Downeast lobsterboat races are poised to break the 70-mph barrier.
Travis Otis’ First Team roars toward the finish line, with Otis’ dad egging his son on from the couch.
At first Travis Otis, a rough-and-ready lobsterman and boatbuilder from Searsport, Maine, seems like a reasonable sort of guy. Engage him in a stint of friendly conversation, and he’ll quickly convince you that he enjoys a wholly conventional lifestyle, complete with a flourishing family business and a 36-foot Northern Bay lobsterboat that pulls enough traps during the season to guarantee him a comfortable living. He’ll maintain this facade for a while too—unless you get him talking about his favorite extracurricular activity: the series of ten weekend lobsterboat races that take place each summer in various harbor towns along the rocky coast of Maine. It’s only then that the deep and abiding depths of his insanity reveal themselves.
“Yes sir,” he proclaims, “First Team’s a real, functionin’ lobsterboat. I only race ‘er on weekends. Work ‘er hard during the week. Hit ‘er with soap an’ water on Friday night and go racin’. She does have quite a diesel in ‘er, though—a 513-cubic-inch, 410-hp Sisu from Finland. In-line-six, she is, turbocharged, intercooled, with 250-BAR mechanical injectors and two-valve heads, all encased in a big ol’ cast-iron tractor block.”
Okay. So maybe 420 ponies doesn’t seem like a real big deal to you. Maybe, you even own a boat with lots more oomph in the basement, at least in the traditional, what-it-says-on-the-spec-sheet sense. But before you draw any conclusions about this Sisu’s firepower, ponder the following: Most lobsterboat racers, when talking about their vessels or powerplants, will occasionally look you right in the eye and lie without a twinge of remorse. And what’s more, lots of them will freely admit to this foible and, in some cases, actually revel in it.
Lie-worthy subjects are numerous, by the way. For diesel racers, the list includes horsepower, gear ratios, tach readings, prop pitch and diameter, injector size, and the use or non-use of two-speed transmissions. Gasoline-fired enthusiasts often toss in a few extras like the type of fuel (options include CAM II racing fuel as well as esoteric alcohol-water mixtures) and the size of carburetor jets. And racers of both stripes have been known to install dummy switches and gauges on their dashboards to thwart competitive espionage and modify their air-intake systems to accept duplicitous, totally-against-the-rules, push-button infusions of propane and/or nitrous oxide to boost performance.
Which is not to say that the atmosphere isn’t congenial during your average lobsterboat race. “There’s a spirit to them,” explains Otis, “It’s like NASCAR goes to a tractor pull during a big family reunion with lotsa spectators.” But the craziness that also goes along seems just a tad more extreme than you’ll find in other racing venues, as one of Otis’ recent racing experiences illustrates.
“Let’s just say we had her runnin’ hot that day,” he says. “You know, you want to put on a good show for the crowd, and we were rarin’ to race. I mean, I’d put her in gear and whoa! We were doin’ 15 miles an hour!”
Dark developments were in the offing though. With a passel of big boats with highly competitive drivers jockeying for position at the starting line, several false starts ensued, and as the clock ticked away, First Team’s Sisu began to overheat. Was it the oversize injectors he’d installed that were causing the problem, Otis wondered, or one of his other proprietary adjustments?
The race began with the typical earth-shattering roar. First Team soon took the lead with her engine-temperature gauge pegged, the smell of frying engine paint cloying Otis’ nostrils and his dad yelling from the couch (First Team sports an ample residential-style couch temporarily secured to her decks during races to help passengers and crew deal with head-snapping acceleration), “More speed, man. More speed, more speed!”
A few hundred yards short of the finish line a sick, unholy blast of orange smoke erupted from the Sisu as her pistons melted. Otis, standing virtually atop an engine that had just transformed itself into a giant hand grenade poised to explode, choked and gagged but kept on going. “Pistons one, two, and three actually liquefied and blew right out the exhaust pipes,” he recalls, “But hey, inertia carried us over the finish line, we won, and the crowd got one helluva show!”
Although Otis is as courageous, committed, and theatrically gifted as any racer on the circuit, another driver is actually a tad better known. Galen Alley, a wild-man lobster buyer from Beals Island, presently holds a radar gun-measured speed record of 68.9 mph, making him the “Fastest Lobsterman Afloat,” a title that’s brought him a good deal of acclaim. Alley’s boat, the comparatively small, 30-foot Foolish Pleasure, is an exotic craft with a 638-cubic-inch, alcohol-injected, supercharged dragster engine that literally shares the wheelhouse with him. A comparative featherweight that reportedly tips the scales at just 2,000 pounds—engine and fuel included—she has a slippery flat bottom and a modest keel. “Before I modified that keel,” says Alley, “she was a bit of a handful. Sometimes she’d just decide to take off on me, lay over on her side or go off at a right angle. But I got her runnin’ good now. Fact is, I’m plannin’ to beat my own record this comin’ year.”
Will the Maine Lobsterboat Racing Association’s radar gun officially solemnize Foolish Pleasure’s quest to break the 70-mph barrier this summer? Most likely, yes. But she may not be alone.
Otis says he’s thinking about replacing First Team’s Sisu with two bestial 1,800-hp gasoline-fired Packard V-12s. Given the mind-blowing power-to-length ratio that would result, there’s certainly a chance First Team could set her own totally insane record. Unless, of course, the mental-health authorities show up and toss a net over Otis first.
Maine Lobsterboat Racing
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.