Building the perfect boat

Plans, on paper, are slowly becoming a reality. Illustration courtesy Jack Farrell

December 2021

By Jack Farrell
For Points East

After more than a year of planning, and a good measure of frustration, I got word from the builder a few weeks ago that work had begun on our new Mussel Ridge 46 lobster boat for freight and passenger service to the Piscataqua region and Isles of Shoals. Albert and the crew at Hutchinson Composites in Cushing, Maine, had waxed the molds and sprayed the gelcoat, the first steps in building a fiberglass hull. The project would proceed quickly now, Albert told me on the phone. But there were some details we needed to go over. It was time for a road trip.

The route from southern Maine to Cushing on the Mid-Coast is a familiar one, never far from the water, and full of reminders of the region’s maritime roots – even when the ocean is well out of sight. It is a trip I always enjoy, but especially so this time in company with two friends and collaborators, the brain trust that will see the boat to its completion – the three of us full of excitement about the process, the new boat, and all it could be.

As with most fiberglass boats, ours was being laid up in a female mold from the outside in. (There are separate molds for each side of the boat which will be joined together after the lay-up is completed.) After the gelcoat is sprayed onto the mold-release wax, up to eight layers of carefully overlapped woven fiberglass mat are applied and impregnated with resin, along with a layer or two of chopped fibers sprayed from a gun. Additional molds shape the house top, deck and wash rails in a similar fashion. Albert’s standard mold produces a boat that is 42-feet long. Albert built the mold, along with co-designer, Tom Bernardi. A separate mold for the last four feet is added at the stern end for a 46-footer, to be tied in with more overlaps and the bilge stringers. Albert has orders for these boats, for work and pleasure, going out over two years.

My long-suffering wife and I have tried and failed five times to design and build the perfect house. We have built some very good ones, full of purpose and character, but hindsight has always revealed a mistake here and a missed opportunity there, upon which we would surely improve the next time around. After all these years, one would hope to know better, but I can’t resist approaching this new project with an eye to building the perfect boat for the job.

When the new boat idea took hold, I had two boats in service to Star Island: Hurricane, the 30-ton 1967 wooden expedition supply vessel, was easy to load and could carry the full island complement of food, fuel, luggage, and up to 49 passengers. Utopia, the 17-ton 1974 fiberglass lobster boat was more nimble and more seaworthy – safe and secure in all but the very worst conditions. But being much smaller, she could carry less freight and fewer people, and her fixed sides made loading heavy things from the float dock especially difficult.

When I was approached by a buyer for the Hurricane in the midst of the pandemic slowdown, the idea came to me to also sell Utopia, and design and build one boat that could do the whole job better. I had hoped to make the conversion before the 2021 season. At this point we have a fighting chance of making it for 2022.

The new 46-foot Shining Star design comes in at 27 gross tons – close in total load capacity to the Hurricane, and nearly half again the tonnage of Utopia. She’ll have about the same beam and cargo deck aft as the Hurricane, but her hard chines, four-foot extension and wide transom will allow weight to be carried in the stern without undue impact on her trim. She will accommodate up to 49 passengers, with warm inside seating for 24. Seating in the cargo area will fold out of the way when freight loads require. She’ll have deck-level doors port and starboard to allow freight to be wheeled aboard from the float dock. Constructed of fire-retardant resin, Shining Star will be approved to carry flammable cargoes of propane and diesel fuel along with up to 16 passengers when such cargoes are aboard. Her 575hp Tier 3 (for lower emissions) John Deere Diesel will allow comfortable cruising at up to 18 knots – although 12 knots will be the rule for increased efficiency.

By the time we arrived at Albert’s shop, the crew was already laying up the boat’s side panels. The extension molds were waxed and being readied to be joined to the main hull. We climbed down into an adjacent completed hull to check out the stringer placement and engine beds. Albert explained his method of installing the rudder tube to ensure true alignment with the engine. The scale of it all was both exciting and daunting. On the way home we stopped to celebrate what in modern day boatbuilding was the equivalent of laying the keel for yet another well-found working vessel from Maine.

With just a little luck, the hull, deck and top will be shipped down to South Berwick before Christmas. There the finishing crew, lead by boatbuilder Jonathan van Campen and marine technician Marshall Frye will take over to install the engine, systems, carpentry, electrical, plumbing, amenities and other gear.

I am so lucky to have these guys and their associates ready to jump in on this project with such enthusiasm. Frustration with the approval process is fading by the day. Will she be the perfect boat? Not likely, but she’ll be very good, and that’s OK.

Aloft out for the season

We hauled our wooden sailboat Aloft the other day and got her settled down in the boatshed. The process was complicated by the failure of the centerboard pennant which allowed the heavy board to hang vertically from its trunk, making haul out impossible. With the help of the always-willing diver Rob Love, son, James and I cranked the board aft and upward with lines wrapped forward around the board and lead aft to the cockpit winches. Part way through the hard cranking, the lines went soft, and we took up the slack, securing them to the cleats, not quite sure how that could have happened. Through the air bubbles on the starboard side, Rob surfaced with a grin. The board was all the way up. He had been able to swim below the keel where, with his tanks balanced against the rising board, he used his flotation air to complete the lift. Rob is a regular for dive tasks at Star Island, and he has bailed me out on the boats many times before this. His presence is a gift to the mariners around here, for sure.

Meanwhile out at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the draining, shuttering, hauling out and stowing away of close-up time have given over to the solitude of winter. The contrast is startling on the occasional late season visit: where not so long ago the islands and harbor were alive with activity, the Shoals seem now to be almost completely at rest – the silence interrupted only by wind, waves, the very occasional passing of a fisherman, and the muffled sound of Alex the caretaker’s footsteps making her rounds, feeding the wild geese, and watching the sky for the return of the snowy owls.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Islands at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer.