Another notable page was added to Cape Ann's flowing maritime history this past winter.
That was when two brothers built and launched the Robin Jean, the area's first "green" boat created by Bolger & Friends Inc., Boat Designers.
Sincerely concerned about helping out East Coast fishing communities — especially their beloved Gloucester - during the ongoing NMFS groundfish and lately the world's economic survivor series — Phil Bolger and his wife, Suzanne Altenburger, who already have 600 boat designs from dingys to a 1794 warship replica to their credit, have been actively promoting a long, narrow and shallow-draft earth and fisherman-wallet-friendly vessel.
These primarily 31- to 70-foot long vessels, best for fixed-gear fisheries such as lobstering and gillnetting, could be built locally by fishermen, mainly out of renewable plywood and would also require small power packages.
But Bolger and his wife still walk the same path today that Dr. James M. Knott, Jug and Cy Cousens/Webber's Cove Boatyard, and Robert Crowe Sr., did with the vinyl-coated, wire mesh lobster trap, fiberglass lobster boat and the hydraulic pot hauler, respectively, back in the 1970s. Their products became mainstays in different fisheries, especially lobstering. Most of the commonly-used fishing vessels under 65 feet along Cape Ann today were designed and built in New Hampshire, Maine and Nova Scotia.
"I have a lot of respect for Phil (Bolger). I was sure he knew what he was doing in this design," said Dave Mero of Gloucester. Mero and his 45-year-old carpenter brother Dan, of Buffalo, Minn,, began piecing together the approximately 32-foot long, 8-foot wide, by 12-inch deep Robin Jean in March 2008 for owner Robin Hubbard of Gloucester.
"I called a guy in Rhode island who had built a similar hull, and he reassured me it might not look and sound right, but it will come out right," Mero said. "A lot (of choosing this design) was their (Phil and Suzanne's) salesmanship, but most important, we liked the idea of their green fishing vessel that's pretty much unsinkable."
The boat-building novices first constructed an addition onto the owner's place to make the boat.
"We launched in December," said Mero, 40. Also the mate on the local charter boat We Jack, Mero is Hubbard's boyfriend. The Robin Jean will be used to seasonally hook bass and groundfish.
"We did the bottom first, flipped that over, then put in the bulkheads (along with stem and bow) and lastly the sides," said Mero.
They built up from here with the cabin and decked off other areas. Most of the vessel is made from a composite of plywood, foam and epoxy which is held together by layers of very strong epoxy.
"We used 80 sheets of quarter-inch and half-inch-thick Okume plywood. That's well over the 50 we were originally thinking," said Mero.
"The foam-core plywood boats beat other hull materials for stiffness, unsinkability and cost," Bolger explained. "The hull is also quiet to work; the owner can repair this, and it's also insulated."
"My brother worked on the boat basically seven days a week, often eight to 12 hours a day for six months. There were a lot of times, especially when coming home from fishing (on the We Jack), that I wondered what had I got myself into," recalled Mero. The brothers sometimes got assistance, especially with sanding, from Hubbard's relatives.
Building the curved "four foot" — or spine — on the bow proved to be the most challenging phase of this project.
"Just bending its cut-out two layers of quarter-inch plywood at such a bend and working with the liquid foam after that was difficult. The foam goes off and expands quickly. If you pour in too much foam, it could explode the whole section," said Mero.
Most of the boat's foam core is 2 inches thick. During construction, the brothers sometimes deviated from the original design plans. One item they omitted was the dagger board, similar to a partial keel, from the bottom of the boat.
"A lot of blood, sweat and tears were also shed to get the boat out of the workshop," Mero said. "There was little to no extra room to do this. We (including friend Peter Coigley of Gloucester) used pipes to roll it out."
The men even had to pivot the Robin Jean 90 degrees at one point.
"Johnny Oliver trailered it down to Pike's (Marine in Essex)," Mero added.
Oliver operates a popular boat-trailer service on Cape Ann. Pike's installed the boat's hydraulic steering, electronics — even a radar — and the 115-horsepower Evenrude outboard along with its controls. The smaller, green fishing vessel versions, like the Robin Jean, can be powered either by outboards or inboards. Another local company, Seaside Glass and Mirror, made up and installed the pilot house's different-shaped windows.
"The pilot house is nice and light with those windows; it heats up nicely with them, too," Mero said.
Mero has already been out on the Robin Jean four times since being interviewed several weeks ago.
"I'm happy with it," Bolger said. "She handled the sea nicely and used next to nothing with gas."
The 115-horsepower outboard even pushed the hard-chined, planing hull 28 knots. A boat like this "... makes speed rather than waves," Bolger explained.
"This was a great achievement. That was a lot of boat for two amateurs to build," said Bolger.
His wife added, "... and a nice finish job, too."
Gloucester lobstermen Peter K. Prybot writes weekly about the fishing industry and related issues.