phin se­ries, for in­stance, and the Malaysian-built East­bays by Grand Banks. I rec­og­nize and ap­pre­ci­ate the de­sign homage, but I won­dered what the tra­di­tion­al­ists here in Mount Desert thought.

“You gotta look be­low the wa­ter­line,” said Shane El­lis, as we eyed an El­lis 36 in front of the shop’s South­west Har­bor shop. “A sin­gle prop and full keel is what is seen as a tra­di­tional [Down East] boat.” His fa­ther, Ralph, ran Bunker and El­lis, names syn­ony­mous with wooden boat­build­ing in the area.

While Bunker and El­lis started out build­ing pri­mar­ily work­boats for the is­land’s lob­ster­men, the gor­geous sweep­ing sheer and grace­ful tum­ble­home on the com­mer­cial craft even­tu­ally found its way into the recre­ational builds that con­tinue to in­spire the ves­sels pro­duced at El­lis to­day. “We adopted much of the phi­los­o­phy from the com­mer­cial lob­ster boat into hull de­signs that worked well for plea­sure boats, and we’ve re­ally come a long way with our 36,” said El­lis, speak­ing of the yard’s most pop­u­lar model.

This builder was also a hold­out against fiber­glass con­struc­tion. El­lis re­calls a plaque at the old shop that read, “If God wanted fiber­glass boats, he would’ve planted fiber­glass trees.” The com­pany even­tu­ally

made the switch from wood to glass in the late 1970s, much later than Jarvis New­man, another of the is­land’s ven­er­a­ble builders.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a builder here that hasn’t fully em­braced syn­thetic con­struc­tion. As I sat down yet again at Thurston’s (it’s hard to beat the lob­sta roll) and looked across the har­bor, I saw a bonafide tra­di­tion­al­ist in plain sight—a clas­sic Richard Stan­ley cus­tom boat.

It was fit­ting that when I pulled up to the Richard Stan­ley yard, the Grate­ful Dead’s “Wharf Rat” cued up on my car stereo. Like many of his co­horts, Stan­ley has been hang­ing around boat sheds for most of his life. He’s held fast to the lo­cal, old-school tra­di­tion of crafts­man­ship, as his work­boat hulls are still made ex­clu­sively from wood.

“Down East is a term that’s be­ing mis­used to­day,” Stan­ley said, as we sat un­der the half mod­els on the wall of his shop. Echo­ing El­lis’ de­scrip­tion, Stan­ley cited the strong and stiff semi-dis­place­ment, full keel hull as the feature that best de­fines a Down East boat. He sim­ply sees it as a work­boat that’s evolved, first and fore­most, “be­cause of the needs of the fish­er­man.”

I was lucky to catch Stan­ley as he was board­ing his lat­est cus­tom ves­sel, the 38-foot Na­tional Pride. It was his first in a se­ries uti­liz­ing a fiber­glass deck­house. His re­fit work, as well as con­ver­sa­tions with old salts, taught him that dam­age in a wooden hull of­ten starts with a poorly main­tained, leaky pi­lot­house. The 38 is pure work­boat, built for what one might call a “gen­tle­man lob­ster­man” who wants a tra­di­tional ves­sel. Her strik­ing, cedar-lined cock­pit is “like the [wooden] hull, and ab­sorbs vi­bra­tion un­like fiber­glass. That ma­te­rial passes the vi­bra­tion onto the hips and knees of the op­er­a­tor and crew,” said Stan­ley. He’s a mod­est gen­tle­man, but it was hard not to see his im­mense pride in the boat as he stood at her helm.

“A tra­di­tional Down East boat is built with a full keel, de­signed to fish the North At­lantic and bring you home safely,” said John Kach­mar. While El­lis and Stan­ley were born into boat­build­ing, Kach­mar en­tered the pro­fes­sion via mar­riage, when he and his wife, In­grid, pur­chased Wil­bur Yachts from her parents, Lee and Heidi. Less than a mile down the road from Jarvis New­man’s orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion in South­west Har­bor (Jarvis was close friends with Lee), the Wil­bur shop is busy with re­fit work on many of its own de­signs for long­time clients. As it is at El­lis, new builds here are recre­ational mod­els and in­cor­po­rate car­bon fiber into the pi­lot­house con­struc­tion. But, “we still do the old school stuff,” said Kach­mar.

A num­ber of builders on this is­land are too cour­te­ous to point out how some other man­u­fac­tur­ers are mis­us­ing the Down East moniker to de­scribe their ves­sels, ex­cept to say that many boats lack the char­ac­ter of the craft they were raised with and cur­rently build. When I asked Stan­ley if he can still iden­tify many of the boats in the har­bor by brand, he lamented, “Most of the fiber­glass boats that I see, there’s no dis­tinc­tion of who built what.”

Some builders say the tra­di­tions of crafts­man­ship that were es­tab­lished on this is­land could be in danger of be­ing lost. “There’s a lot of knowl­edge that’s hard to re­place,” El­lis said, as he re­flected on the 2008 eco­nomic down­turn. “It was dis­ap­point­ing to see some of the cus­tom yards go away.”

For­tu­nately, the bou­tique-style builders of Mount Desert Is­land have sup­port­ive fans. In 2005, the ad­vo­cacy group Maine Built Boats was es­tab­lished to strengthen and ex­pand Maine’s boat­build­ing in­dus­try, which ac­counts for about 5,000 jobs and $650 mil­lion per year.

Thanks to groups like Maine Built Boats and the in­cred­i­ble work that tra­di­tional builders are known for, I can’t help but think the Maine tra­di­tion is one that will con­tinue for a long time to come.

A cus­tom de­sign by Richard Stan­ley (open­ing spread); the Pa­triot 36 made by El­lis Boat Com­pany for singer/song­writer Billy Joel (above); a typ­i­cal work­ing har­bor in Mount Desert Is­land (be­low); hulls are still made from wood at the Richard Stan­ley yard (op­po­site).

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