December 17, 2017
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Maine still has at least one sail-powered lobster boat

By Alex Acquisto, BDN Staff
Updated:

ROCKLAND, Maine — Before the 1920s, when combustion engines were first mass produced, lobster boats and other vessels were powered by wind and sails, and the Friendship sloop was the most ingeniously designed boat around.

“This boat is representative of what is essentially the start of the lobstering industry,” boat builder and shipwright Tim Clark said Thursday as he stood on the recently rebuilt deck of Blackjack, a Friendship sloop he and others at the Sail, Power and Steam Museum in Rockland have been restoring for the past three years.

When “combustion engines came along — by the teens and 1920s — they were basically obsolete,” and the ones left were either left to rot in people’s yards or were converted into yachts, according to Clark, lead builder for the project.

“Most of us think of the schooner as the symbol of Maine maritime history, but this (type of boat) has the most interesting and dynamic history,” he said.

The restoration crew hopes to have the Blackjack back in the water this summer for tours around Rockland Harbor and for tending a few lobster traps of its own.

The Friendship sloop design, named for the town of Friendship, Maine, where the design originated, dates back to the end of the 19th century. The single-masted seafaring vessel is distinct for its wedge keel, shallow deck and walls (for hauling traps over the side) and considerable size and front location of the mainsail.

Clark, along with Kirk Rouge, project and museum coordinator, and a team of dedicated volunteers, are restoring the 33-foot boat from the keel up and attempting to use as many of the original parts to make it as close to a replica as possible.

The Blackjack, which dates back to around 1900, was restored once before in the 1930s. It was donated to the museum three years ago, which is owned and operated by Capt. Jim Sharp and his wife, Meg.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sloop was used for more than just lobstering, Sharp said. Known sometimes as the “pick-up truck of the Maine coast,” it would be used for transportation, deep-sea fishing, hauling cargo and “just about any industrial use,” Clark said.

Clark, who lives in Lincolnville, grew up in Massachusetts. His father was a lobsterman. But it wasn’t until later in life, after he attended The Landing School in Arundel and spent many years working in yacht yards around Maine, that he really start to uncover his passion for “the history of working boats,” he said.

He’s now a freelancer of restoring old boats, which he enjoys especially because “traditional boat building is becoming less and less prominent.”

When the sloops were used for lobstering, they were often operated by just one person, Clark said. In approaching a lobster buoy, a sailor would heave to — turn across the wind to stop the boat — pull the traps, remove the lobsters, replace them with bait, drop the traps again and move on to the next buoy, all in a matter of a few minutes.

“You can imagine what back-breaking work it must have been” to do the job alone, Clark said.

Modern sailboats, most of which aren’t meant to be working vessels, are thus designed to sail “as close to the wind as possible,” and for that reason wouldn’t be able to hold up in inclement weather, Clark said. The Friendship Sloop, on the other hand, was modeled to be a working, utilitarian vessel and is able to withstand stormy seas without capsizing. “These boats are very good at staying upright in powerful winds,” he said.

It’s important to remember that none of these “old time boat builders were formally educated” in boat building, Clark said. A lot of the designs, like the size of the keel, position of the sails and mast, came about through “trial and error and intuition.”

And when engines came along, “basically 200 years of evolution and ingenuity was thrown out the window overnight,” which means preserving the sloops that are still around and able to be restored is “pretty important,” Clark said.

Blackjack, when completed, will be one of a handful of old wooden sail-powered boats to have been restored for use as leisure tour boats in the summer, such as the schooners Margaret Todd in Bar Harbor and the Appledore in Camden. The museum will retain ownership of the sloop when it goes back in the water.

But without sufficient funds, that goal might not come to fruition. Last summer, restoration of the Black Jack had to be halted temporarily for lack of funds and manpower. Now, with the end in sight, the project still needs another $20,000 or so before it’s finished. By the time the project is complete, it will have cost well over $100,000, Sharp said.

“We’re desperate to raise the money, so we can finish this thing,” Sharp said.

When it is finished, it will serve as crucial primary source for Maine’s fishing industry, Clark said. “It’s our history and legacy, and it all started with these boats, but nobody knows how to (lobster) like that anymore.”

 

Correction: An earlier version of this report used the term “combustible engines” in reference to combustion engines.


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