STEUBEN — Mike Light stood in the doorway of his boatshop and watched as a truck hauled the spanking new lobster boat Thai Lady off toward the Milbridge town dock one day before its scheduled launching.
On the boat’s starboard quarter, tucked up beneath the rail just forward of the transom and above the federal fisheries permit number, gold lettering outlined in black proclaimed the boat to be “Light’s Last.” But is it?
“I’m tired,” Light said as the boat he said is his 79th disappeared down the road on the first day of July. “I’m just tired. I’ve been doing this 34 years, 27 on my own.”
If the big Calvin Beal, Jr.-designed 44-footer really is the last boat Mike Light finishes it will end a remarkable career with a perfect Downeast Maine story.
Light, about to turn 60, grew up in Corea, famous for its rugged fishermen and the fast, rugged seaworthy boats — more than 500 of them — designed by Ernest Libby Jr. and built by the Young Brothers, Colby and his younger twin siblings Arvin and Arvid, in their Cranberry Point shop.
Light got his start building boats in the brothers’ shop, first laying up fiberglass hulls and evolving over the course of six years into a lead man responsible for overseeing a boat’s construction from beginning to end. It was a natural enough career step. Arvin Young was Light’s stepfather and he was “so tight” with his uncle Arvid.
Like a lot of Maine boatbuilders, including the Young brothers, Light also went lobster fishing for part of the year. For awhile, he was sternman for a young lobsterman he grew up with in Corea, Herman Anderson Jr., but his principal work from the time he was 20, in 1980, was building boats in the Young Brothers shop.
In 1992, Light decided to go out on his own and see if he could establish a business finishing off hulls from other Maine boatbuilders. Initially, he finished three boats at the Winter Harbor Marina, then rented a garage in town so he could work inside.
“I did four boats there, then Vid (Arvid Young) approached me about renting a vacant shop right on the corner,” of the Young Brothers yard. “I could do two boats” at one time in that shop, Light said.
In the event, he did lots more, spending 18 years in the Corea shop before Roger Kennedy, owner of Kennedy Marine Engineering on Route 1 in Steuben, approached him with an idea of building a new shop.
“He had the property,” Light said. “He’d go 50/50 on the building and when I was done, he’d buy me out.” The deal made sense.
“My concern was who’d want a 6,000-foot building? I’d have to sit on it and rent out bays (open space) to guys working on boats.”
Light and Kennedy built the new, three-bay shop building at 917 Route 1. Light moved in during the fall of 2015, and while he was busy as could be — he had a crew of eight when the shop was going “full bore” plus his wife, Tammy, “my backbone, my support,” working full time in the office — Light was chewing over how long he wanted to continue building boats.
Business was good, Light said. He had stayed busy constantly, even when new boat construction was slow during the great recession of the last decade despite the fact that he had never gone to a boat show to display his work and never advertised either before or after the move.
Word of mouth from satisfied customers is the best advertising, especially in a close-knit community like the lobster industry, and that played a significant role in Light’s success.
Thai Lady was the third boat that Light finished for Anderson, his old playmate and fishing partner.
About a dozen years ago, he finished a 45-foot Young Brothers hull for the Corea lobsterman and, several years before that, Light finished Anderson’s Young Brothers 40-footer.
“In five years I never had an empty bay until now,” Light said, but about three years ago he decided the time was fast approaching to close up shop. At the time, he had orders for 20 boats to finish. He contacted his waiting customers and told everyone who wasn’t already financially committed to buying a hull or engine that they’d have to find another finisher.
When Thai Lady rolled out of the shop last week it was the 79th boat finished by Light’s Fiberglass. Of those, Light said, probably five were finished for the Young Brothers when he first started in business with the balance representing hulls from just about every designer and boatbuilder on the Maine coast. He guessed that he’d finished about 15 boats in the Steuben shop.
With Thai Lady successfully launched on July 2, Light can move on to his next phase, whatever that may be.
He said he would take a week off and help his daughter and son-in-law finish a house, then come back “and look for a part-time job. I just want to put stuff together and be left alone,” Light said.
And is Thai Lady really Light’s Last? Well, maybe. He said people didn’t wave at him anymore after he’d removed the Light’s Fiberglass lettering from his truck and that was fine with him, for now.
“I just need a break,” Light said.