First published in the MLA Newsletter, January, 2012
We all know the clichéd vision of Maine lobstermen so popular in the general imagination: sturdy, taciturn, stoic about both the hardships and beauty integral to lobster fishing. They work hard, talk about engines and haulers, and when not fishing, are getting ready to go fish. Yet many if not most lobstermen have hidden talents. This article continues our series about Maine lobstermen who are not only successful fishermen but singers, poets, performers and artists.
Ed Hutchins comes from a long line of fishermen in Cape Porpoise. His family roots date back to the 1760s and he grew up on the same street where he lives today with his wife and daughter. Ed was first drawn to building boats as a young boy. “My grandfather always had this boat upstairs in his house,” he said, pointing to a weathered 40-inch model fishing schooner nestled in a cradle. Carved from a block of wood, “it was built by my great-grandfather Victor E. Hutchins in 1916. He worked as a groundfisherman on the big fishing schooners during the turn of the last century,” explained Hutchins. As a boy Hutchins was told that his great-grandfather had traced an outline on the top of the block and then the sides, and “cut away at what didn’t look like a boat.”
Growing up, Hutchins fished with his family off the coast of Cape Porpoise until the age of 14 when he started washing dishes in a local restaurant. After high school he decided to attend college out of state, graduating with a four-year degree in political science. Hutchins moved back to Cape Porpoise shortly after college and landed a job as an apprentice for a local cabinet maker. The position led him to start building pond boats, revisiting the fond memories of his great-grandfather’s model fishing schooner.
“I didn’t really know how to make a model, and couldn’t find any books about it so I just figured out how to do it and I taught myself,” Hutchins said. One day the owner of a local art gallery saw one of his models and asked if he could buy it. Hutchins gave him a price, and, encouraged by the sale, built additional models to sell in the local gallery for more than ten years. His models were purchased by collectors, some for thousands of dollars. With the money from these sales, Hutchins was able to buy his first set of traps. He then set out to follow the family tradition, fishing for lobster.
The first pond boat race in Cape Porpoise was held at the pier in 1937. Reportedly the races came about as a friendly competition among local fishermen who had built these model boats for their children. Each year they would gather at the fishermen’s club where they would debate who had the fastest model boat. The annual tradition continued until the beginning of World War II.
Hutchins was instrumental in organizing the next generation of pond boat races at the Cape Porpoise pier in 1993. The idea was enthusiastically received, especially by the older generation of fishermen who remembered racing long ago. When asked what prompted him to bring the races to Cape Porpoise, Hutchins said “we did it for a lot of reasons, but mostly for fun.”
In the summer, crowds of people gather once again on the shore to hear the blast of the ten-gauge cannon starting the pond boats through the three-quarters of a mile course. “We try to follow the traditional rules,” Hutchins explains. “No radio controls. The models must be a schooner or sloop-rigged and have gaff-rigged sails.” Hulls must be less than 50 inches long but there is no limit on vessel width. Lead ballasts may be used to keep the boats from flipping over. According to Hutchins, it’s important to have a lightweight punt to track one’s ship. Competitors must row behind their models and catch them, tack the sails by hand and maneuver around markers. In order to keep up with the model boats, which may get up to 5 knots in speed, you must “row like it’s nobody’s business,” said Hutchins.
Hutchins’ favorite part about building models is the connection he feels to the generations before him. “It’s something I have in common with my great-grandfather, a man I never met. But I feel like I’m having the same experience that he had and that’s special,” he explains. The worst part about building a model boat is selling it. “You put a winter’s worth of time into it, sometimes a year or more. Then you turn it over and it’s gone.” Hutchins has donated models to the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust and other organizations. Many articles have been written about his craftsmanship in the local papers and in Down East Magazine.
Hutchins invites friends to his shop during the winter to work on their models and “get the stove going, swap lies and what have you.” Noting his desire to reignite the community around his family’s legacy in building and racing pond boats, Hutchins explained, “Hopefully when I’m gone people will see my work and think, ‘I wonder who made that? Why did they make it that way?’”