On my return to the East in the 1970s, after two years working on the West Coast, two things near the end of the long drive told me I was home: clapboard houses in Pennsylvania and the visceral, ohsweejeez joy of seeing lobsterboat hulls in Maine.

To my eye the best-looking lobsterboats were built by Harold Gower, and for a number of years there were three of them in our small fleet on North Haven Island. When in 1995 I could finally justify buying a power boat for use as an artist's studio and for family excursions, I first looked into fiberglass for its low maintenance, and specifically at the Holland 32, which was far and away the hot looker among traditional glass designs. I quickly discovered the price tag was hot, too—even for the "previously owned" beauties listed in Commercial Fisheries News.

Then, lo and behold, just after Christmas, when the first significant skim ice was forming across the Fox Islands Thoroughfare between North Haven and Vinalhaven, local fisherman Ryan Haskell, a student at the University of Maine, having heard that I was sniffing around for a boat, asked if I'd be interested in his 30’ Gower, built in 1970. 

Haskell, a hard-driving lobster fisherman, was selling because he needed a bigger  boat for the large number of traps he had come to haul. But he loved that boat, and it showed. He and his father had carefully rebuilt her from the deck up. I think he knew I'd respect her, not beat on her as would likely happen if she continued to be fished. And I also suspect he thought he'd get a decent price out of me.

Decadence, as she was then named, was the second-to-last boat built by Harold Gower of Beals Island, and the second he'd built for Victor Ames of Matinicus Island, 18 miles off the mainland. Victor and "Dreamy" Ames brought her from Beals through our thoroughfare on May 3, 1971, so you could say she knew the area early.

Harold Gower came from Nova Scotia, as did his uncle, the legendary Will "Pappy" Frost, whose designs defined the so-called Jonesport style which influenced everything that followed. Gower came to be known for building the Cadillac of lobsterboats, beautifully made, fast, a little more expensive than those from other builders.

I talked with the bank, and on the 16th of January marine surveyor Jim Simonitch of Damariscotta took the morning ferry from Rockland to check out the boat. The temperature rose to 7 degrees. Simonitch let me watch his examination, making observations, telling me what to keep an eye on. He then spent the night in my studio apartment with me and my cat so he could survey Haskell's dad's boat the next day.

Ten days later the survey results arrived. I phoned Haskell at college with my offer, which he refused. Two days after that I upped my offer. I was two hours too late. Haskell had accepted the same offer from one of his fellow North Haven fisherman. I was totally depressed. But my friends around the woodstove across the street at Brown's Boat Yard said to sit tight, that the other guy really wanted a Novi boat, so he would change his mind. On that glimmer of hope, I wrote a $1,000 earnest-money check and left it with Haskell's mother.

A week later, after enjoying a Sunday public breakfast with my family at the American Legion Post, I got a phone call from Haskell. Decadence was mine.

Following the surveyor's only major recommendation, I removed about 1,500 original 1 3/4"  bronze screws from the waterline down and Jimmy "Oz" Brown replaced them with a size larger. I still hope to use the old fastenings in some sort of commemorative Gower sculpture, and I keep a framed photograph of Gower on the boat's cabin bulkhead. That fall my then wife and I enjoyed a long visit with Harold Gower's nephew and niece, Doug and Brenda Dodge, on Beals Island to see where the boat had been built and learn more about the builder. Doug Dodge had hung around his uncle's shop since age six and worked with him for many years.

The boat has oak timbers and “sharp risers,” and Maine cedar planking. “The same materials I used in 1936 [and ever since]," said Gower in a 1972 interview. Doug was at the interview, too; he said, "Cedar is much better than pine because it doesn't swell and shrink so much.... And if you bruise cedar, if you hit it hard, which happens often in a workboat, it might swell up a little, that's all. You can sand it off and it will be all right.”

As someone brought up to believe that you aren't really pushing the limits if you don't touch bottom now and then, I liked the sound of that, though in practice I've been quite gentle. I keep the boat overboard through the winter so she won't dry out, tied fore and aft to pilings that keep surrounding ice from drifting and cutting into her hull, and add antifreeze to the bilge to keep her electric pump free to handle what little she leaks.

I changed the boat's colors: bottom paint from black to red copper and topsides from white to black, a traditional combination in my family going back to the late 1920s. My heart sang! I was reminded of the Marnie P, a 27' lobsterboat-style launch named after my sister. When my father returned home after World War II he got Gus Skoog of Vinalhaven to build him a boat. A typical trunk-cabin, large cockpit type, it had, at my father's request, an innovative folding windshield so the boat could pass under Vinalhaven's Mill River bridge, only possible when the tide was high enough to clear the mud flats. Our summer home on Vinalhaven's Calderwood Neck meant traveling more by boat than car. In fact, growing up winters in New York and then Boston, with public transportation readily available, I did not get a driver's license until I was 23.

In those days, as a bona fide third-generation "goddamned summer person," I was a sailor, not a powerboater, a fanatical sailor like my father, sister, and brothers: New England Interscholastic Champion my last year of high school in 1955, went on a sailing exchange program to Sweden, started the sailing program for our local yacht club in 1960 with a friend while I was in art school, raced to Bermuda several times, worked as paid hand on a 56' sloop for a later commodore of the New York Yacht Club, served for a week as pilot/guide to the Maine coast for television news anchor Walter Cronkite and his family.... I loved it all. But it was not an activity or lifestyle I could continue as a young artist, fresh out of art school and the Coast Guard.

Back to 1996. With the colors now black and copper red, I changed my new boat's name to Brimstone. That was my wife Louisa's suggestion. It honored not only the pitch-black rocks unique to the island of that name south of Vinalhaven, but also rocks in general—a longtime fascination of mine in charcoal, pencil, and paint. I also noted the unexpected, archaic dictionary definition of brimstone: a fiery, passionate woman. It all seemed to fit.

Brimstone was relaunched May 21, 1996. I can still feel in my gut the exhilaration of first standing on the bare wood deck, the relief when the 4-cylinder John Deere 4045 turbocharged diesel started right up, the reassuring steadiness of an l l' beam compared to the Marnie P's 8 feet. I was astonished by the boat's maneuverability and small turning radius; that's because her rudder is well forward and her hull is skeg-built rather than built-down. Skeg-built is a typical Beals Island-Jonesport characteristic; the bottom planking at the after part of the hull comes into the skeg/keel almost at a right angle, rather than being faired down into the skeg to make a V. The result is less wetted surface, a lighter hull, and greater speed. Though Brimstone has had gas engines that produced greater speed, she's now no speedboat with her small diesel— maximum 14 knots—but the boat is economical to run at less than four gallons an hour. I'm your basic slow-but-sure cheapskate, so we get along well.

I still stare at Brimstone in awe of her beauty. Oh sure, the boat is twisted slightly to port from all those years of hauling, and the trunk cabin is a tad too high, but the boat has that unusual pointed forward end and that perfect window repeating the angles of the trunk and house. There's also the perfection of the hull— the graceful flare and sheer, the short section of quietly powerful reverse sheer, the tumblehome, the singular line of her stem—well, the boat still excites me like a piece of elegant sculpture, handsome from any angle.

I had a premonition about this boat. I designed a series of note cards in 1987, and one of them featured a lobsterboat based on a boat built by Gower. I chose that for my model because it seemed the embodiment of what an ideal lobsterboat should look like. The drawing now appears in this magazine as a logo for the Project Wooden Lobsterboat series, and shows a near dead ringer for Brimstone.

North Haven Island, population about 330, sits in the middle of Penobscot Bay, 12 miles out of Rockland, far enough that writers often refer to us as "souls" rather than "people." Though there are three ferry trips a day to the mainland—some say to the United States—living here still forces isolation and community, independence and interdependence. Brimstone has increased my travel options, but more importantly has given me greater freedom as an artist. In the warmer months, up through mid November, I keep my easel and paints aboard and strike out for the many islands here in the bay. I'm especially drawn to the granite that forms much of nearby Vinalhaven, to the skies that are so much more visible from the water, and to fog, a potent metaphor for life's mystery. For whatever reason (deeply and ponderously psychological I'm sure) I rarely allow people or buildings into my canvases. And I'm more than likely to focus on a subtle range of grays than on brighter colors, I suppose because the grays, too, seem better to reflect how I view the world. Though many of my paintings end up simply as pretty pictures, I hope some of them manage to dig a little deeper. If I have any depth as a person, I hope that shows in the work.

I use a narrow range of color: ultramarine blue, burnt umber, warm black, warm white, yellow ochre, with touches or blends of brighter yellow, orange, red, and occasionally more intense blue or green. But muted is best, this against an underpainting of middle-value reddish brown or ultramarine or gray to avoid the strident glare of a white canvas.

Once I've picked a subject and its dimensions I cut my primed, underpainted, and unstretched canvas from a small roll, clip it to a sheet of Masonite, and begin. This allows me to adjust the dimensions. I keep my paints, turpentine, and brushes in a metal pail, which I hang from my easel— its weight helps to increase the easel's stability. For a palette I use a smooth piece of wood mounted on the easel. Back ashore I may work further on a specific canvas, making small adjustments or trying to get the sky just right for the sixth or eighth time.

In the winter I paint and draw from photographs, a process that would produce deadly results were it not for my observations and work outdoors. Even with a decent camera, photographs—or at least my photographs— fail to grab all the nuances of a subject, which are what attract me in the first place.

I paint thinly, often allowing the underpainting to show through and interact with the surface color. I dream of wielding a bravura-style brush, with oozy and gooily thick layers of luscious color applied in the manner of the 17th-century portraitist Frans Hals or Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) of nearby Great Spruce Head Island, or Neil Welliver of Lincolnville, who taught my freshman painting class. But let's face it, it ain't gonna happen. I also admire Vermeer, Degas, Manet, Morandi, Munch ... many others.

Painting afloat demands adjusting for wind and current relative to the angle of the sun, avoiding wakes from passing boats that otherwise would have me grabbing my easel to steady it, and watching the outgoing tide that may leave me aground in the nooks and crannies that I favor. And yes, standing clear of the full-speed-ahead, direct charge of a macho lobsterman from Stonington who thought I was messing with his traps.

Besides painting gear Brimstone also carries our family on Sunday picnics to nearby beaches, a rowboat pulled up onto her short stern. In the fall she carries our island's high school cross-country team, which I coach, to and from the mainland for meets. Given our ferry schedule, such travel is both a necessity and a tool to encourage team togetherness, as the runners crowd together under blankets, sleeping bags, and tarps, especially in late October into November. The nearest meet requires an hour's boat ride and at least an hour's rental car travel each way. Using Brimstone instead of staying overnight "in the United States" helps hold down the school's travel budget, and allows us to return to our own beds after a meet.

Between being a studio and a bus Brimstone now enjoys a second life that seems to agree with her. Lord knows, it agrees with me.

[This slightly edited piece first appeared in the Winter, 2002 edition of Maine Boats & Harbors magazine.]

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