BASS HARBOR – A lot goes into the making of a lobsterboat race.
It’s a community event, invented by the community. In Tremont, planning for this year’s race, on June 24, began just a few days after last year’s race, with a recap of do’s and don’ts. The race is named after the harbor where it’s held, Bass Harbor. This was the second year that Tremont held a race, thanks to the instigation of local fisherman Wayne Rich. He and his dad, Walter Rich, and son, Colyn Rich, enjoy going to other lobsterboat races along the Maine coast.
“Three years ago, I said, ‘Well, we’ll have races here,’” he recalls.
Others were skeptical.
“I said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
The skepticism was a passing cloud. Rich thought it would be a good idea to have the races on the same day as the town’s annual Blessing of the Fleet and rededication of its sea memorial. The community signed on.
“There were a lot of people who helped, and I would like recognize them,” says Rich, who offers call-outs to the sponsors who donated prizes, town employees who made sure the town wharf and floats were ready, and members of three churches – Tremont Congregational, Southwest Harbor Congregational, and Cornerstone Baptist – who did everything from setting up tents and tables to cooking hamburgers and hotdogs. Their respective pastors, the Revs. Wayne Buchanan, Blake Brown, and Dan Venable, conducted the blessing. JF Burns helped with technical aspects. Many others assisted and/or spoke during the blessing ceremony. Chris and Elaine Eaton signed up racers and called the races. Eric Clark deployed the radar gun. Charlie Dillon helped around the wharf. Wid Minctons made his barge available as one end of the finish line and for race officials and spectators, and also for the blessing. Jon Johansen, editor of Maine Coastal News and president of the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association, brought a radar gun, helped the race committee with registration, and lent the occasion a certain official imprimatur. Morris Yachts offered free parking and a viewing platform for spectators. Nick Pelletore had barbecue duty aboard Minctons’ barge. Walter Rich ran the starter boat for all the races except the ones he was in.
The Bass Harbor race isn’t yet included as a sanctioned event on the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association circuit, but it is organized around the same boat classes as those seen in the other harbors. The classes are divided into small workboats under 24 feet, with small outboards, inboards or outdrives; gas-powered workboats over 24 feet; and diesel-powered workboats 24 feet and up. The day is capped by separate free-for-alls for gas and diesel boats, by a race for wooden boats only, by the overall fastest lobsterboat race, and by two specialty races – the fastest Mitchell Cove Boat and Bass Harbor’s Fastest Lobsterboat.
Mitchell Cove Boats is the name of the yard once operated, nearby, by David Schlaefer, a boatbuilder who is now the town’s harbormaster. The brand is popular.
“We added the Mitchell Cove race this year,” says Rich. “There are a lot of them in the area, and we thought it would be a good race that a lot of people would enter. They’re a very fast boat, so even on the regular racing association circuit, some of the faster boats are Mitchell Cove.”
The race awards are informal. The MLBRA circuit provides trophies for top finishers in each class. For now, Bass Harbor offers a drawing of prizes for anyone who participates in the event. The prizes are donated by local merchants and fishermen.
This year, Rich’s son, Colyn, who is 10, collected nearly 80 prizes valued at a little over $7,000.
“We do things a little differently,” Rich says. “We don’t charge admission to race. We don’t give prizes for first, second or third. It’s luck of the draw. The slowest boat could win the best prize.”
Bass Harbor used to hold races 50 years ago. But the first race since then was held in 2011, and drew 43 boats. This year, there are 57 boats, from Jonesport, Searsport, Stonington, Bar Harbor, Islesford, Southwest Harbor, Frenchboro, Isleford, and Tremont.
“There were 30 boats just from Bass Harbor that entered, so it was a very good local turnout. This race growing. And if hadn’t been pouring at five in the morning,” he says of the early-morning downpour, “I think we would have had at least 10 more boats.”
From Jonesport, it can take a fast boat 2 ½ hours to get to Bass Harbor, and a slow boat, maybe four hours.
“A lot of guys who traveled last year didn’t this year, and I’m positive it was because of the weather. It was miserable,” Rich says.
By the time registration starts, though, the sun is starting to peek out. Folks in rain jackets are taking them off an hour later. And by late morning, with the first start, the sun is in full swing.
In 2009, Tremont started up a Blessing of the Fleet and a ceremony to rededicate its sea memorial, which is located at the town wharf and was installed in August 2001, in honor of “relatives, neighbors and all those who lost their lives to the sea from our shores.” More than 150 Tremont residents have died at sea, according to records dating back as early as 1805. The Rev. Wayne Buchanan, the pastor at the Tremont Congregational Church, said at the time that he was approached by a number of people in the congregation and the community about doing a blessing. Among them was Wid Minctons, who provided his barge, the Charles Bradley, for Buchanan’s use.
“I feel in this day and age, we want to get in touch with fishermen as best we can and give our thanks to the sea,” Minctons said at the time.
Ceremonies have included speeches by local dignitaries and coastguardsmen from the base in nearby Southwest Harbor, color guards and honor guards by veterans and boy scouts, and messages from the town’s Congressional and state delegations. Minctons has held the honor of tossing a memorial wreath upon the sea. Boats then process past the Charles Bradley, where Buchanan, positioned at the bow, sprinkles a mixture of blessed water and oil on each.
The making of a lobsterboat race was a natural segue for the large fishing and yachting community.
On a typical fishing day in Bass Harbor, the burbling of lobsterboat engines begins at 4 a.m. The town wharf and nearby commercial wharfs are busy with fishermen loading up totes, traps, bait, and coolers full of sandwiches. A couple of hours later, the parking lot is filled with pickup trucks, but moorings are mainly empty and the wharfs are quiet. Yachters and tour boat operators arrive at the wharf and at nearby marinas when the sun is higher. Artists sometimes set up their easels. Kayakers and ducks glide by. Throughout the summer, there’s a steady, low-key buzz of breeze, voices, gulls, sails and mechanical equipment around the harbor, punctuated by the climaxes of fishing activity.
The convergence of volunteers who make the race and the blessing possible is mirrored by the convergence of fishermen and their families who appear on race day. The scene showcases a certain muscularity and sturdiness in work and community. The sound of voices and laughter is imbued with a sense of companionship, of rootedness and belonging.
After all the work of setting things up, race participants start to trickle onto the wharf at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning. They head to a small tent where Rich, the Eatons, and others are stationed to sign them into one or more of 28 race classes. Hamburger and hotdog providers begin to set up. Registrants raft up their boats four or five deep at the floats until it’s time to head out to the course.
Colyn Rich, who is freckled and has an engaging smile, and who, at 10, is a fisherman in his own right, explains that his boat’s name is Full Throttle, and his dad’s boat is Rich Returns. Rich Returns was built in 1981 by Wayne’s uncle, Robert “Chummy” Rich. Colyn will be racing two boats today, Full Throttle and Wide Open, which was built in 1963 by his great-grandfather, Bobby Rich, who is Chummy’s father. Wayne’s cousin, Cameron Crawford, has a boat named Rich Ambition, which was built by the father-and-son team Bobby and Chummy Rich, sometime in the late 1970s or thereabouts. Cameron’s dad is Glen Crawford, who “builds the power plants that have shot [James West’s] Wild Wild West like a rocket across lobster boat race courses,” according to a 2009 article in Fishermen’s Voice. Cameron, who is in his late teens, carries a boatload of buddies with him onto the race course.
From a float on the far side of the town’s launch ramp comes an aggravating “chegkh chegkh chegkh” noise that dominates the airwaves. A mechanic on a boat named Foolish Pleasure is bent over a behemoth of an engine set mid-deck.
Spectators on a dock clap their hands over their ears.
“Oh, it’s going to get a lot worse,” says one woman, who laughs. “You really don’t want to be around it when it gets going.”
The lightweight Foolish Pleasure is owned by Galen Alley of Beals Island, who reportedly clocked a record 72.8 miles per hour in 2011, at Stonington. His GPS reportedly recorded 75 mph at Moosabec Reach.
Alley’s boat in Bass Harbor is akin to a visitation from some strange being. The noise attracts stares and amusement. The sound progresses to explosive fricatives and heaving whooshes. The mechanic disappears, and Alley and his sternman put on ear protection. There is more tinkering with the engine.
“We’re never going to be able to listen to music again,” jokes an onlooker. “It might as well be towed out there and just start it for the race.”
Foolish Pleasure unties from the dock, puts the pedal to the metal, surges forward, stops, surges, stops, surges and heads out through the harbor.
“One speed,” someone laughs.
The race course is lined with twin concourses of boats that rotate through their succession at the start line. The ambience is relaxed. One boat flies a pirate flag, other are decorated with colorful pennants. Various boats have plastic lawn chairs on their decks; one has a sofa fitted into the stern. Greetings between passing boats come in the form of a quick rev of the engine. Children in lifejackets drink soda. Firecrackers go off. Adults talk about family, the state of the economy, friends, and the price of lobster.
Minctons’ barge is full of people standing, sitting, chatting. Private docks, beaches and roads around the harbor are full of people eager to view the action. People sit atop Chummy Rich’s “waterbago,” his boat fitted with an RV cabin on the deck.
Eric Clark checks the radar gun. Elaine and Chris Eaton settle into folding chairs at the bow, Elaine with lists of racers and their boats, Chris with a two-way radio. Merry-makers gather around a section of tree trunk that serves as a table, with cups of what they say is iced tea. Powerboats tie up to the side. A photographer clambers up the tower of a tuna boat. Patrick Russell, an associate producer with Ramble Productions in Portland, sets up a video camera. The documentary company is shooting all the lobsterboat races and aims to make a series for the Discovery Channel.
Eaton keeps a firm grip on the proceedings. The sound of his voice wafts over the water as he announces the lineups two or three races in advance, in order to give the boats time to get to the mouth of the harbor. The starting line is defined by Lopaus Point on one end and near Weaver’s Ledge at the other. The barge and a big blue balloon anchor the finish line. The run is about three-quarters of a mile, if that.
It’s not apparent that the first race has started. Just all of a sudden, there’s a sound of speedy engines, and Class B, inboards, outboards or outdrives 31-90 horsepower, are chasing down the course, kicking up spray. There are no entrants in Class A, skiffs 16 feet and under with outboards up to 30 horsepower, operators 18 years old and younger.
“What’s he doing?” one person asks, since there was no starting gun.
“He’s racing. This is the first race,” says another.
“The blue boat’s going to win, J-Bird,” correctly predicts Johansen. “Anybody cheats, nail ‘em.”
The wet morning is now completely transformed into bright sunshine. People take off their sweatshirts. Marshall Spear drives J-Bird over the finish.
“Wow, he’s wicked!”
“Whoo hoo!” is heard from a finisher.
It’s clear that Races 4 and 5 will be combined, since each has only one entrant, Wayne and Colyn Rich in Wide Open, and Walter Rich in Frosty Punkin. Races 6 and 7 have no entrants. There is some debate as to whether Race 8 should go with 4 and 5. On the one hand, Race 8 has only one entrant. On the other hand, that entrant is Foolish Pleasure. It’s decided to let Troy Alley, from Jonesport, race his boat Trinity against Foolish Pleasure. Alley would have been in the Class C race, but it didn’t feel right to race against “the kids” that make up that class. The twain make for kind of a made-up category.
Foolish Pleasure and Trinity zip down the course.
“He hasn’t opened it up yet,” someone says of the alien powerhouse.
“Just wait. You’ll hear it.”
Halfway down the course, the sound of the engine explodes, and Foolish Pleasure charges across the finish.
“Give it to her!”
Alley’s time is 62 mph, a not-notable figure under the circumstances. But people have been entertained.
There’s a steady snarl of engines coming, going and idling. The diesel classes start. The names of the boats, read in a string, are lyrical: Sundancer, Thunderstruck, Never Enough, Miss Behavin, Murphy’s Law, Hard Luck, Chix Dig It, Family Tradition, and lots of names of loved ones. KSASS inspires some ribaldry as Eaton announces it as “Kiss A—“ over the radio. Race 10 and 11 should be getting ready while Race 9 is working its mojo.
“Easy Money’s going to win. She’s on the outside.”
“This ain’t the Kentucky Derby.”
“Easy Money on the outside.”
“‘Til he blows the engine.”
“Who’s got the radar gun?”
Another race, Hard Luck is lumbering along at the rear of the pack.
“We can’t start the next race.”
“We could start it before the other finished.”
“I need some more boats down here,” comes the voice of the starter over the radio. “Let’s go, guys.”
“I can call ‘em, but I can’t push ‘em,” jokes Eaton, as the run eases into a stately finish.
“Not very fast. Classic workboats,” one onlooker says of the slow-goers.
A boat jumps the next start, and the pack has to turn back. The quick starters are often the ones who win their races, but sometimes they’re too eager.
Minctons roams the deck with plates full of barbecued beef, reaping many an, “Oooh, thank-you!”
“Need more up here?” he asks.
“I don’t remember this from last year,” says an appreciative recipient.
“No, this is a bonus,” says Minctons.
“Service keeps getting better.”
“Trying to sell my barge and become a chef. Tell anyone who wants to know,” Minctons ripostes.
Race 12, diesel class D, 236-335 hp, 24-33 feet, has six entrants. They look like they’re balanced.
One of the boats is the one with the sofa in back. The family dog can be seen having a great time. The Swan’s Island ferry comes and goes, on its usual route, which crosses the race course.
“Does anyone know if Foolish Pleasure is coming back out to race?” someone wonders.
“His battery’s dead.”
It takes a long time, but the boats from Tremont, which includes Bass Harbor, Seal Cove, Duck Cove, and Goose Cove, finally get lined up at the start for the Bass Harbor Fastest Lobster Boat Race. The starter up to now, Walt Rich, is competing, so Travis Otis of Searsport, who competed in First Team, the boat he owns with his brother Keith, is recruited for the position.
The lineup of 15 boats looks quite grand. There is an inherent prestige in this particular race, the community’s own.
“False start there, got a false start!” Otis ferociously yells via radio.
“Oh, come on!” says the general sentiment on the barge.
Fifteen Bass Harbor boats are splayed willy-nilly across the top of the course, turning in churning waters back to the line.
“Start the race over!”
Even the false start lends, in a way, to the stature of the moment: The community takes pride in having things just right. It really matters.
What makes a lobsterboat race fun is not just the race. Lobsterboat racing is a big deal, with 12 events along the Maine coast through the summer, capped by an awards banquet in the fall. The races are typically complemented by an air of festivity, whether it takes the form of vendors walking the Jonesport/Beals Island bridge with carts and baby strollers full of crab and lobster rolls for sale, or the full-blown lobster festival in Winter Harbor and the pirate’s festival in Eastport.
It’s the people coming together to have a happy time, the barbecue, the sun, the workboats at play, the pride.
The 15 boats make a raggedy false start again. Otis decides to divide the run into two heats, and then race the top three from each heat in a final run-off. “It was like herding cats,” he later writes on the Downeast Boat Forum.
Groans are heard barge-wide. It’s been fun, but lunch awaits at the wharf.
Had he tuned things up a bit, Otis writes, he might have nabbed first place as fastest lobsterboat overall, but he got squeezed out by Bruce Young’s Catman from Bar Harbor.
“Not sure what they have under the deck but I bet it’s big (800+ range),” Otis writes.
He praises the Bass Harbor crowd: “Good times all around. For being their second year hosting the races, they did a bang-up job.”
The fastest Bass Harbor boat was James Thurlow’s Family Tradition. The radar gun had quit by then, so no one really knows how fast either Catman or Family Tradition was. But Thurlow’s top speed is about 30 mph, says Rich.
“Usually, if they’re built really strong, then they’re not a very fast boat,” he says of the general balance of structure and performance. “They usually are built lighter if you want to race. But usually, the lighter and faster the boat, the worse they are in rough conditions. Mine’s an old wooden lobsterboat. It goes along pretty good. But it’s for lobstering, not for racing.”
Rich says he was pleased to hear from others how much they enjoyed the day, especially those who had never been to a race before.
“They’re already talking about next year,” he says. “Listening to some of the guys who raced and saying, ‘I think I can get another knot if I do this or that,’ some of the guys have maybe caught the racing itch.”
Two days afterward, key organizers gathered to begin their do’s and don’ts planning for next year’s race.
“Wid Minctons said, ‘We had a lot of people on that barge. I didn’t hardly know any of them,’” Rich relates. “He said, ‘Next year, we need a bigger grill.’”