New 44-foot Peter Kass lobster boat hits the water

First published in the MLA Newsletter, December, 2012.

When I worked as a deckhand for Casco Bay Lines, I spent a lot of time on Long and Chebeague Islands. And, as you do while living in a small town or on an island in Maine, I attended many hall parties and potlucks. But the best parties always happened at high tide at Johnson’s Boatyard on Long Island when a new boat was ready for launch. Everyone knows the drill: you pick the hull and the horsepower, and then Stevie Johnson and his crew will outfit it with the finest bells and whistles. Steve Johnson has completed 30-odd commercial and pleasure boats. But Steve has more than a fine sense of craftsmanship. He also has a good sense of humor. The two qualities have resulted in some truly unusual boats – the Cahboat, Van Boat, and the Stretch-vet. As a result of these creative types of boatbuilding, Stevie has been the focus of short documentaries and featured in the Wall Street Journal.

The more things change, the more they stay the same! John Williams, Peter Kass and fellow John’s Bay boat owners in front of the F/V Khristy Michelle. Photo by Annie Tselikis.

It had been a few years since I attended my last launch party, so when John and Judy Williams of Stonington announced the due date of their next boat, the F/V Khristy Michelle built by Peter Kass of John’s Bay Boats in South Bristol, I cleared my schedule. There aren’t many builders of wooden lobster boats anymore. The plank-on-frame boats that Kass builds are real works of art that have garnered a loyal following of dedicated lobster boat owners along the coast.

The Williams’ and I became friends many years ago while I was living and working in Stonington. November 17, boat launch day, turned out to be a beautiful day for a drive. So I picked up my friend Kathleen Reardon and headed down Route 129 to South Bristol. Kathleen is the lobster sea sampling coordinator for the Department of Marine Resources, and John regularly participates in this collaborative research process.

As we started down the steep hill toward the boat on the marine railway, I saw Ronnie Trundy, manager of the Stonington Lobster Co-op, his wife Julia and their son Matt, a Stonington lobsterman and a good friend. Jenni Steele of Island Fishing Gear was with them, as well. MLA Directors and fellow John’s Bay Boat owners Jay Smith and Arnie Gamage arrived with their wives. Fellow MLA Director Dwight Carver and his wife Patti traveled all the way from Beals Island to celebrate the occasion.

Kathleen and I took a tour of the boat. The new boat is 13.8 feet on the beam and 44 feet in length, three feet longer than John’s last one. The greater length provides increased deck space and makes her run a little smoother through the water which will improve fuel consumption. Down below, the precision cabinetry and woodwork are reminiscent of a library or a cocktail lounge. I love the fact that this style of fine finish work is used on the commercial vessels that Kass designs.

After the initial socializing, the crowd of nearly 200 people gathered around a natural amphitheater from which they could look down upon the boat on the railway. A group of seventeen fishermen, all fellow owners of John’s Bay Boats, lined up with John Williams and Peter Kass in front of the bow for a photo op.

Reverend Ted Hoskins, former minister of the Maine Seacoast Mission, a founding board member of Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington and staunch friend of Maine’s commercial fishing industry, offered his invocation. Bob Williams, John’s father and a fellow John’s Bay Boat owner, offered a few words to thank Peter Kass for keeping the wooden boat building tradition alive and well for commercial fishermen, and for sparing old guys like him the pain that comes from running fiberglass boats. John’s niece Khristy Chapman, the boat’s namesake, stood nervously before the bow of the boat with the ceremonial bottle of champagne. She paced back and forth, shifting the bottle to her left hand, fidgeting. Peter yelled to her from the railway controls, giving her the go ahead. She promptly smacked that bottle against the bow to the resounding cheers of the crowd as the boat moved down the marine railway into the water.

I will be honest: I know very little about lobster boats or their mechanics, so to me a launching is all about celebrating the tradition of the industry. I had the pleasure of being on John’s first run around the bay. The F/V Khristy Michelle is quiet, smooth, she turns on a dime and has that magnificent new boat smell of fresh gel coat and poly. Everyone on board was all smiles.

After our short sail, I went up to the shop for a bite to eat and found an old yellowing photo on the wall of Peter’s shop showing a group of fishermen standing in front of the bow of a new boat. Nearly all the faces in that weathered photo had stood for a similar photo that I had taken earlier in the day. Just as they had done years ago for another man’s boat, those same fishermen came out to congratulate Williams and to support Kass in the work that he does building traditional wooden lobster boats. I looked around and remembered again how lucky I am to work in this industry. In a year like 2012, with all of the challenges put upon the lobster community, we are still a community with strong tradition and faith. And when all else fails, we always put on a really good party.