Ernest Libby, Jr.: See Other Side
by Mike Crowe
This story first appeared in the Fishermen’s Voice in October 2001.
There have been an awful lot of boatbuilders over the years on Beals Island off Jonesport. In the 1950s and 60s there were 11 boat shops on an island with a population of 500. The Jonesport boat, the local traditional lobster boat built at Beals and Jonesport into the 1960s, has a distinct style. With a narrow beam, skeg-built, sheer low to the water, tumblehome in the stern, low cabin trunks occasionally with diamond shaped windows in them, they stand out.
Historically, fishing boats have been designed by fishermen or fishing boat builders, not marine architecture firms. In the days of sail, architects took lines off fishing boats to design yachts for recreational racing. Fishermen builders made design changes above and below the water that in some cases became regional styles. The Jonesporter is an easily identified example.
Ernest Libby Jr. grew up looking at these boats in the water, the boat shops and backyards of Beals. He now builds fiberglass lobster boats with his four sons from the forms he designed. Designing boats has not only been an interest, it may be one of Ernest’s most significant contributions to modern hull development. His hull designs are highly regarded from Canada to Alabama and have been used by Young Brothers in a lot of their boats.
He traces his interest in design back to the toy boats he played with as a kid. Kids played along the shore with toy boats, some good ones built by boatbuilder parents, others not as good. Ernest built his own and has said at that early age he saw himself as a boatbuilder some day.
Growing up he hung around boat shops watching boats being built. His relatives who fished, often built their own boats, a more common practice when all the boats were wood. The Libbys have been from Bucks Harbor, East Machias, for generations. Libby Island, and the Libby Island Lighthouse, got their name from his family. His grandfather, while moving his family back to Beals from Winter Harbor, was lost at sea, washed off his sloop boat off Dog Fish Ledges.
Ernest’s first boat was a small clamming rowboat he built at seventeen. At the time there was no bridge to Beals, very few cars on the island and no car ferry to Jonesport, so Ernest rowed across the Jonesport Reach and hiked the 10 miles to Addison to order boat lumber. His father brought the lumber over in his lobster boat and Ernest sawed it up with a handsaw. His girlfriend helped him clench the nails. She was so good at it he later married her.
His first job was on the crew building the sardine carrier Bofisco for the Boothbay Fishing Company. His job was sawing the 4" oak sharprisers and 20' long, 5" oak deckbeam stock with a conventional handsaw. He then worked in his uncle Clinton Beal’s shop where he built about 20 boats. Before building his own shop in 1964 at the age of 29, he built three lobster boats outside in a field.
When he started building, he fished in the fall and built boats in the winter. They were 30' to 34' boats for a long time. In all he guessed he built about 100 boats, all fishing boats.
Until about 1991 Ernest built wooden boats. Beginning with his first lobster boat he started by making a wood half-model at about 3/4" to the foot scale. He carved the lines he had seen over the years into the hull model. With exception of the model he made for the Army Corps of Engineers, which they used in a water tank experiment, he has kept all the models he has made. He said, “I always looked at the bottom. People say that boats today all look the same. But they’re not all the same. The bottoms are different, but they’re not looking at the bottom, under water.”
Over the years he watched how his boats went through the water and built in improvements in his next boat. If a boat plowed or threw water high he would make hull design changes. When Ernest built wood boats he would regularly suggest to a customer changes in the hull he thought would improve performance. Most would leave it up to him and he was able to make changes. Beals was known as boatbuilding town and people came from all over to have boats built there. He was soon building three wooden boats a year, sometimes four.
The most interesting part of boatbuilding for Ernest is “making the model, transferring that to paper, then bringing that into the three dimensional molds, the forms that the wood is bent around. Seeing it come together.” The flexibility of the wood boatbuilding process made it possible for Ernest to experiment with changes. The width of the stern, turn of the bilge, depth of the keel, shape of the bottom or length of the boat could be changed in the next boat. The bottom has to be designed so that the boat “swings good, gets underway quick, is fast and stable with some roll, steady without throwing too much water;” is the way Ernest describes some of the things he considers in designing the business side of a boat. These experiments led him to produce fast hulls that came to the attention of the Young brothers of Corea, who began building fiberglass boats in the mid-1970s.
Ernest had known the Young brothers as kids when they came to Beals with their parents. He also knew them later when they were in the Coast Guard. When the Marguerite G, which he built for James Preston, was winning races, the speed appealed to the Young brothers. As a result they asked Ernest to build them a hull. This led to five more from which they built plugs for molds to build fiberglass hulls in. Ernest worked with the Young brothers at their Corea shop and at his Beals shop. He worked with them for many years, a time in which Ernest Libby put the fast in Young Brothers boats.
At the same time he was building boats at his shop. Hull changes from one boat to the next are not as easily incorporated with fiberglass. Glass boats are laid up in a mold. The mold is built from a process similar to the wooden boatbuilding process. A scale half model is made, then a wood hull is built from it. But rather than finish it, the hull or plug is smoothed and waxed so a fiberglass mold can be made on it and easily removed. This mold is used to make several glass boats that all have the same hull characteristics. Changes to hull design require a new wood hull, called a plug, and a new mold built on it.
Asked if he would like to build wood lobster boats again he said, “I don’t know how you could do it, it costs so much. It takes much longer to build in wood. Plus one of the problems we had was finding the wood to build with, it’s not there. Not many people have the skills anymore. No one builds wooden boats on Beals now. In fact, I’m the only one building boats on Beals. There are two shops finishing boats, one just starting.”
Ernest still builds in the shop he built in 1964, which is down the road from his house. It’s a lot bigger than it was then. He makes molds on wood plugs covered with fiberglass. Bigger traps and more people working onboard has created a demand for bigger boats. He still has a call for the 34' and the 38' boats and plans to keep building them.
Ernest still fishes and that’s what he’ll be doing for the next few weeks. In recent years he has raced Underdog, a boat he built for racing.