National Fisherman

Boats & Gear 

Michael CrowleyThe Boats & Gear blog is overseen by our Boats & Gear editor, Michael Crowley. It explores new construction projects, electronics, gear and equipment for the commercial fishing industry.

I admit it. I don’t like heights and I don’t enjoy having to swim in cold water. That eliminates a lot of useful or exciting life choices: anything having to do with climbing rocks taller than I am, surfing in New England (Southern California or Tahiti would be great), flying in small airplanes and helicopters — especially helicopters. I couldn’t imagine being a Coast Guard rescue swimmer free-falling out a helicopter’s open door, into cold, cold Alaskan water to save the lives of hapless fishermen. 

2015 0902 BG rescueswimmerThe crew of the tender Kupreanof abandon ship as it sinks off the coast of Alaska. Screen grab from Coast Guard video.Fortunately, some people thrive in that environment; otherwise a lot of fishermen wouldn’t be around today. Thus on Sept. 2, the Coast Guard Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to the education and welfare of all Coast Guard members and their families, recognized four members of a Coast Guard rescue team for their role in saving the crew of the tender Kupreanof. The rescue team was composed of Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Stoeckler, Lt. Benjamin Neal, AET2 Jamie Flood and AST2 Jason Yelvington.

On June 8, 2015, the Kupreanof was going from Petersburg, Alaska, to Bristol Bay, where the 73-footer would work as a tender, when the captain sent out a message at 3:45 a.m. saying the Kurpreanof was taking on water off Lituya Bay.

That’s when a Coast guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter was dispatched from Sitka on a 130-mile flight to find the Kupreanof in what was described as poor visibility, heavy wind, driving rain and 6-foot seas.

When the helicopter arrived, the Kupreanof was partially submerged with a life raft attached to the boat’s stern. The crew had gotten into survival suits. Assessing the situation from about 80 feet above the water, Stoeckler, the helicopter’s pilot, told them to abandon ship.

Then Yelvington, the rescue swimmer, dropped out of the helicopter and into the water and helped the crew climb into the life raft. However, it was deemed too risky to hoist the crew directly from the life raft up to the helicopter because the rotor wash might blow the raft back into the sinking boat.

Thus one-by-one, Yelvington took the crew from the raft to where they could get in the rescue basket and then be lifted to the helicopter. All the while, Yelvington’s job was made difficult by fumes from diesel fuel than covered the water.

As the last basket was being hoisted into the helicopter, the Kupreanof sank, taking the raft with it. Emergency medical personnel checked out the four crewmen and Yelvington; other than exposure to diesel fumes there weren’t any medical issues.

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Go to any of the Maine lobster boat races and you’ll find a collection of characters. There’s the fisherman racing a strictly working lobster boat. There’s nothing special about the engine; it’s got power enough to go to the grounds and back, and in between haul as many traps as necessary. Even though he knows he probably won’t win, he’s like most Down East lobstermen and just loves boats, engines, the noise of a race and a general good time.

Then there’s the guy pushing the envelope a little bit by dumping a lot of money into a big engine; I mean, who needs a 1,000 horsepower engine to haul traps? Well, you need that horsepower if you crave racing and everything that goes with it — the nervousness, the noise, the speed and the excitement. He knows he has to use that engine every working day, but it’s sized mostly with racing in mind.

2015 0819 WILD WOMAN-MISS KARLEEStevie Johnson's Wild Woman takes Miss Karlee at the Long Island lobster boat races. Jon Johansen photo.Then there are those who fudge things a lot more in their desire to win. They claim one horsepower rating, yet it doesn’t seem possible they are staying up with or beating boats with engines acknowledged to be much more powerful. Those are the guys people are always wondering about.

 What’s common to the three sets of lobstermen is that for an afternoon in the spotlight they risk destroying an engine that they earn their daily living with. And that’s all right — well maybe not after they send a piston out the side of a block, but in the moment, it’s fine.

Then there are the so-called “toy boats.” These look like lobster boats but aren’t used for lobstering. There’s no attempt to disguise the fact that what looks like a stock engine on the outside is anything but on the inside. The engine might run propane, nitrous oxide or have been sent to a speed shop and returned with components most lobstermen couldn’t afford and many have never heard of.

Then there’s Stevie Johnson, a Long Island, Maine, boatbuilder whose whimsical take on racing always gets attention. Back in 2009, Johnson had the “cah-boat” — eliminating the “r” in Maine-speak — which was a 26-foot cabin cruiser with its top cut off and replaced with a deck. A 1994 Pontiac Sunbird convertible was chained down to the deck. A couple of 200-hp outboards hung from the transom and Johnson steered from the Pontiac’s front seat.

 He also has shown up at races in the Tiki boat, which is, as the name suggests, nothing more than a Caribbean bar powered by outboards.

Then at last Saturday’s Maine lobster boat race held at Long Island, Johnson came up to the starting line in his latest creation, the Wild Woman, a “sailing” race boat. Sailing is in quotations because it’s not really a sailboat. It’s a 28-foot O’Day sailboat, cut off at the waterline and then fiberglassed down to what was the platform for the cah-boat. A pair of 200-hp Yamahas hangs off the stern.

Another way you know Wild Woman is not you typical O’Day sailboat is that in her race with Miss. Karlee, a Mitchell Cove with a 1,000-hp Caterpillar C18, they were bow-to-bow — in the mid-40 mph range — throughout most of the race, with Wild Woman finally taking it at the end. No wonder that race was called the “wildest race of the day.”

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Let’s say you’ve got a fiberglass fishing boat a little over 50 feet. It’s 20 to 30 years old and well worn. Plus it’s got the beam that boats of that age were built with, about 15 feet — give or take.


2015 0805 BGA 53-foot seiner being sponsoned at Platypus Marine. The starboard sponson is in place and will be matched up with the port sponson. Platypus Marine photo.
To be competitive you need a bigger boat, certainly one with more hold capacity. But to build a new boat over 50 feet requires you to work with a classification society, which means the cost might be jacked up by $200,000, $250,000.

 On the other hand, you don’t really want a boat under 50 feet because you don’t think it will be as safe as a larger boat, but, again, you don’t know if you can handle the classification society cost for a boat over 50 feet.

 What to do?

 If it was a steel boat the answer is simple — sponson her. If you’re on the West Coast there are plenty of yards that do that. It’s the primary business at Fashion Blacksmith in Crescent City, Calif. It’s what that boatyard does day in and day out.

Sponsoning a fiberglass boat, however, is different. No one is doing it on a day-in and day-out basis. Basically you are building a one-off boat and the costs are extreme. Then again, the costs might be more affordable, at least if you can get the boat to Platypus Marine in Port Angeles, Wash.

Platypus Marine recently sponsoned a 53-foot seiner built at Delta Marine. This was not a one-off project. Platypus Marine built a permanent mold from which they can take port and starboard hulls and build a new wider hull around the existing boat.

Laminating new hull sections up in the molds and then matching them up with the existing hull can probably be done for about half the cost of a conventional fiberglass sponsoning job. And it also takes a lot less time.

 To see if the sponsoned hull sections at Platypus Marine can be matched up with your boat, give them a call — (360) 417-0709.

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Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that make working on deck less arduous, painful or just plain safer. I’m told that back in the 1960s fishermen, especially halibut longliners in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, wore only a heavy cotton glove for coiling gear, dressing and icing fish and working the roller, where they constantly were clearing gangions from around the incoming groundline. That meant their hands were always wet.

2015 0730 LevelWindThe extension welded to the top of the winch's pivot bar keeps the fisherman several feet away from the drum. NIOSH photoThe early 1900s dory fisherman Charlie York said he would rather wear nippers on his hands — when asked to choose between heavy cotton gloves, woolen mittens and nippers —because “as long as salt water is comin’ onto your hands, they won’t freeze,” (see “Charlie York; Maine Coast Fisherman” by Harold B. Clifford) But it is no fun longlining for halibut where your hands are constantly wet and cold.

Sometimes when a fisherman woke up after a turn in his bunk with hands so stiff and racked with pain that — an old time fisherman told me — the only relief came after he peed on his hands.

Then someone came up with the idea of wearing the rubber gloves that housewives used when washing dishes. A few probably resisted because the gloves were such a womanly thing, but fishermen started wearing the rubber gloves — they were mostly yellow — under the cotton gloves. That pretty much solved the problem of painful, sore, stiff hands. Not completely, but it was a whole lot better.

That leads us to level winds and winches, especially deck-mounted winches the crew is working around. The danger, of course, is being pulled into the winch by incoming wire. Level winds keep the wire under control to some extent, while aligning it evenly across the net drum.

There are two basic kinds of level winds, a mechanical level wind that doesn’t require any work on the part of the fisherman and the pivot bar. The fisherman has to push on the pivot bar, forcing the wire to lie flat on the drum.

The pivot bar is the potential problem because you are leaning over the drum and can get wrapped up in the wire. Then a fisherman came up with the idea of welding a dog-leg extension on the pivot bar. Now, instead of leaning into the winch drum when pushing on the bar, you are 2 or 3 feet farther away from the drum and wire.

The photo shows the dog-leg extension on a double-drum winch, but an extension can just as easily be welded to the pivot bar of a single-drum winch.

There you have it, two simple ideas that don’t have to come out of a research lab at MIT. Just look around, ask if there isn’t a better way, and you just might find it.

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Over the past two weekends Maine’s lobster boat racing circuit has seen some good old-fashioned engine screaming, bow-to-bow races, first at Stonington and then at Friendship.

2015 0721 BG boatracesJeff Eaton's La Bella Vita (Northern Bay 38, 750-hp FPT) overtakes Gerry Genthner’s the Lisa Marie (Libby 34, 690-hp FPT). Jon Johansen photo.At the July 12 Stonington races, 113 boats showed up on race day. This is a harbor where there are always some very intense heats. Take the class-K race (701 to 900 horsepower, 28 feet to 39 feet 11 inches) as an example.

Gerry Genthner’s the Lisa Marie (Libby 34, 690-hp FPT) has been the dominant boat in this class, but Jeff Eaton brought his La Bella Vita (Northern Bay 38, 750-hp FPT) to Stonington and everyone knew there this would be a good match up, and so it was. But instead of Lisa Marie prevailing, it was La Bella Vita across the line first, followed by Lisa Marie and then Nick Page’s All Out (Calvin Beal 38, 750-hp John Deere). All Out is a new boat recently launched at SW Boatworks. La Bella Vita’s winning time was 40.2 mph.

But in the Fastest Lobster Boat race, La Bella Vita was up against Little Girls (28-foot Calvin with a new Ford engine) and Wild, Wild West (West 28 with a 1,050-hp Isotta Fraschini). Little Girls took that one, followed by Wild, Wild West and La Bella Vita.

At most of the races there are events for skiffs. That’s where you found the youngest racer of the day at Stonington, seven-year-old Madison Wiberg in Shit Happens, (Holland 14, 25-hp outboard). She guided her skiff down the course and was seen waving to spectators.

At Friendship there were only 33 boats. That was less then normal but it was a foggy day. Lisa Marie and La Bella Vita continued their battles. In the class-K race, both were bow-to-bow coming down the course, with the radar gun getting a reading of 40 mph on the two boats. At the end it was La Bella Vita by half a boat length.

That order was reversed in the diesel free-for-all with Lisa Marie ahead by half a boat length at the finish. In the Fastest Lobster Boat Race, it was close but the order was reversed with La Bella Vita taking it, again by half a boat length.

Galen Alley’s Foolish Pleasure, which has run over 70 mph in the past, continues to have problems. In her class-E race (V-8, over 525 cid, 28 feet and over, superchargers/turbos) at Stonington, Foolish Pleasure was the only boat and ran easily at 50.4 mph. That’s a slow speed for Foolish Pleasure but even that led to engine problems and after the race Alley loaded the boat on a trailer and left.

At Friendship, Alley’s woes continued. Again he took his class at 57 mph, but in the gasoline free-for-all broke a bell housing. Reportedly, he thinks his engine isn’t lined up correctly.

If that gets fixed, there’s a chance he will show up at least at Winter Harbor and maybe Portland, for “Galen does love to put on a show,” says Jon Johansen, president of the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association.

The next race is July 26 at Harpswell. That’s followed by Winter Harbor on August 8, Long Island on August 15 and finishes on August 16 in Portland.

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He had the least experience fishing of the four-man crew. It was four years of part-time fishing but no prawn fishing experience. And it was prawns the 40-foot Canadian boat Diane Louise was after on the morning of June 2, 2014. He was attaching traps to the free-running groundline when he was tangled up in the line and went overboard.

2015 0716 DianeLouiseSomeone tried to deploy a lifebuoy, but it got tangled in the railing. It might have saved him. He was at the surface for a while and then went under. When they hauled the line back, they hauled him up. Try though they did, there wasn’t anything to be done for him. He became one of the 44 percent of Canadian fishermen who have died since 2004 and weren’t wearing a PFD.

Would a PFD have saved him? Perhaps, because he was treading water for a period of time, and as the Canadian accident report states, “a PFD would have assisted him to stay afloat while he attempted to free himself.”

It’s not as if he didn’t have an idea of what might happen if he wasn’t extremely careful — and perhaps a bit lucky. When he was just learning how to snap traps onto the groundline, the groundline snarled up and almost wrapped around his hand, nearly entangling him.

Of course, he wasn’t surrounded by good examples. None of the crew wore a PFD when fishing, and at the time of the accident there were no PFDs aboard the boat. That’s despite the fact that Canada’s Pacific Prawn Fishermen’s Association put out a best practices document that included “remember to wear a PFD on the working deck.”

What I don’t understand is why fishermen don’t wear PFDs. After all, in this country none of the 191 fishermen who have died between 2000 and 2013 was wearing a PFD.

I would like a fisherman to give me a good, rational, logical argument for not wearing a PFD. (Don’t forget, NIOSH has shown that PFDs work in several fisheries.) But go ahead, try to convince me that not wearing a PFD is, in fact, an intelligent way to go about working on deck.

In the meantime, you can read the Diane Louise incident yourself.

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Ask a lot of people — even fishermen — who are not overly familiar with the Mid-Atlantic states what Chesapeake Bay fisheries come to mind and the answer often has to do with oystering and the bay’s iconic sailing skipjacks.

2015 0707 AugustBut there are, of course, other fisheries, including menhaden. While the boats of that fishery might not have that “take me back to the past” look of the sailing skipjacks, they have their own fascinating story.

This is especially true for the purse boats that NF field editor Larry Chowning writes about on page 26 in the August issue’s cover story.

The purse boats and the steamers that pack them to and from the fishing grounds have continued to evolve, moving from 8-foot-long wooden “drive” or “striker” boats — so named because the guy driving the boat would strike the water with an oar to direct fish into the purse net — to being built of steel and now aluminum.

At the center of Chowning’s story is the building of two 41-foot purse boats for the Omega Protein plant in Reedville, Va. The boats were built at Omega’s boatyard in Mississippi, and modified once they got to Virginia.

Purse boats work in pairs to encircle a school of menhaden. After each boat dumps half the net, they come together to close it up. So while the hulls are identical, the Marco power blocks, hauling station and steering controls are on opposite sides of each boat.

Not so long ago, purse boats were built without a keel, having only the prop and a cage around it below the bottom of the hull. Those boats were carried in davits on the side of a menhaden steamer. Now steamers are having stern ramps added for launching purse boat into the water. Thus purse boats are now being built with a keel and skeg.

The changes over time to the purse boats are a good example of how one company in Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden fishery has searched for better and more efficient ways to fish. But check it out on page 26.

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Definitely put this Saturday’s lobster boat races at Moosabec Reach on your Fourth of July list of places to be. It should be a good one. For one thing, I’ve been told that yesterday, July 1, Galen Alley put the engine back in Foolish Pleasure. That’s the 2,000-hp-plus Ford that drove Foolish Pleasure to 72.8 mph in 2013 and what some estimate to be 80 mph the same year at Pemaquid. No radar gun was available, so it’s speculation, but it’s what people expect from Foolish Pleasure.

2015 0702 FourthRacesGalen Alley's Foolish Pleasure is set to race on the Fourth of July in Jonesport, Maine. Jon Johansen photoLast year the Ford crapped out on Galen, and he couldn’t make it to the starting line at one race. The problem appears to be that antifreeze was getting into the pistons, shutting down the engine.

Besides the presence of Foolish Pleasure, three Canadian boats are making the trip to Moosabec Reach. The Canadian boats have been described as not having a house or deck, just pure racing machines. Jonesport and Beals Island lobstermen love speed, so the Canadians should be a good addition to the day’s events.

Expect a lot of boats to be racing down Moosabec Reach. Last year 66 lobster boats entered in the races, and the weather wasn’t that good. The year before it was 84, and in 2012 there were 98 boats. With plenty of sun and calm winds predicted, the number of boats could approach that 2012 mark.

The next day Bass Harbor will host the lobster boat races at Mount Desert Island. Participation there has been improving, with 58 boats in 2012, 63 a year later and 73 last year. The word is Galen has said, “If the thing is still running on Sunday, I’m coming.” Hopefully that Ford will still be turning.

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Anyone who intended to have a quiet morning along the Boothbay Harbor waterfront last Saturday would have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you came for the powerful, piercing whine of high-speed gasoline and diesel engines, then you were right at home. Saturday marked the start of Maine’s 2015 lobster boat racing season. It was the first day of a two-day event, with Rockland hosting races on Sunday.

2015 0625 BG BoothbayRacesLittle Girls runs ahead of Black Diamond at the Rockland lobster boat races, hitting 45.8 mph. Jon Johansen photoIt was a long commute for some of the boats: the Ms. Rose, a Mitchell Cove 35 with a 410-hp Sisu, came up from New Hampshire; the Jenna Marie, a Northern Bay 36 with a 610-hp Cummins traveled from Milbridge, Maine; and the Kim Celeste, a Calvin 44 with a 1,000-hp MAN, was from Steuben.

The races that garner the most attention are the gasoline free-for-all, the diesel free-for-all, and the fastest lobster boat, which is open to any boat, gas or diesel. On Saturday the story was all about the Little Girls, a 28-foot Calvin with a new Ford engine. She took the gasoline free-for-all without much problem at 38.7 mph. The Little Girls had won her gasoline class-D race at 45 mph, so she obviously had power to spare.

In the fastest lobster boat race, the Little Girls was matched up against Lisa Marie, a Libby 34 with a 690-hp FPT. Here the Little Girls was pushed a little harder before she won at 46.6 mph.

The Miss Karlee, a new Mitchell Cove 32 with a 1,000-hp Caterpillar C18, and winner of the diesel free-for-all, was supposed to be in the fastest lobster boat race, but at the last moment she was pulled from the race. No one knows why. She had hit 42.9 mph in an earlier run and on sea trials supposedly notched 50 mph.

Sunday was a dismal day for doing anything — let alone racing — with a heavy downpour all day, but it wasn’t enough to keep away the dedicated racers and 28 boats signed up to run. There would have been more but rumors on Facebook had the race canceled. It was raining hard enough that the radar gun didn’t work much of the time.

There was a lot of interest in the match-up between Turn the Page, a Crowley 36, and Miss Karlee. Turn the Page supposedly has a 450-hp Cummins but wins races against boats with a lot more horsepower. That’s what happened when Turn the Page beat the Miss Karlee in the diesel free-for-all, hitting 40.4 mph.

Things got turned around in the fastest lobster boat race when the Miss Karlee beat Turn the Page, but both lost out to Little Girls, which won the event at 44 mph.

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Bell buoys and whistle buoys have long served as a source of guidance for incoming vessels of all sizes, as well as harbingers of approaching danger. But they’ve never been known as a choice place to hang out for a night. But 31 years ago, Robert “Bo” Curtis proved that notion wrong when he tied himself to a buoy in Maine’s West Penobscot Bay on a cold January morning. He would spend 27 hours on that buoy.

2015 0617 BG BuoyCurtis’ story was retold this month in a June 13 Bangor Daily News article. The then-25-year-old clammer left Rockland on Jan. 15, 1984, in a 15-foot skiff with a 40-hp outboard bound for a clamming trip on North Haven Island. That’s about nine miles away, across the bay.

Sure it was winter, but a clammer has to get in his digging time if he’s going to make any money. Besides, the forecast put the seas at no more than 3 feet and winds 5 to 15 mph. Curtis figured he could handle that.

But once out past Rockland’s breakwater and into the bay, the weather deteriorated and a squall moved across the water, bringing with it 5-foot waves and winds of 40 mph. That pushed Curtis down the bay. He knew he was in trouble as his small skiff started to fill with water.  

Some three miles south of Vinalhaven Island, he came upon an 8-foot-tall whistle buoy. He decided to tie his boat to it, hoping he could wait out the weather. As he stepped on the buoy, a wave knocked his boat out of reach; engine idling and with his supplies aboard, it drifted away. That was 10:45 in the morning.

To keep from being tossed off the buoy as it was rolled with the swells, Curtis removed his belt, looped it through a bar on the buoy and then through two belt loops on his pants.

Curling up in a fetal position on top of his down vest, he pulled his sweater down over his knees trying to stay warm. Three things got him through the night, as a lobster boat passed in the distance and a helicopter flew overhead: hip boots, a Bic lighter — not on every fisherman’s survival list — and a refusal to panic.

Throughout the night and the next day, Curtis used his teeth to pull strips of rubber off his boots and then lit them under his sweater with the Bic lighter to provide heat. At the very beginning of his ordeal, Curtis resolved not to panic and to constantly think through his ordeal. Excluding a minor lapse when he almost went into the water “to get it over with,” that attitude pulled him through until 2 p.m. the following afternoon when the Coast Guard vessel Point Hannon arrived and took him off the buoy.

He suffered frostbite and lost several fingernails and toenails. Today he is lobstering. Curtis later summed it up by telling the reporter: “All fishermen have close calls from time to time.”

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Page 3 of 13

Inside the Industry

The Downeast Salmon Federation has received a major grant from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities to ensure and improve the water quality of eastern Maine’s most important rivers, according to the Ellsworth American.


Louisiana crab fishermen and their catch are feeling the pressure of a downturn in the state economy, and a resulting upturn of people entering the fishery.

“It’s a crazy business right now,” said Pete Gerica, the New Orleans fisherman who now serves as president or the Louisiana Crab Task Force, a legislatively-created board of industry voices that makes recommendations to state government.


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