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So What Is a Lobster Boat?

By Chris Caswell

Photo of lobster boat by Onne van der WalThe classic lobster boat has been described as the “pickup truck of the Maine coast,” so it’s no surprise that boatbuilders have been quick to claim their offerings are “lobster yachts,” no matter what their design credentials.

But, with few exceptions, none of the recreational powerboats labeled as “lobster yachts,” including those that claim to be “inspired by” or “descendants of” lobster boats, have even the faintest relationship to a real lobster boat. The only thing most have in common is that they float. As one wag noted,  calling one a lobser boat is like calling a Honda Gold Wing motorcycle a Harley, just because it’s big and has two wheels. 

For decades, lobster boats have been the working vessels of the Northeast, used by fishermen to tend their lobster traps and, as such, these boats have been developed and refined to meet those needs. 

The classic Maine or Down East-style lobster boat is a semi-displacement vessel notable for a springy sheerline that sweeps aft from a high, flared bow to topsides with low freeboard aft and often considerable tumblehome at the stern.

The high bow is intended to shoulder aside the seas, while the low freeboard makes it easier for the lobsterman to hoist his traps aboard. Often the pilothouse is open on one side, allowing a single crew to work the traps from the helm, while still providing weather protection. The cockpit stretches for more than half the boat’s length, and the single engine is usually set well forward to give a flat shaft angle.

But the real difference between real and faux lobster boats is underwater. A real lobster boat has a pronounced keel that protects the propeller and the hull is round-bottomed without hard chines. The forefoot is usually deep, to handle head seas and to help hold the bow from falling away from the wind as the traps are hoisted aboard.

A traditional lobster boat hull flattens quickly aft, which provides some form stability and also gives a good turn of speed when running to or from the traps. Most lobster boats run bow-high on this flat surface, which is both fast and economical, and deadrise at the transom is often a shallow 2 to 3 degrees. Traditional lobster boats are also much narrower than recreational powerboats, and it’s not surprising for a 34-footer to have just a 9-foot beam. 

There are, of course, as many “breeds” of lobster boats as there are harbors on the Down East coast, and each version has a name: Jonesport, Beals Island, Hampton, Cape Islander, and more.

One defining feature of lobster boats is whether they are “built-down” or “skeg-built.” This refers to how the skeg is attached, with the hull of skeg-built boats going perpendicularly into the skeg as though it were an afterthought. Built-down lobster boats have hulls that curve into the skeg rather than joining it at a hard angle. Skeg-built boats are generally faster, while built-downs are better heavy-weather boats and can carry a larger load. It’s said to be a regional design issue, with built-down hulls to the west of Southwest Harbor and skeg-builts to the east. Go figure.

Regardless of how the hull is built or what name she goes by, the traditional lobster boat is a far cry from what are being labeled as lobster yachts for recreational use.