Bass Harbor Boat Crew Building Wood Cruiser

TREMONT — For the first time in 25 years, a wooden boat is under construction at Bass Harbor Boat company.


Robert “Chummy” Rich and his crew – Richard Helmke, Bobby Kelley, and Wayne “Coolie” Rich – are crafting the 28-foot lobster cruiser, the Andromeda which was designed by Mr. Rich’s father more than 50 years ago.

“It is a nice little project,” Mr. Rich said. “It doesn’t happen every day anymore.”

Employees at the Bass Harbor Boat Company work on the Andromeda, the first wooden boat built by the firm in 25 years. — JEFF WALLS
Employees at the Bass Harbor Boat Company work on the Andromeda, the first wooden boat built by the firm in 25 years. — JEFF WALLS

The job began at the beginning of February. “It took us a little while to gear up,” said Richard Helmke. “We had to loft it out on the floor and build the mold and start fresh because the mold had been destroyed over the years.”

On the plan they only had four “stations” or cross section views of the boat at specific locations along its length. Six are preferred.

“We had to fake the other two, but it came out perfect. When we lofted it out we had to fill in the blank spots,” Mr. Rich said. “We didn’t have a good drawing of the backbone just the basic outline of it so we had to draw the knee into it and fill it in. We had the half hull and some of these lines. We put the two together and this is what we came up with.”

The project started from a much smaller boat – rowing skiff. Bill Jenkins and Hayward May decided they wanted to build a wooden rowboat and asked Mr. Rich if they could use his shop and have him guide them through the process.

“I said, ‘Sure.’ Then they got talking about bigger boats. Bill said he would like to have a bigger one, but he was skeptical about wood,” Mr. Rich said. “But after talking to him I convinced him that that is what he ought to have and so here we are.”

Mr. Jenkins is a hands-on owner. “He is over here every day involved in the process. He does what he can do, some painting or puttying,” Mr. Rich said. “And he is keeping an eye on me.”

The construction is only slightly different from how a reconstruction project might go except for the ability to alter the plans as you go.

“A plank is a plank. Instead of taking something out and putting the same thing back, you have to plan the whole thing in advance and work with it as you go along,” said Mr. Rich. “The hull is pretty much a set thing. You have the planking line that is that wide and then you can adjust as you work on it. With replacing a plank, you don’t have to think about that because you have to work with the size you have been given.”

At this point most of the heavy wood work is done. The hull is cedar and the framing on the inside and the backbone are all oak. The crew is finishing putting the platform in. The fiberglassed cabin top sits in front of the project ready to go. The topside is going to be fiberglassed once the crew finishes it.

Most of the electrical wires, the plumbing, controls, gauges, and hosing need to be installed. “The fuel tanks are in and the engines are all lined up,” Mr. Rich said. “All of the cabinetry is finished except for the trim.”

Some boatbuilders who still work with wood have a hard time finding the right kind of wood. That is not the case in the latest Bass Harbor Boat project.

“I have been able to get the best lumber I have ever had. I ordered the oak and it came and it was almost perfect,” Mr. Rich said. “I ordered the cedar and because there was no frost in the woods they didn’t get it out until late so I used some of what I had. The cedar I have wasn’t perfect but it was quite nice. I had to use it because I couldn’t get the other stuff.”

The boat will sport a 350-horsepower Chevy engine. “She is going to go pretty good but she isn’t a race boat,” said Mr. Rich. “She is strictly a pleasure boat. She is going to be a good little weekender – not a live-aboard by any means. She will have couple of bunks, a galley, and an enclosed head. She’ll have cold running water, and a propane stove with oven. She will have some of the creature comforts.”

The project also represents looking backward to solve problems that have come about in these days of economic and environmental awareness.

“They are an easy-going boat because they go good under small power. They are economical to run. Richard has got one just like this and it goes on a gallon and a half an hour or something like that,” said Mr. Rich. “Almost nothing.”

“Back then, the power was 100-horse so this was designed to run with minimal power efficiently, to be very fuel efficient,” Mr. Helmke said. “It really is going back to the old ways to be green – wood instead of fiberglass, a more efficient hull.”

The biggest hurdle the Bass Harbor Boat crew has had to deal with is the lack of hardware designed for wooden boats.

“A lot of the hardware you find now are for fiberglass boats, thin hull boats. There are some things you need to makeshift a little bit,” said Mr. Rich. “Things like fuel tanks vents. Most of them are made for thin hull boats. It is hard to find just what you want. Eventually we found something that would work. It wasn’t just what we wanted but it worked. We have been able to work around every problem we came across.”

The items that they can’t go the makeshift route with can be costly. “Some of the hardware, like bronze lag bolts, are almost impossible to get. That is what holds the stuffing box onto the backbone for the shaft. Things like that are not common anymore,” Mr. Rich said. “We can get them but they cost. They used to be a dollar and a quarter, now they are 25 dollars each. Nobody locally stocks them so you have to order them.”

The minor inconvenience of finagling and finding parts has not affected the timeline of construction and projected launch date in July, according to Mr. Rich. “Everything has been going pretty smooth. She is moving right along. Of course I would like to have a little more time to finish it,” Mr. Rich said. “We have been working eight-hour days. I am lucky to get the crew to stay here that long. They won’t put up with me any longer than that.”

The Bass Harbor Boats model line is relatively small. “There are probably 10 of these. There were 26, 28, and 30-foot versions of the boat you just stretch them out or squish it together depending on what you need,” said Mr. Rich. “This makes four of these in the area. The other three are 1960 vintage. That is how this came about. (Bill Jenkins) went and looked at the other one. And liked what he saw.”

The project has been quite interesting for Mr. Rich and his crew. “I haven’t done it in 25 years and they have never done it. We had had to start right from scratch. I really never thought I would get another chance to do another one before I retired or died, whichever comes first. It has been nice to have one to build.”

Stimulating the brain cells to recall designing and building a wooden boat hasn’t been as tough as Mr. Rich expected. “I had to scratch my head a few times,” he said. “It is amazing, though. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast but most of this has come back to me.”

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