Rick Alley giving a demonstration of how the traditional wooden traps that he grew up with are built at the Blue Duck on Islesford. He taught a group of teenagers about how to make the traps, then the teens worked with the younger kids to build traps for sale in the chandlery. PHOTO COURTESY OF SERENA SPURLING

Made in Maine: Islesford Boatworks aims to close the loop

CRANBERRY ISLES — The winter population of Islesford is only about 60 souls, and this winter a significant fraction of the town can be found on Saturdays in the Blue Duck. They’re making wooden buoys, walking sticks, coasters and other items to be sold in Islesford Boatworks’ chandlery, or store, to visitors in the busy season.

Boatworks is a nonprofit community boatbuilding program. It began as a summer project: A group of kids would spend several weeks building a boat, then the boat would be auctioned off to support the program.

Recently the organization began to explore other ways to raise funds. With the move to the Blue Duck, which is leased from the National Park Service, Boatworks now has much more interaction with visitors coming to the museum, the Islesford Dock restaurant and other attractions.

Visitors are excited to see and learn about the program, said Melissa Amuso, who runs the chandlery. They want to support it, and it’s natural to want to buy a souvenir.

“They want to buy something made by the kids,” she said.

So they hit upon the idea of making wooden lobster buoys from salvaged fenceposts or scraps from boatbuilding projects. These are popular with tourists (similar ones are for sale in Bar Harbor gift shops, many of them marked “Made in China”).

They also represent a connection to the island’s own fishing history: On the shelf next to the new and in-progress buoys is an old one that was used for many years by Richard “Chuddy” Alley, father of Boatworks volunteer Rick Alley.

The group is also hoping to sell items donated by local artisans with a connection to fishing, to the Cranberry Isles or Maine.

“We keep going in this big circle,” Amuso said. “We need help from the community but we’re also helping the community.”

This weekend project of making items for the chandlery is running in parallel with a school program led by Lauren Gray, in which students are building a replica of an old skiff made by Victor White.

The high school indoor track season is over, so Amuso’s kids Xander and Beatrice were home on the island this past Saturday instead of away at a meet. They were joined by fifth grader John Palmer, who is a skilled hand with a block plane, and a couple of fishermen who stopped in to take a break from splitting wood.

Xander, a sophomore, took the boatbuilding class at Mount Desert Island High School last year, and knew enough from his Boatworks experience that he was able to help lead the class.

Beatrice, a junior, will help her mom run the chandlery this summer.

“Other than fishing, Boatworks is what we did” in the summers as soon as they were old enough, she said.

Both began lobster fishing at the age of nine, and Xander now has 100 traps with his student license and a 16-foot boat given to him by a yacht club member that “somehow my dad and I were able to turn into a lobster boat.”

An intergenerational group of volunteers was at work in the Blue Duck on Saturday making items that will be sold in Islesford Boatworks’ chandlery this summer to support the community nonprofit.

Also available for sale this summer will be traditional wooden lobster traps. Last summer, Rick Alley taught some of the older students how to make them, and that group then led the younger kids in the project.

The heavy wooden “sills,” the part the trap rides on as it’s slid over the rail of the boat when it’s hauled, are made from whole small trees, trimmed a bit to be more square.

The sills are connected by four “crossings” two feet apart. The round tops are branches from a red spruce. They may need to be heated in a boatbuilder’s steam box to get the curve or, “if they’re off a young enough tree, you can stand ‘em up behind the woodstove,” Alley said.

Along with the skills, of course, they learned some entertaining history.

When wooden traps are “soaked up,” he said, they’re quite heavy. But they’re also neutrally buoyant, so fishermen would often return to their traps after a big storm to find they had moved.

Alley remembers taking crates of rocks out on the boat when setting wooden traps. He’d put a few rocks in and throw the trap in the water. “It would go down a little ways, but then float.”

So he’d have to bring it back up and add more rocks.

“But you don’t want to use too many rocks, or you won’t have enough to weight all your traps.”

Boatworks was founded by the Ravenhill family, who are summer residents, and for the last several years has hired a boatbuilding teacher to come to the island in the summer and lead the program.

Executive Director Tony Archino led the first school-year program two winters ago, when he and his family were able to stay on the island through the fall. They built the St. Ayles skiff that some students were able to use to row to school between the islands.

Gray and Jim Amuso have kept the school-year program going. And this summer, for the first time, the adult staff will be former students: Louise Chaplin and Shippen Savidge.

“The eventual goal is for the entire organization to be run by the community,” Archino said.



Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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