Maine’s lobster boat racing circuit is an intense excuse for lobster fishermen to throttle up and forget the grueling workweek.
Just don’t forget to hold on.
Before I even set foot in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, for the 2018 opening day of lobster boat racing, I am warned not to believe most, if any, of the things the racers tell me. The racers are typically men, many of them full-time fishermen, who come from all over the state to compete. The reason to keep a bullshit detector handy doesn’t stem from anything malicious. In fact, many of the racers and spectators I end up meeting are salt-of-the-earth types: generations of fishermen who have learned the trade from their parents, who learned from their parents before them.
The warning, given with a wink and a nod, is from Jon Johansen, president of the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association. “They’re going to tell you one number,” says Johansen. “Don’t believe it.”
The number is the “theorized” horsepower of Gold Digger, an undefeated 36-foot Beal driven by Heather Thompson. Thompson happens to be one of the only female lobster boat racers, though Johansen could have easily been referring to any of the idiosyncratic pilots of the souped-up lobster boats rumbling into Boothbay Harbor, a quiet, small coastal town with a population just north of 3,000.
One of 11 fishing communities in Maine, Boothbay is the first mile-long sprint in an obscure circuit that runs from late June to the end of August. Races double as weekend diversion for hardworking fishermen, diehard fans and flabbergasted tourists. Anyone can compete, but mostly it’s the same families from the same towns represented at the starting line each year. Kids start out racing 16-foot outboard-powered skiffs, and graduate into classes that range from 24- to 40-foot lobster boats. To enter, working lobstermen and recreational lobster boat owners pay $20 per race and $50 for annual membership to the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association.
But the true price of entry might be travel expenses. Getting up and down Maine’s rugged coastline isn’t cheap, and racers have been known to shell out more than $500 on fuel alone. Once you factor in the paltry size of the purse, which is usually anywhere from $50 to $150, reality sets in. It begs the question: Why do these fishermen, who individually pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year catching lobsters, feel the need to compete at all? It comes down to pride, mostly. And bragging rights. Which is why 28-foot lobster boats have their innards gutted to accommodate colossal diesel engines, and turbocharged gas guzzlers are injected with illegal racing fuel. In lobster boat racing, second place is the first loser, or the one foolish enough to get caught cheating.
When I pull into Boothbay Harbor the day before the race, there is hardly a cloud in the sky: perfect racing weather. (Though Johansen assures me they will race in just about anything, heavy fog is the rare exception.) Scanning the docks, I pick out Johansen almost immediately. He is holding court in front of Browns Wharf, a historic 70-room waterfront inn, restaurant, marina and the center of the universe for lobster boat racing fans, at least for the next two days.
Browns Wharf, distinguished by a large statue of Brown—a gruff, old fisherman in bright yellow oilskins—is only a few inebriated steps from the docks. As far as commutes go, it’s an easy one. Though the bacchanalia of light beer and tube tops has dissipated since the sport’s heyday in the 1970s, there is still a NASCAR-tailgate atmosphere to the festivities. But unlike other sporting events, it’s tough to say who gets after it harder: the spectators who raft up on either side of the harbor to watch the races or the racers themselves.
“If you party with these guys, be careful,” adds Johansen. “They’re professionals.” Johansen has been president of the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association for over 12 years, and in that time, he has witnessed just about everything. Wearing brown boat shoes, khakis and a blue button down, he is by far the most dressed up person on the docks.
Much easier to spot is Stevie Carver, sporting a shock of white hair, one of his signature tie-dye shirts and a rainbow beer koozie. The 58-year-old tells me he’s known as the “old hippie,” and has singlehandedly revived the market for tie-dye apparel in his hometown of Jonesport, widely considered to be the birthplace of lobster boat racing. He and his crew arrived this morning on his 35-foot lobster boat Another Dirls, having traveled about 100 miles by sea. Carver has been a lobster fisherman since he was 13. “There is no retirement plan in this business,” he says. “You work until you’re dead.”
But if that’s a sobering reality, nobody told these guys. With Carver is a motley crew of young men drinking Twisted Teas and Pabst Blue Ribbon, with more coolers assembled on board than people. One of the young men, Eric Blackwood, mans the grill—a Weber lashed to the boat’s cockpit with bungee cords. “Cheddah dog here if you want one,” he offers at regular intervals. With his red beard, large build and booming voice, he resembles Carver in personality alone, but he assures me that they’re related.
“I’ve known this bird since I was born. I’m his nephew,” says Blackwood.
“You guys blood related?” I ask.
“Unfortunately,” says Carver. His reply elicits whoops and raucous laughter from the crew, not the least from Blackwood himself.
The mood is light, as it should be. But two years ago, there was less to celebrate. As Carver tells it, one fall morning, a seemingly spontaneous fire consumed his 32-foot Holland, Bigger Dirls, while the boat rested on a mooring. Fortunately, no one was injured in the blaze, but it was Carver’s only boat, and, more than that, it was his livelihood. The following season he was forced to work as crew for an older lobster fisherman. He grew despondent.
But friends and family rallied to his cause. In a little over a year, he saved up enough money to buy a new boat, propositioning the famous semicustom builder Glenn Holland to make a unique 35-footer just for him. With the help of over 15 people—“many of them here today”—Carver was able to get the boat ready in time for racing season. A phoenix splayed on the bow is a symbol of how he overcame the hand dealt by fate and rose from the ashes.
For these lobster fishermen, family is everything. (You don’t weather one of the state’s notoriously long winters alone.) Steve Johnson of Long Island, Maine, came with a flotilla of boats, all tied up together at the dock. Aboard the 28-foot Bud & Dawn—Johnson’s custom torpedo-stern, recreational lobster boat “with nitros”—he has a cardboard cutout of his deceased parents, Bud and Dawn Johnson. “They always went racing with me,” says Johnson. They still do.
As we chat, Johnson’s family and friends are hanging out aboard one of the vessels in the flotilla, a commercial-sized lobster boat. The lucky ones are enjoying a makeshift hot tub, created by ingeniously heating a large livewell. Ever the tinkerer, Johnson tells me he has been racing since he was 6 years old. In the past, he has raced aboard all manner of outlandish inventions, including a convertible-car-boat and a craft inspired by a tiki bar. On the circuit, he has a reputation for using nitrous oxide—better known by its nickname NOS—to edge out the competition. “He’ll be the first one to beat you, but he’ll be the first one to help you when you’re in trouble,” says Johansen.
Tomorrow, Johnson hopes to have the fastest vessel in the free-for-all, a race that every boat can compete in to see who has the fastest lobster boat overall—that is, if Wild Wild West doesn’t show up. Throughout the day, I’ve been hearing about the legendary exploits of Wild Wild West and her even wilder crew. About death-defying rolls and ejected helmsmen, broken arms and “too much testosterone.” But so far they are no-shows.
Piles of lobster traps stand empty, for the moment unused. A white clapboard church gleams majestically on the hillside in the fading light. It seems far off. From where I’m standing, across the harbor from a Maine lobster pound inundated with tourists picking out high-priced lobsters from saltwater tanks, the crustaceans seem to be a religion unto themselves. “Can I just give you my dues now so I don’t spend it all tonight?” an ambitious carouser and lobster fishermen asks Johansen. The nightlife beckons.
VIDEO: Wild, Wild Ride
Video produced by John. V Turner
As the sun starts to set on this rustic tableau, I meet a married couple from Utah, of all places. They’ve never heard of lobster boat racing and are visiting Boothbay this weekend by chance. The way their eyes take in everything—spectators, lobster boats, overstuffed trash cans full of empty beer cans—they might as well have boarded a spaceship for Saturn. In a few hours, the docks will be strangely quiet; the party will have moved on without us. Start time is 10 a.m. tomorrow, or whenever enough racers can be roused awake, whichever comes first. The lucky ones will get some shut-eye at the inn. Most will sleep on their boats. A few won’t sleep a wink.
In the morning, I awake to a chest-rattling rumble. By breakfast, I hear the news: under cover of darkness, Wild Wild West has come into town. Its arrival seems to have caused quite a stir, like a swashbuckling hero or a thief in the night, depending on who you ask. I gulp down my coffee and scarf down some blueberry pancakes before rushing over to meet Cameron Crawford, owner of Wild Wild West, outside Browns Wharf.
“Usually we take a maximum of four, just cause it’s fast and any more than that—”
“Will slow you down?” I ask.
“Yeah, basically,” says Crawford. “Well, it’s about the speed, but the risk, too. There’s always a risk in goin’ fast. The less people the bettah.” Nevertheless, I make plans to hop aboard for the final race.
In no time, a lobster boat picks up me and my colleagues—along with a contingent of volunteers and judges—and drops us off at the “judge’s booth,” a floating dock in the middle of the harbor. With us is 88-year-old Andy Gove, owner of the infamous Uncle’s UFO. Though Gove isn’t racing today, he still races on occasion. But even more impressive, he’s still fishing, out there working 500 traps alone. You can’t help but wonder, is there something in the water up here?
Today, it might be logs or telephone poles, the detritus of a harbor. As the races begin, the first to go are the larger diesel boats. It quickly becomes apparent the little dock we’re standing on is way too close to the finish line. As we bob in the wake-strewn chaos after each race, the finishers come by in an orderly line to receive their times, deftly maneuvering their boats alongside the dock as if they had done it a thousand times before. Racing these lobster boats are all manner of people: young families, old salts, twenty-something partygoers, the kid who sold me a lobster the night before. American flags, dogs, farmers’ tans, inked sleeves, Mohawks. As they go by, the older fishermen stare wistfully at the passing boats.
Finally, it’s our turn. “You’re going on that boat?” asks one of the older fishermen, wearing a camo hat and large sunglasses. “I wouldn’t go on it. It looks like they have patches in the bottom.” Too late. As we climb aboard the 28-foot Wild Wild West—its giant, exposed diesel engine poking up through the cockpit like a chimney—Cameron Crawford’s father, Glenn, tells us to sit on a cooler and hold on tight. The engine, a 1,200-hp Isotta Fraschini, erupts black smoke as we rumble our way to the starting line.
VIDEO: Racing on Wild Wild West
Video produced by John. V Turner
Glenn has been working on engines for 25 years, and racing nearly as long. He talks about changing engines as easily as you or I would change a lightbulb. When he found this engine in Virginia, he drove all the way down with Cameron to haul it back up. Replacing a head gasket costs around $275. Says Glenn, “It’s expensive playing with these toys.”
The Italian engine grinds and shudders as its shifted into gear. Immediately we start to pick up speed. On our left is Heather Thompson and her alleged 675-hp Gold Digger, somewhere on our right is Steve Johnson, no doubt injecting some NOS. It doesn’t matter. We pass them all. The radar gun clocks us going 56.9 mph, and in a teeth-rattling flash it’s over. “That’s why we worked all week,” says Glenn, “to have a couple minutes of fun.” I can barely hear him over the ringing in my eardrums and the thundering of the engine. But still, I nod and smile.
On the ride home, I’m still thinking about these part-time speed freaks. Tomorrow, some of the fishermen will go on to Rockland for another day of races. Others will go back to pulling traps, the thrill of winning replaced by the grueling fatigue of backbreaking labor. Why do they do it? For a purse, sure, but maybe more important than money is the culture and camaraderie the races engender. Cheating isn’t so much to gain an advantage—although it certainly helps—as a means to an end to fly across the water beside old friends; the winner being the first one to leave behind the week’s collective worries in his or her wake. Everything is fair in love, war and lobster boat racing. Just don’t ask to see what’s under the hatch.