The Lobster Boat

Much has changed in lobster fishing since the first Europeans arrived in New England. Lobsters were incredibly abundant then; they were caught along the shoreline using nothing but hands, spears, or small nets. As the numbers dwindled and the demand for lobster meat increased, lobster fishing became an industry, relying on traps carried out to sea by lobster boats.

Lobsterman and their Boats, a Relationship

The bond that lobstermen feel to their boat cannot be understated. Thousands of hours are spent aboard their vessels and they grow to know all of the qualities of their individual boats. How a boat behaves in a heavy sea, how many traps it can safely carry, and even the sounds that it makes going through the water are all qualities the lobsterman grow to know well.  Without a sound boat the hopes of a successful season are dashed.  In Maine there are many lobstermen who build their own boats from both fiberglass and wood. Great care is taken creating the shape of the hull, carefully balancing decisions to best secure speed and stability. When wood is used timbers are still steamed and bent into the shape of the hull the same way they were hundreds of years ago, a process that onlookers always remark about with great interest. Lobstermen truly build their lives around their boats and the love and care they show for them is a result of that relationship.

Early Lobster Boats

The earliest lobster boats were simple hand built wooden dories. Their tall sides and flat bottom were ideal for carrying traps and handling ocean waves. These basic, utilitarian boats were manned by one or two men who rowed out to sea before the sun rose, checking their traps then returned to harbor by early afternoon with a load of lobsters.

A later rowboat design, believed to have been developed in the Penobscot Bay area in the 1870s, is the peapod. At about 15 feet in length, the boat’s curved design tapers to a point on both ends, giving it a graceful appearance and its name. Capable of carrying a greater capacity than a dory, this boat was quickly adopted by many lobstermen. Rowing while standing and facing forward, the dual tapered end design of this lobster boat allowed the lobstermen to row it in either direction. A meticulously restored late-1800s wooden peapod is now on display at the Breakwater Lighthouse in Rockland, Maine.

Two small sail boats utilized for lobster fishing were the Hampton and the Reach, a boat originating in Maine. They could be rowed, sailed or even adapted for an engine in the 20th century. Larger and more elegant than the others, the Friendship Sloop, still used for sailing today, started out as a lobster fishing boat along the coast of Maine. A single man could handle these graceful sailboats. At up to 20 feet in length, they provided plenty of room for carrying lobster traps and the lobster catch. These boats even had a small cabin where the lobsterman could take shelter in rough weather.

Special boats, called well smacks, were used throughout most of the 1800s and into first few decades of the 1900s. These boats had a tank with circulating seawater for carrying live lobsters to New York City and other ports where fresh lobsters were popular. Beyond the range of the “smacks,” people ate canned Maine lobster. During the late 1800s more canned lobster was sold than live.

Trends in boat ownership changed during the 1800s. In the early decades, lobstermen owned their own boats and equipment. Once the lobster canneries were established along the coast of Maine, many lobstermen rented their equipment, including boats, from the canneries. This trend changed again in the 20th century with the demise of the canneries.

Entering the 20th Century with Engine Powered Lobster Boats

With the advent of quick transportation of live lobsters inland by railroad, the popularity of fresh Maine lobster increased across the country. Lobster canneries began shutting down and the emphasis was on shipping live lobsters to all corners of the United States. More efficient means of fishing became a necessity to keep up with the demand for fresh lobster. The development of gasoline-powered engines (and their subsequent use in lobster boats) extended both the season for lobster fishing and the range of the lobster boat, taking lobstermen into new ocean territory.

During the early decades of the 20th century, the old dories, peapods, and sailing vessels were replaced by engine-powered lobster boats. Although the Hampton and Reach lobster boats were easily modified for an engine, the others weren’t and were abandoned for the newer gas-powered lobster boats. With the gasoline-powered engine, the development of the modern lobster boat began.

Modern Lobster Boats

Although many lobster boats today are of fiberglass hull construction, the boats from the 1920s to 1960s were made of durable cedar over a structure of oak. Both wood and fiberglass lobster boats are similar in basic design with a round bottom and small cabin to the front of the boat with a windshield to protect the helmsman from wind and waves. Most have a single diesel engine. Boats range in size from 15 feet to 45 feet long, with the larger boats capable of offshore lobster fishing while the smaller ones are employed closer to shore. The larger lobster boats can also be used through the winter when lobsters move farther out to sea. Sturdy, seaworthy, and dependable, lobster boats are frequently used as pleasure and sport fishing boats.

Despite the convenience of modern fiberglass boats, a few lobstermen fish from rowboats and other simple craft. In contrast, large commercial lobster boats, used exclusively for offshore fishing along the Northern Coast, may exceed 80 feet.

Each lobster boat is equipped with navigational equipment. GPS units are often used to mark the position of traps for easy location. Radio communication is necessary between the lobster boats, other lobstermen, and the Coast Guard. Depth sounders and radar are also frequently used.

For hauling the traps into and out of the water, boats are equipped with a hydraulic lift system. Each full time boat may haul 200 to 500 traps per day and an engine driven hydraulic hauler is a necessity. Safety gear onboard includes life jackets, rain equipment and possibly dry suits and life rafts for emergencies.

Seasonal Routines

The lobster fishing season runs roughly from early May to early December for most and a daily routine for each lobsterman starts long before dawn. Boats set out early in the morning, going to the location of the traps. Each lobsterman has buoys of distinctive coloration, marking the position of his traps. Traps are hauled up, checked for lobsters, rebaited and returned to the sea. After all the traps are hauled and lobsters collected, the boat returns to harbor.

During the winter, many boats are taken to the local boatyard to be stored, repaired, and prepared for the next season. Modern fiberglass boats require much less maintenance, making them largely preferred over the wooden boats. The only requirement is a yearly treatment of the below-water portions of the boat to prevent barnacles, seaweed, and other organisms from clinging to the boat, affecting its efficiency in water.  Wooden boats must be scrapped, repainted, and varnished annually. In addition to caring for the hull of the boat, all mechanical equipment and engines are thoroughly checked prior to the beginning of the lobster fishing season.

Lobster boats are symbolic of coastal Maine, where dozens are seen moored in the harbors of lobster fishing towns. Representing the hard-working lobsterman, the backbone of the coastal economy, the boats have a romanticized image. Standing on a dock along the coast of Maine while watching a returning lobster boat emerge from the fog is quite the memorable experience. And, of course, a luscious lobster dinner served in a picturesque local restaurant awaits.