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Boatbuilding, Downeast Style

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Mount Desert Island, Maine, lies Downeast—about 100 miles northeast of Portland as the seagull flies. A century ago, most islanders made their living from the sea: fishing, lobstering, skippering yachts for "rusticators" (summer visitors), maybe a little bit of all three. In the winter the watermen built boats to use themselves or to sell. Today the descendants of those rugged old-timers are still building boats, and if you want a good one, crafted by folks who know what it's like to work the sea for a living, this is the place to come.


Meet the Mainers who build some of the finest custom yachts in the country.

Only ten miles wide by 12 miles long, Mount Desert Island might be home to the highest concentration of first-class boatbuilders in America. There's world-renowned Hinckley, in Southwest Harbor, but also many small, often family-owned shops specializing in top-notch custom and semicustom boats. You don't start out by seeing what they have; you start by telling them what you want. In these parts "boatbuilding is when a customer comes to you and you build him a boat that fits his needs," says Don Ellis, owner of the Ellis Boat Company. It's not just molding parts and sticking them together.

The Ellis Boat Company is one of the oldest on the island; it was started in 1945 when Ralph Ellis, Don's father, teamed up with Raymond Bunker to build a boat. The partnership lasted more than 30 years, and some of their first boats—mostly commercial boats, not yachts—are still around. Back then Bunker and Ellis built plank-on-frame wooden boats of traditional Downeast design; today the company builds Ralph Ellis-designed, cored, vacuum-bagged composite hulls that, according to Don Ellis, "exceed every [boatbuilding] standard known to man." He says his father and Bunker never cut corners—"if a plank came off, somebody could die"—and neither does he.

The Ellis lineup consists of 20- to 40-foot Downeasters, all of which are available in a variety of styles: classic lobster boat, express cruiser, flying-bridge cruiser, and so forth. Although each of the boats has a suggested deck layout and interior arrangement, they're just starting points. "We build a custom boat, one stick at a time," says Ellis. "The boat comes after the customer, not the other way 'round."

Around the time Bunker and Ellis built their first boat, a young Southwest Harbor man also finished one of his own. Today Ralph W. Stanley is the elder statesman of Mount Desert Island boatbuilders. His son Richard now runs the company he started in his grandfather's paint shop; daughter Nadine Goodwin is the office manager. A second son, Edward, is an MIT-trained naval architect. Ralph designed his first boats by carving half models and taking the lines off; today he sometimes stands behind Richard or Edward while they design on the computer and tells them where to put the lines.

Although the design methods have changed, at Ralph W. Stanley they still build boats like they did in the 1940's: cedar planking on steam-bent oak frames. Stanley is the only yard in the area to build this way exclusively, according to Goodwin. But why a wooden boat in the age of composites? If you have to ask, you wouldn't understand. "It takes a certain type of person to want a traditional wooden boat," she says. Folks who prefer plank-on-frame won't do better than a boat built by Ralph W. Stanley.

If you still want wood but prefer something a bit more high-tech, call Malcolm L. Pettegrow. Since 1978 Mac Pettegrow has been building custom cold-molded yachts in his shop in Southwest Harbor—everything from classic Downeast lobster boats to fast, Palm Beach-worthy sportfishermen. "We can build anything anybody wants," he says. In late February Pettegrow delivered a new twin-screw 42-footer to Florida; the customer wanted a boat for sailfishing in the Gulf Stream and bottom fishing in the Bahamas. His next boat is a 33-foot walkaround sportfisherman with single-diesel power, and he's extending a 38-foot Duffy to 42 feet. "The owner wants more cockpit space; we've done that several times," says Pettegrow.

Cold-molded boats are light and strong and have the "feel" of wood. Pettegrow uses multiple layers of mahogany or sapele plywood, each layer laid in WEST System epoxy atop the previous one. The finished hull is epoxy-coated inside and out, making it virtually maintenance-free.

Pettegrow builds fiberglass boats, too. In 2001 he teamed up with Spencer Lincoln on the MLP 30, a foam-cored and vacuum-bagged lobster boat that's traditional above the waterline but with hard chines and a semidisplacement hull. "It's the only model we built with molds," says Pettegrow. He sometimes finishes fiberglass hulls from other builders, too.

Building semicustom boats on stock fiberglass hulls is common practice for smaller boatbuilders. At Marine Systems Custom Boat Builders, Eric J. Clark finishes hulls from Holland, Webbers Cove, Wesmac, and other mold shops. Before hanging out his own shingle in 1988, Clark, a Southwest Harbor native, learned his trade by working for Pettegrow and Lee Wilbur. Clark has launched traditional lobster boats for commercial and yacht service—cruisers, twin-engine sportfishermen, tuna boats, state patrol boats, you name it. He recently completed 34- and 35-footers and is currently building a 37-footer destined for a large lake in Idaho. All his boats are composite.

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.