Designs from Down East
From pulling pots to tugging on heartstrings, the classic lines of Down East boats have created a niche that has stood the test of time.
At some point, probably around 1960, the traditional Maine lobster boat—the easily recognized, low-profile fishing vessel with a fine entry, long graceful sheerline, and big working cockpit—went uptown. The bare-bones commercial lobster boat became gentrified and morphed into an upscale lobster yacht. The small helm station, just large enough to protect a lobsterman from the worst of weather, grew to a reassuring size; the minimal cabin below sprouted brightwork and such luxuries as galleys and heads; V-berths became comfortable. In today’s marketing terms, that transition would be called a brand extension, and a very successful one at that. Indeed, builders around the world are now turning out new models under the lobster boat, lobster yacht, or Down East labels. But at the time, more than 50 years ago in Maine’s tightly knit boat-building community, it was one of those things that just happened; a genre was launched while everybody was too busy to notice.
The first recognized lobster-boat builder was William Frost, who moved from Whale Cove in Nova Scotia to Beals Island, off Jonesport, Maine, in 1912 and started making boats out of solid cedar and oak for local fishermen. Form follows function in the Gulf of Maine, so these unpretentious boats had a fine entry for parting head seas, a generous deadrise amidships that flattened out aft for stability, large cockpits for working space, and low freeboard for pulling in pots. A full-length keel provided directional stability and protection for the running gear, while a single engine provided economical power. Over the years, Frost and his son-in-law Riley Lowell built hundreds of these boats, eventually moving the business down to the Portland area, where Riley’s sons Royal and Carroll became noted builders and designers.
After the Second World War, the center of lobster-boat building shifted to Southwest Harbor when Raymond Bunker, a foreman at what was to become the Hinckley yard, and Ralph Ellis, a fisherman, both in their mid-30s, decided to start building lobster boats themselves. They launched their first boat in 1947, and over the years turned out 58 more, all wood, plank on frame, and all recognized for having just the right proportions with a sweeping sheerline and sweet tumblehome. Bunker and Ellis boats were fast and efficient, with a narrow 3-to-1 length-to-beam ratio, semi-displacement hulls, unballasted keels, fine entries, some deadrise amidships and flatter sections aft. Soon the area’s affluent summer residents (including David Rockefeller) took note of the lobster boats’ classic lines, and started ordering pleasureboat versions.
Don Ellis, Ralph’s son who now runs the Ellis Boat Company, says the transition from commercial lobster boats to pleasure boats was easy. “They used the same hull shape,” he says. “The fishing boats were already seaworthy, fuel-efficient, and fast with a low power-to-weight ratio. What changed was the interior and the finish; a lot of teak, varnish, and mahogany. And the pleasure boats all had heads. God forbid that a fishing boat had a head.”
Meanwhile, Jarvis Newman, who grew up in Southwest Harbor, married Raymond Bunker’s daughter Susan. He started in boating working for the Hinckley yard for $1.95 an hour and eventually ran the fiberglass shop. But Newman wanted to build boats himself, so in 1971 he made a fiberglass mold of a Bunker and Ellis 36. “When I built the first 36 my father-in-law yelled and screamed about fiberglass,” Newman says, “but I knew what I was doing.” Indeed, the 36 became Jarvis Newman’s most popular boat; he built 90 of them, plus more than 100 other 46s, 38s, and 32s, at one point turning out a new boat every two weeks.
I recently asked him about the difference between the commercial lobster boats and the recreational version. “Zero,” was his immediate reply. “There was no change at all.” Newman said he laminated the hull the same way in all his boats, with ten layers of fiberglass. Newman built the hulls and installed the engines (so he knew they were lined up properly) and then took almost all of his boats to Lee Wilbur, who was also starting out as a Southwest Harbor builder, for completion.
For his part, Wilbur, a former teacher/principal at a small school in the area, turned to boatbuilding with the help of his neighbors, Bunker and Ellis. While Newman kept sending him hulls, Wilbur wanted to build his own. He started Wilbur Yachts and launched his first boat, a 38 designed by Ralph Ellis, in 1979, followed by the 34, his most popular boat, four years later. When he started, Wilbur says, “I did the first one by the seat of my pants. I took out a boating magazine and looked at all the windows and windshields, to find one I liked. I found an Egg Harbor 47 that looked good, and I sketched it out on my dining room table.” By 2001 Wilbur had built some 200 boats (including more than 70 of the classic 34s), and sold the business to his daughter Ingrid and son-in-law John Kachmar.
Although a true Maine lobster boat or Down East yacht still retains its classic lines, things have changed, even for the most traditional builders. “We’re building a 36 now and it has a 560-horsepower diesel,” says Don Ellis. “My father would be horrified. He’d say 200 horsepower would be plenty. But the new boat has air conditioning, a generator, a custom ice maker, a big refrigerator, the list goes on and on. Everything went from a simple package to a larger package, and now that package is getting pretty complex.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.