JONESPORT, Maine — It was like one big party on the water Saturday as a one mile stretch of Moosabec Reach, which separates Jonesport from Beals Island, was filled with the roar of hardworking engines. More than 65 lobster boats competed in Maine’s answer to NASCAR: the World’s Fastest Lobster Boat Race.
Lobster boats are sturdy vessels, capable of handling much on the open sea. They are built for endurance, not speed. But Saturday morning, the lobster gear was stowed, engines roared and whined, sea spray flew and fishermen hooted as they crossed the finish line and — for one captain — set a new state record.
“It’s not about the prizes,” said Eric Blackwood of Beals Island, who was in charge of organizing the race. “It’s about bragging rights.” Saturday’s races, 24 heats in all, were part of the 10-race statewide lobster boat summer racing circuit.
There were big boats, little boats, boats run by some who had been fishing for decades and could almost be called elderly and others piloted by boys barely able to see over the steering wheels. They came from all over Maine’s coast, from Damariscotta to Cutler. They had funny names, such as Foolish Pleasure; or family names, such as Shanna & Erick; or names that reflected their work — Momma’s Worry.
Shane Hatch, 25, of Owls Head, piloted his fishing vessel, the Jill-Cayden, four and a half hours up the coast Friday night and then spent a restless night sleeping on the boat in Jonesport harbor.
“You gotta show the boat off,” he said at morning registration. “You gotta win.” He came in fourth.
It also took Gary Genthner and the Lisa Marie four and a half hours to pilot up from Round Pond. Genthner has been racing his lobster boat for 13 years.
“I’ve got it in my blood,” he said. “I do it just for the hell of it.” Genthner said many racers “crank them up but I just keep it even.”
After all, he said, these are mainly working boats with engines that can range from $30,000 to $100,000 to replace; boats that these men rely on for their livelihood.
“I worked the boat yesterday and I’ll work it tomorrow,” Genthner said.
Genthner took first place in his class, 551 to 700 horsepower, 28 to 39 feet, 11 inches long.
A conversation between Colyn Rich of Bass Harbor and Joseph Guptill of Jonesport reflected the meshing of working vessels with a bit of fun. Rich, 9, was the youngest competitor Saturday, and Guptill is 11.
Standing by the U.S. Coast Guard Station, the boys struck up a conversation:
Rich: “Do you have a mounted hauler?”
Rich: “What’s the horsepower?”
Rich: “Mine’s 60.”
Guptill: “Just to let you know, I beat a 60 with that little 40. She slicks across the water fast.”
Rich: “Uh. Oh.”
Rich knew then that Guptill could beat him — and he did, coming in second to Rich’s third.
“This is a lot of fun,” Rich said. “I do it for the fun and to spend time hanging out with my dad.” But Rich never forgets for a minute the importance of his and the other’s boats.
Even at 9, Rich is a working lobsterman, putting in 10 traps on Memorial Day and hauling until Columbus Day.
“It takes me about two hours a day to haul my traps. They are scattered all over the place,” he said. “And I haul by hand.”
As the racers flew by under a brilliant blue sky, dozens of pleasure and working craft bobbed along the edges of the Reach to cheer on their favorites and take in the action amid a party atmosphere.
There were picnic tables and barbecue grills on board. Dogs and children raced around decks and loud cheers arose when favorite boats competed. The bridge between the island the mainland was filled with spectators as a new Maine record of 72 miles per hour was set by Galen Alley of Beals in Foolish Pleasure. He shattered the old record of 68.9 mph for gasoline engines, which he set last June at Rockland.
First place winners each got $100 and second place finishers took home $50.
Jon Johansen of Winterport is the president of the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association and is quick to admit, “None of this racing stuff makes any sense.
“Most of the racers are very careful but one or two may push the envelope,” he said. “This is all about bragging rights.” Johansen said. In the early years of working boat races, which were officially sanctioned in 1964, wooden boat builders were quick to make a reputation if their boats placed well in the competition.
“But this is just for fun,” he said. “These guys will often race each other on any given day, just on a whim, while they are working the sea.”
And even though the races were about having fun, they were competitive. One racer, Rocky Alley piloting the Lorna R., became upset when he believed he was placed in the wrong racing class. To signal his displeasure with judge Blackwood, Alley rocketed by the judges’ boat at 40 mph with less than three feet between the vessels.
Several passengers on Blackwood’s boat were visibly shaken, thinking the boats would collide.
Alley ended up winning three first places, including the free-for-all for gasoline engine class. And following the race, pilot after pilot shook Blackwood’s hand and commented on what a well run race it had been.
The next sanctioned lobster boat races are at Searsport on July 9, followed by Stonington on July 10.