- by Carol Standish
Virginia Thorndike has gathered a rich collection of opinion and commentary in Maine Lobsterboats (Down East Books; 168pp; $15.95). The only thing more fun than reading the book would have been to gather the stories with her. Subtitled, Builders and Lobstermen Speak of Their Craft, the book consists 29 interviews with those men (and the occasional woman) who have built, worked in and cared for these uniquely graceful and serviceable craft.
Once she explains the essential difference between a built-down hull (stronger and more sea-kindly) and skeg-built construction (less expensive, lighter and faster) Thorndike's voice as narrator virtually disappears. The interviews carry the day and the down east reputation for reticence is evaporated. The interviewees wax loquacious, often eloquent, always wry. Of course, the subject is easily warmed to…the boats these men build and work from are part mistress, part home, part toy and part soul.
"Then I got the Edna," says Went Durkee of Islesboro, "She was a handy little boat, built in Stonington at Billings, but she was a Riley Beal design…she was wet—she was something like a submarine—but, by God, she was able." Thorndike includes the stories of old-timers, working lobstermen, boat designers and builders and a variety of folks who use the boat for tasks other than fishing. During prohibition, "the area was almost the headquarters of rum running," says Brooklin's George Allen, "on a foggy night they'd load up a lobsterboat, [usually from a Canadian vessel standing off shore] make a couple of trips."
Rum running may be the source of some builders' obsession with speed. Arvid Young recalls, "father ran a lot of it and had one of the fastest boats around…the Coast Guard didn't have a chance; they didn't have the speed. They could do eight knots; Father could do twenty." Arvid Young is a member of the seventh generation of Youngs to live in Corea. He's a partner in Young Brothers, a boat building operation which has been building fiberglass lobsterboats for twenty years. Speed is still important to the Youngs. Shelves on three walls of Arvid's office is filled with racing trophies. One of the Young boats made 64 mph. "The water's quite hard. Wicked hard," says Arvid, recalling the experience. The Youngs learn a lot from racing about propellers and hull shape and so on but they also have a friendly arch-rival in Glen Holland who races in Red Baron and keeps the pressure on.
Thorndike includes conversations with people who use lobsterboats as ferries, barges, pleasure cruisers and excursion vessels. Jim Sharp bought the Maine, a former Marine Patrol boat as a water taxi, tow boat, or any other commercial venture he might find. The Maine was built in the mid-1970s for the Maine Department of Marine Resources by Jock Williams from a Lyford Stanley design. "It was designed to make easy transition from fishery to fishery," says Jock, "It can lobster, do light dragging, gillnetting, even tuna." Today the Maine has made an easy transition to passenger vessel. Among other services, Sharp runs sight seeing trips, nature and light house tours. I'd say she's versatile.
Perhaps the most colorful of Thorndike's interviewees (in a field of sharp and lively characters) is Gweeka Williams of Vinalhaven. "I do a lot with lobsterboats…build'em, fish'em, race'em." Awhile back he went as sternman a couple of winters with a friend on Matinicus. "That's a lonely piece of real estate in the wintertime…come Spring the pegs will fall right out of the cribbage board."
Thorndike has assembled a thoroughly engrossing collection of solid information, individual viewpoints and opinions and tall tales about the Maine lobsterboat told in their own words by the people who know and love them best. Each interview unveils the character of the individual as well as the boats they talk about. Downeast life on the water comes alive in the droll understated humor that is their characteristic means of expression. The book is pure pleasure.