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March 30, 2010

The Boat Builders

The craft of the handmade wooden boat is alive and well in Maine.

My father's quest for a classic motorboat began a few years ago, during a vacation in Porto Ercole, on the west coast of Italy, where the locals spend summers lounging in elegant wooden cruisers called gozzos. After gazing dreamily at the graceful vessels, he returned home to Washington, D.C., and embarked on a journey to find a wooden boat of his own. The result? A 25-foot "gentleman's lobster boat" with teak decks and an open area in the stern that is perfect for sunbathing or late afternoon picnics with friends.

For the uninitiated, a fishing vessel may not conjure up an image of elegance, but with its ample afterdeck, signature low sides, and gently flared bow, the lobster boat epitomizes American wooden-craft design. "These boats have an eye-pleasing line," says Matt Murphy, editor of WoodenBoat magazine. "Even somebody who doesn't know boats can appreciate their beauty."

Enthusiasts say they prefer wood to fiberglass because it absorbs vibration and muffles sound, creating a quiet, comfortable ride. But the real draw may be that crafts made by hand from a natural, living material are one of a kind. "There's the romantic side and that's a strong tug," says Murphy. "Wooden boats smell good and just feel right."

Fortunately, modern techniques allow today's builders to create stronger crafts that don't require the maintenance of their more rot- and leak-prone predecessors. Some boatbuilders even use a system called cold molding, in which hulls are constructed from multiple layers of thin laminated wooden pieces set in epoxy. This process significantly lessens concerns about rotting, drying out, or warping and can reduce the long-term cost of annual upkeep.

My father found his boat, the Elizabeth, at the Newport Boat Show. It was handmade by a fourth-generation boatbuilder in. . .Maine. As one might expect, given the state's maritime tradition, a number of thriving yards—from one-man shops specializing in small vessels to larger operations with several dozen craftsmen that make vast sailing yachts—dot the famously rugged coast.

JESSE LOWELL
Thirty-year-old Jesse Lowell is a member of lobster boat-building royalty. His great-grandfather William Frost immigrated to the United States from Nova Scotia at the turn of the 20th century and is credited with creating what remains the classic lobster boat design. The tradition has been passed down through the generations. Lowell, who knew he wanted to join the family business before he entered school, started working in his father's shop at the age of ten, helping construct commercial and leisure lobster boat hulls. It wasn't until a few years ago, after the death of his father, that Lowell decided to make a wooden leisure powerboat completely on his own. He set up shop in a friend's garage to build a 25-footer on speculation. It was an immediate success. An editor at Yachting magazine was so impressed by the design, he featured the boat in an article—and it quickly sold to a broker. Now owned by my father, the boat with a 144hp engine sits deep in the water in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, where my family enjoys the summer months. "She gets attention wherever she goes," says Lowell. "I put a lot of care into making her as beautiful as I could." For 25-foot powerboats, prices begin at $80,000; 207-729-8498 or 207-577-7789.

JOHN'S BAY BOAT COMPANY
Owner Peter Kass has no Internet site and does no marketing. But those who want a beautiful gentleman's lobster boat know how to find him. At one point his waiting list ballooned to five years, so he stopped accepting orders. (Now careful not to take on too many commissions, he has managed to whittle the wait down to one and a half years.) Kass and his two colleagues in the shop take up to eight months to create each boat, which is loaded with highly varnished teak and built-in banquette seating. He also holds another distinct place in the Maine boat world: He is the only artisan who still builds commercial lobster boats out of wood. "My boats are popular because they're unique," Kass says. "People just feel that wooden boats kind of have a soul." For 28- to 45-foot wooden lobster powerboats, prices begin at $200,000; 207-644-8261.

DICK PULSIFER
Like many of today's top craftsmen, Dick Pulsifer draws liberally from historic designs when creating his wooden powerboats. His 22-foot Pulsifer Hampton, for example, is closely modeled on sailboats used in the 19th century to catch lobsters off the New Hampshire coast. His version has all the modern amenities, of course, 27hp diesel engine included, but retains the traditional shape (high bow and low aft). Using local white pine, oak, and cedar, Pulsifer carefully hand-builds about three vessels each year from scratch—or, as he puts it, "we go from stump to ship." Over the years (he's been in business since 1973), Pulsifer has developed an almost cultlike following, and Pulsifer Hampton owners often band together to go on expeditions. Last summer six boats carrying several families completed a 300-mile trip through the canals of Ontario. For 22-foot lobster boats, prices begin at $38,000; 207-725-5457; www.pulsiferhampton.com.

BROOKLIN BOAT YARD
This is where you go to build that boat you've always dreamed of; Brooklin Boat Yard specializes in "bespoke" vessels—boats customized for you down to every last detail. With its 55 employees, an in-house design team among them, the company puts an emphasis on keeping on budget and working directly with its clients throughout the entire planning process. "You help create your boat," says Steven White, the president, owner, and great-grandson of the famous Maine-based New Yorker writer E. B. White. "It's much more personal than just going out and buying one." In addition to the custom building services, the company offers complete classic yacht restoration. On average, new yachts take a year to construct. One major current project: a $2 million overhaul of the 74-foot boat that financier John Hay Whitney took in the thirties for his daily commute to Wall Street from his Long Island home. From $200,000 to $3 million; 207-359-2236; www.brooklinboatyard.com.

HODGDON YACHTS
In more than one respect, Hodgdon Yachts, in East Boothbay, is a giant in the Maine boating world: Besides employing 74 workers, it's the oldest continuously run boatbuilding operation in the country (it was founded in 1816). Hodgdon specializes in combining traditional woodworking with advanced technology. A fine example is the company's beautifully carved, traditional cabin doors, all with sound-deadening cork-and-rubber cores.Then there's the size of the boats. In September 2003 Hodgdon launched a 154-foot sailing yacht, which, at the time, was the largest boat of its kind being constructed in the Western Hemisphere. With its six computer servers managing 17 touch screens, it is so well equipped—the sails go up and down at the push of a button—that only five people are needed to sail. (Most boats of this size require a crew of at least 12.) From $5 million to $30 million; 207-633-4194; www.hodgdonyachts.com.