It’s a delicate dance, taking a 40-foot, multi-ton lobster boat out of the ocean and placing it on land. You need a keen eye, a steady hand and a certain level of confidence in yourself and your truck. Those are the qualities that 33-year-old Corey Austin brings to his job as a transport trucker for Toppin’s Diesel and Marine in Columbia Falls.
Austin came to this work after lobstering for several years and selling to Garbo Lobster. “I was tired of being on all the time, I had no home life,” he said. So in 2014 he started working for Tim Toppin, owner of the company. “To tell you the truth, I knew nothing about it,” Austin said, referring to boat transport. “Tim showed me everything about it.”
It’s not a casual thing, lifting a boat. Variables like the shape of the hull and distribution of weight must be taken into account. When moving a lobster boat from land to water, Austin noted, he has to watch the blocking and make sure the center of the trailer is centered on the vessel’s keel. “I remember the second day I was on the job. We hauled Travis Perry’s old H&H. I was really nervous! It took me a couple of months to do it by myself. Tim chased me around for a while to keep an eye on things.”
Tim Toppin started the business back in 1992. He had been a heavy equipment operator and the first dealer of John Deere marine products in the region. “I was working 50, 60 hours a week. I decided I didn’t want to work on the wharves anymore,” he recalled. He bought a boat trailer, then another and eventually found he had a fleet. Caring for trucks and trailers that are immersed in salt water nearly every day is no small task. “I’m about to buy a $185,000 trailer next. If you maintain them, they can go 15 years or so. But every three or four years you have do major maintenance. If you let them go, they’re junk in six or seven years,” he said.
About 90% of Toppin’s business comes from commercial vessels throughout Maine. Occasionally he will move pleasure craft. He remembered one time when he was moving a 90-foot sailboat constructed at the Brooklin Boatyard from the boatshed out to the Travel lift. “That scared me to death. It was a yawl, about three stories tall. It started leaning one way and then centered back again. I only had to move it about 100 feet but that was a long 100 feet,” he laughed.
The company occasionally transports boats as far as Cape Cod and Connecticut. Vessels that are 16 feet wide require a police escort. Two state troopers are needed for vessels 19 feet wide or greater. “It gets really expensive,” Toppin said. With his fleet of hydraulic tri-axle trailers and six full-time employees, Toppin prides himself on being able to go just about anywhere, off road or on, to pick up and move a boat. “They say ‘you can’t get in there’ and I say ‘well, I think we can’,” he said.
Business is picking up this month as more lobstermen put their boats back in the water. Austin keeps his 1998 Peterbilt truck in prime condition despite an increasing workload. “Tim and I rebuilt the truck over two-and-a-half years,” he said. “It was originally from California and we found it here in Maine on-line.” Austin has entered the truck in several truck shows and brought home a few trophies in recent years. “Corey’s a good driver and a good operator,” Toppinsaid. “He deserves a good truck.”