The rise of yachting

By Ben Fuller | Jul 17, 2011
Courtesy of: Atlantic Fisherman Collection, Penobscot Marine Museum Will Frost, credited with most elements of the Maine lobsterboat design, in front of his Jonesport shop in 1933 with a small sailing boat built for a summer person.

Coming east from Boothbay in a yacht in 1936 could be an adventure. There weren't many yachts unless you landed in one of the summer colony harbors, and most of the other harbors were commercial.

In those days, the Boothbay/South Bristol area was Maine's yacht-building land. There were few facilities for yachts to the east, with the only serious builder in that area being Morse’s of Thomaston. Major harbors like Rockland, Camden, Belfast, Stonington and further east on Mount Desert might have been set up for pleasure boats, but the shops and businesses were geared toward local needs.

At the turn of the 19th century, Maine's boat and ship builders worked for their local markets, chiefly building fishermen and cargo carriers in sizes ranging from dories to six-masted schooners. A few were building for the increasing numbers of summer vacationers, in particular boats for hotel rental fleets. The 1910 Maine Census data counted approximately 190 ship and boat builders. Of those, only 17 included yachts in their listing, though more were undoubtedly building pleasure craft.

Dr. William Weld, one of the founders of the North Haven summer colonies, recognized the opportunity to sail small boats was key to attracting people. Such fleets required local building and maintenance, so in 1888 Weld recruited an experienced Vinalhaven boatbuilder, James Ossie Brown, to set up a shop in North Haven. His cousin, Charles, followed with a shop in Pulpit Harbor. J.O. Brown went on to build a fleet of North Haven dinghies, the oldest one-design class in America. Brown also furnished launches and repaired and stored boats.

Most of the summer colonies of the Penboscot Bay and east relied on outside designers and builders to supply small sailing pleasure boats. Even the North Haven dinghies were built to an outside design. Larger one-design fleets were built in Maine, notably by the Rice Brothers of East Boothbay, who had established a reputation for quality and price with Boston designers like B.B. Crowninshield and John G. Alden.

Other small one-design boats were imported, having been both designed and built “away.” The most famous would prove to be the fleets of Herreshoff 12 1/2s that began to show up in the Penobscot Bay in the 1930s. The majority arrived in 1938 when North Haven bought a fleet. Camden's fleet of Haj boats, designed and built in Finland, traveled the farthest.

For larger cruising boats, Boston and southern New England designers could be contacted in the winter, as well. Many of them used southern builders, but Boston's John G. Alden changed this. He realized that Maine builders were well experienced in small schooner building, and began to steer his customers to Maine builders, starting with Wendameen in 1912. As of 1921, Alden commenced to have a series of personal boats, all named Malabar, built in Maine yards, with the first at Morse's in Thomaston. After he did well with his design in a Bermuda Race, more builds to that design followed. In all, Alden had 300 of his designs built in Maine before 1936, but only five east of Thomaston.

Penobscot builders were not ignoring the new opportunities. Their first response was to create maintenance facilities that were sizable enough to cater to the larger yachts owned by summer people. By 1936, Dick Billings had created the new Stonington Yacht Basin and Deer Isle Yacht Basin, and change was afoot in Camden with conversion of parts of the Holly Bean schooner-building yard to the Camden Yacht Railway Co., then to the Camden Yacht Building and Marine Railway Company.

Local builders could easily take their basic working launch designs and modify them to meet the summer needs. Perhaps first to pursue this was the Camden Anchor Works-Rockland Machine Co., which in the 1920s offered a stock launch to summer people and lobster fishermen alike. The company built everything from submarine chasers to cruising yachts and dinghies, but went out of business in 1925. Even builders of fishing draggers and other commercial boats like the Snow Shipyard in Rockland had sidelines maintaining summer boats.

Today, Penobscot Bay is the center of Maine's recreational boat building industry, with the lobster boat industry dominated by Hancock and Washington county builders. Pleasure boats from yachts to canoes fill the harbors, and recreational sailing is a hallmark of the summer season all along the coast.

 

Ben Fuller is curator at the Penobscot Marine Museum on Route 1 in Searsport, where the “75 for 75” exhibit is on display through Oct. 23. The Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Show, held Aug. 12-14, will include exhibits about the coast circa 1936 as part of an annual exploration of how “Tradition Shapes Innovation.”

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