Searsport Lobster Boat Races – Searsport, ME
If necessity is the mother of invention, then boredom might just be its crazy father.
Lobster boat racing on the coast of Maine can be traced back to the early 1900s. When asking around to find out just WHY lobster boat racing came to be, the answer I got each and every time was simply, “boredom”. Apparently lobster boats + boredom + testosterone = racing. Captains who had time in between fishing worked on their boats and their engines to get revenge on the captain who had beaten them in the previous races. While this seems simple enough, there’s an added historical tidbit that just might lend a hand in explaining just how lobster boat races came to exist.
It can all be traced back to the age-old economic principle of supply and demand. You see, the first lobster boats back to the docks after a day of fishing used to get the best prices from the buyers at the local fish market. A few extra cents per pound will have any lobster boat captain racing another boat just to get to the dock first. And with that the concept of racing lobster boats began, and can be traced all the way back to the 1930s. Nowadays the skippers race for prize money instead of a better catch price, but it’s fast and competitive just the same.
As more and more towns began hosting races, it became necessary to have an organization oversee the classes and rules. So in 2002 the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association was formed, and now manages the races every year, complete with a point system and an end of the year banquet. There are 12 races in towns up and down the Maine coast during June, July, August, and September, with the banquet being held in October.
Anywhere from 30-60 lobster boats compete each race day, in different classes depending on the size of their engine, if they run on gas or diesel, as well as the length of their boat. There are some “special” races in addition to the different class races, including special categories like “Lady Skippers”, “Boat Builders”, “Wooden Boats”, and “Working Lobster Boats”. The races are run on the water in a drag-style format from a running start, where the boats start at a lower speed, align themselves with each other and wait for the “start boat” to drop the flag for the race to begin. After that it’s a full steam ahead, as the boat captains push their vessels full throttle through to the finish line. 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place finishers in each class can race in their respective “Fastest Diesel Boat” or “Fastest Gasoline Boat” before facing off against all comers in the last race of the day, the “Fastest Lobster Boat”.
The Searsport Lobster Boat Races are ran by Travis Otis and his father Keith, who took over managing the races in their hometown of Searsport 13 years ago. In addition to coordinating, promoting, and being the start boat for the races, the father and son team raise money and donations from advertisers and local businesses that go towards the end of the race prizes and raffles for the boat captains. All of that effort ensures that boats keep coming back year after year to race in Searsport, solidifying their place on the annual lobster boat “race circuit”.
After hearing about our upcoming visit to Searsport for the races, Travis invited us to be judges for the day, an honor and a challenge we readily accepted. After meeting the other judges and getting a general idea of how the races work, we were shuttled onto a floating barge that doubled as the judges viewing area as well as the finish line. A perfect place to see the entire event unfold, we watched with careful eyes as the boats started out as dots on the horizon, and shortly thereafter we could see and feel the powerful machines up close as they sped towards the finish line. Jackie’s camera became the official “photo finish” camera, as a couple of the races were decided by mere inches of a bow.
The view surrounding the race course was something right out of a postcard, as dozens of boats filled with spectators sat anchored in the Searsport bay watching the races. Colorful houses dotted the rocky coastline, and people filled the docks and landings to watch what some in the state have called “Maine’s version of NASCAR”. Locals and tourists alike venture up and down the Maine coastline to watch the races, and they’re perfect entertainment during the heavy summer tourist season in Maine.
Aside from a few close calls, most of the races finished without much incident. That doesn’t mean that the captains take it any less seriously, as many boat owners follow the lobster boat “race circuit” and try their best to beat the other boats in their class week in and week out. After one of the close races, a boat captain was overheard vowing to “beat that guy” in the next day’s races in the town of Stonington. Sometimes races can be decided by 1/4 MPH, so it makes sense that these boat captains develop some rivalries over a 12 race season. As for top speeds, on that day the ultra-powerful and eardrum-splitting “Foolish Pleasure” took home the prize for “Fastest Lobster Boat” with a speed of 58 MPH. To put that into perspective, boats top out at about 25 MPH when water skiing or tubing.
When these boats are all racing against each other, it’s a flurry of roaring engines and crashing waves. Throw in the fact that these boats are made for catching lobster, and it’s a uniquely Maine cultural experience. But most importantly of all, it’s anything but boring.