Wilbur Yachts 46
There was a time when the term “lobster boat” was common only to those who fished for the claw-pawed crustacean. Lobster boats were purpose-built, designed with seakindly hull forms and large, low-slung cockpits for hauling lobster traps. Just how a lobster boat became a “lobster yacht” had a lot to do with an old buddy of mine — an enterprising fellow from Maine by the name of Lee Wilbur. Recently I tracked Wilbur down in Southwest Harbor, Maine, where we had an opportunity to jawbone about old times and seatrial the latest creation from Wilbur Yachts — the 46-foot Betsy.
It had been years since I had seen Wilbur, but when we met at a local Southwest Harbor watering hole it seemed like yesterday. Spotting him at the bar in a sport shirt, khaki shorts and Top-Siders, I was reminded that Wilbur never quite fit my image of a roughshaven, pipe-chewing, boiler-suit-clad Maine boatbuilder. I had first met him 30 years ago at the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show. This was long before lobster yachts became chic and south Florida became the epicenter of the boating boom. Wilbur and the traditional boats he built stood out among a fleet of familiar fiberglass brands. His soft Maine drawl, easy laugh and no-pressure approach to sales offered a pleasant contrast to the high-octane south Florida boat peddler of the day. There was really no need to push, for his products induced oohs and ahhs and there always seemed to be another boat to build.
Wilbur added his unique touch to commercial hulls built by Maine yards like Newman and Duffy. “We yachted ’em up a bit,” he said with a smile. This is something of an understatement given the quality of Wilbur Yachts’ work. “Folks in Southwest Harbor knew how to build yachts since almost everyone in town that was handy had worked for Henry Hinckley at some point,” Wilbur explained. “At the time, most yachties came to town for a sailboat, but I thought, ‘Why not a powerboat?’” As it turned out, Wilbur was one of the first to recognize that the pleasing lines and efficiency of a lobster-boat design pulled at the heartstrings of the waterman-wannabe in all of us.
Wilbur’s vision was more hard work than epiphany. After serving overseas in the military, he returned to Southwest Harbor and taught grade school. But as he put it, “Down East, boatbuilding is something of a genetic disorder.” Eventually he set up a shop next to the Bunker & Ellis yard — now Ellis Boat Co. “I wore a path through the woods asking those fellas questions,” he admits. Wilbur launched his first boat in 1973. Built for a yachtsman from Penobscot Bay, Maine, Quest had a 36-foot Newman hull designed by Raymond Bunker. “By the mid- 1970s, a few of our boats were commuting to Florida seasonally, and not long after, we started attending the shows.”
Wilbur built about 300 boats in the next 30 years, including more than 60 34-footers that featured a Wilbur-built hull designed by Ralph Ellis. The yard’s output mostly followed Wilbur’s proven lobster-yacht formula in open express or flybridge fare, but there were exceptions, including a number of Hunt designs from 29 to 61 feet and a 42-foot sailboat launched in 1988. Wilbur also built research vessels for the Smithsonian Institution and for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Like most small builders, we had to be flexible to survive,” he said.
Wilbur officially retired in 2000, leaving the Wilbur Yachts brand in capable family hands. His daughter and son-in-law, Ingrid and John Kachmar, now manage the yard. “Little has changed at Wilbur. Building a boat has always been a one-on-one personal effort — the Betsy project is pretty typical,” John Kachmar said. “We start out by getting to know the customers and how they intend to use the boat.” The discussion begins with basic information such as cruising goals. “From this we consider what hull form would be best.” Options include a selection of proven hulls from Wilbur Yachts and other Maine builders or a completely new design.
Betsy’s owners had been drawn to Wilbur Yachts by an article about the 46-foot Annalokin that they had spotted in a 1979 issue of YACHTING. Since they intend to cruise the East Coast and the West Coast, her capability, size and arrangement appealed to them. Like Annalokin, Betsy is a hybrid even as lobster yachts go. Her hull is a conventional lobster-boat form, but instead of an express or flybridge configuration, Wilbur Yachts cleverly conjured a raised-pilothouse trawler design. While this unexpected blending is a surprise to the eye at first, the doughty, businesslike result is unique and appealing. Most importantly, the single-stateroom, split-head arrangement is ideal for cruising couples like Betsy’s owners.
Touring the boat with Kachmar, one begins to understand the amount of thought and effort that Wilbur Yachts devotes to pleasing its customers. The owner’s wife, for example, loves to sew. The solution…depress the salon desktop and a system of counterweights lifts a state-of-the-art sewing machine from its hiding place within. While such pop-ups are typically driven electrically, this solution suited the owners’ interest in “green” design. Following this theme, low-demand LED lighting is used throughout and banks of AGM batteries, a methanol fuel cell and solar panels supply onboard power. A generator is not fitted.
We conducted our sea trial in the postcard-perfect waters of Somes Sound, Maine, on a cool summer day. With the doors and hatches open, the experience was intoxicating. While her single 1,015-horsepower Caterpillar C18 yielded a top speed of 23.4 knots and a cruising speed of 20.1 (at 2,100 rpm), I found her most charming while loafing along at a bit more than 12 knots (at 1,500 rpm). At this speed, she sips 17 gallons per hour, and I measured just 76 decibels of sound at her helm. Her hull is a Duffy design with soft bilges and a “built-down hull” — a keel in the Down East vernacular.
Betsy’s hull is solid fiberglass supported by fiberglass stringers and cored-fiberglass bulkheads. Vinylester resin is used throughout, and her exterior surfaces are finished with Awlgrip. Her interior is sculpted in cherry veneer and solid-cherry trim. While this is a straightforward, contemporary construction technique, her craftsmanship sets her apart — her fit and finish are exceptional. The secret is simple, Kachmar said. “Our operations manager has been with us 35 years and our design and production manager 17 years — it’s all about experience.”
Betsy is more than another lobster yacht — her DNA resides in the heart of the breed. While the term “lobster yacht” has now been translated into half a dozen languages and variations on the theme are sometimes difficult to discern, the fact remains that the simple concept of melding this commercial design with one for pleasure makes sense. Lee Wilbur deserves a good deal of credit for pointing this out!
Displ.: 42,000 lb. (full load)
Fuel: 600 gal.
Water: 200 gal.
Power: 1 x 1,015-hp Caterpillar C18
Price: Upon request
Wilbur Yachts, 207-244-5000; www.wilburyachts.com