Drop the flag and... go!

Maine lobster boat racing leaves the playing field and the engines wide open

It was the July 24 lobster boat race in Friendship, Maine, that many fans had been waiting for. Class K (701 to 900 horsepower, 28 feet and over) featuring Jeff Eaton’s La Bella Vita, a Northern Bay 38 with a 750-hp FPT up against Gary Genthner’s Lisa Marie, a Libby 34 with a 690-hp FPT and Nick Page’s All Out, a Calvin Beal 38 with a 750-hp John Deere.

As the boats move slowly ahead with the starter’s boat, waiting for the flag to drop, it’s an adrenaline rush, says Eaton. “Some really push the flag boat and jump out in front of you. Gary is a good one. He likes to get the jump. You really got to watch him.”

Watch him he did, and once the flag slammed down, it was close all the way down the course between La Bella Vita and Lisa Marie. Near the finish line, there didn’t appear to be any separation between the two boats. In what would be seen as the best race of the day, four judges declared it a tie at 40.6 mph. 

The Friendship races were just one of 11 for 2016. One day’s individual races can be added to a string of thousands, dating back to when Maine lobstermen starting hauling traps, first with small sloops and then with gasoline powered lobster boats. 

Those early races were informal gatherings with few rules. Sometimes it was just a challenge to see who would be first from the grounds to the dock. It wasn’t until 1964 that Jonesport’s Bert Frost made an attempt to organize the races. But with few races or racers, not a lot of variation in boat sizes or horsepower, and with most everyone running gasoline engines, the rules were loosely structured. 

Not until the early 1990s when Brian Robbins with Commercial Fisheries News worked with the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association was there an attempt to fashion rules that would work with racing’s increased popularity, changes in boat and engine design, and would be the same from port to port. 

“It’s like drag racing cars,” says Robbins. “You have rail cars, funny cars, different street classes. You could take your mother’s station wagon with groceries in the back and race. There’d be a class for it. We tried to apply that to lobster boat racing, so a guy with a 34-foot wooden boat with a 453 GM had a class he could race in.”

Today, it takes about four pages to list all the rules and classifications for lobster boat racing. The rules, as laid down by the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association, are quite specific. You need a conventional lobster boat that’s 24 feet or greater with a full keel. Anything under 24 feet falls into what is basically the skiff category. Boats 24 feet and over are put in a class based on a boat’s length and horsepower. 

There are three classes for skiffs, five for gasoline-powered boats, 14 for diesel-powered boats, two for wood boats (though a wood boat can race in other classes) and at the end of each race day, there’s the Gasoline Free-For-All and the Fastest Lobster Boat Race.

(Some ports, such as Jonesport and Stonington, separate the working lobster boats from what are basically race boats — lobstermen often call them “toy boats” — with a Fastest Lobster Boat and a Fastest Recreational Lobster Boat race.)

Whatever class you are in, the rules say only a single engine is allowed, and don’t even try running nitrous oxide or propane, unless you are in the Gasoline Class E for modified racers. 

Does that mean no one is breaking the rules? Jon Johansen, who heads up the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association, says one of the hard parts of his job “is dealing with cheating.” It’s not prevalent, he adds, but unless “you hear it through the grapevine, you can’t do anything about them because you aren’t going to dyno them.”

To a certain extent, it’s been an ongoing problem. In the early 1980s, some ports had a rule limiting an engine to 400 horsepower, yet “you’d have to be an idiot not to realize those guys were playing with their engines,” says Glenn Holland of Holland’s Boat Shop in Belfast, Maine, referring to lobstermen in the Jonesport and Beals Island area. (In 2000 Holland’s 32-foot Red Baron set the world’s fastest record of 57.8 mph until Galen Alley’s Foolish Pleasure hit 72.8 mph at Stonington in 2011.) 

Make no mistake about it, everyone taking part in the lobster boat races loves speed, and some of those with the fastest boats love to strut it. There’s the story of the Young brothers, Vid and Vin, whose 33-foot Sopwith Camel and then the Camel 2 were always at or near the head of the pack in the 1980s and ’90s.

They were walking down a dock in Stonington prior to a race, says Robbins. Each was carrying helmets and goggles when they were asked, “What’s with the goggles?” One of the Young brothers replied, “As fast as we are going, if you don’t wear goggles when you open her up, the eyeballs will be sucked right out of your head.”

Another rule requires all boats to have a kill switch. There’s a good reason for that switch, like the time Ellery Alley was at the helm of the Underdog at the Searsport races when “He touched her off, she hit a chop or whatever,” says Robbins and “it flipped him out over the rail.” There were at least two times Johansen can think of when boats lost their steering in the middle of a race. In all those cases, a kill switch comes in handy. In Alley’s case, the sternman could hit it. 

There are times when a kill switch won’t solve the problem, such as a 2001 race at Searsport. Joe Sargent of Sargent’s Custom Boats in Milbridge was at the wheel of Wild, Wild West. “It was blowing probably 25 and they were racing side to the seas,” says Johansen. “Everything was wrong.” So wrong that midway down the course, Wild, Wild West hit a swell and rolled completely over. Sargent swam out from underneath the overturned boat and...

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