A renowned boatbuilder reimagines a piece of Maine history.
By Brian Kevin
This summer, not long after Rockport Marine owner Taylor Allen presided over the launch of the William Underwood, a 78-year-old sardine carrier he spent 12 years painstakingly restoring, a landlubbing interviewer suggested to him that chatting with wooden-boat fanatics can feel like talking to collectors of ancient Egyptian pottery — the experts’ aesthetic is often lost on those outside the subculture.
Photographs by Peter Ralston
“I think the word you’re looking for is cult,” Allen offered.
At 70, Allen is one of the high priests of the cult of wooden boats. His Rockport yard is known internationally for both its craftsmanship and its meticulous approach to high-profile restorations. Owners of some of the world’s most admired sailing yachts have entrusted their crafts to Rockport Marine for rebuilds that can take years. So when Allen announced the completion of his longtime passion project, a cruising yacht of his own, the boating world took notice. Photographer and Island Institute cofounder Peter Ralston, who is Allen’s neighbor, says it’s “a little like the Pope building his own popemobile.”
Bottom row: Taylor Allen (in shorts) stands next to wife Martha White as stepson Sam Temple speaks at the boat’s launch celebration; the William Underwood on the water in the 1950s.
In fact, it was like the Pope building his own popemobile out of a vintage Chevy pickup. A working boat, the William Underwood was built in 1941 and spent its first couple decades shuttling millions of pounds of sardines and herring from seine nets Down East to the William Underwood Company cannery in Jonesport. When the industry was at its peak in the ’50s, the town hosted three such packing plants, and a visitor might have spotted 20 sardine carriers like the William Underwood tied up in the harbor — long, graceful vessels designed to maneuver easily, even when weighed down with holds full of fish. It was a style as iconically Maine-y as lobsterboats are today, says Ronnie Peabody, founder of Jonesport’s now-defunct Maine Coast Sardine History Museum. But when the industry collapsed in the later 20th century, the sardine carriers fell into obsolescence. “Most of them just ended up being left to die, as they call it,” Peabody says.
Allen first laid eyes on the 70-foot William Underwood at a boatyard in Brooklin, where a previous owner abandoned a restoration after stripping the boat to its hull. He brought it to Rockport on a barge and started the rebuild as a back-burner project. “I didn’t have a timeline in mind,” he says, “although if I’d known it would take this much effort . . . ” In recent years, Allen has relinquished management of Rockport Marine to his stepson, Sam Temple, allowing him to spend “virtually every day” with the William Underwood, “putting in 10-hour days for the last couple of years,” with help from the yard’s staff.
The result is a craft you don’t need an expert eye to appreciate: a long, lean hull with an elegant swoop to its bow, trimmed mint green and cream, with lively little herring hand-painted on trailboards. Beautiful lines and maneuverability, Allen says, make sardine carriers convert naturally into cruisers, and he takes satisfaction in having returned a now-rare specimen of Maine’s maritime heritage to the water after more than a decade in the boat barn. On a mounted plank in that barn is a quote from an essay by wooden-boat enthusiast E. B. White. (Not for nothing, Allen is married to White’s granddaughter, author Martha White.) It reads, “If a man must be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most.”