This past summer, as I was returning from kayaking to the public ramp at Port Hadlock, Washington, I saw a friend of mine who was studying at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding (NSWB), which is situated right next to the ramp. He told me that I should see a boat that had just been put up for sale by the school. I wandered over to the boat, which was sitting on a trailer: it was a piece of Maine, a John Gardner-designed Down East Workboat. Just three years before, I had moved from coastal Maine to the Pacific Northwest, so I well knew the boat and its traditional hull shape. I had been looking for a small motor launch ever since moving to this northern area of Puget Sound, and here was, to my mind, the perfect boat for my needs and certainly a practical boat for anyone wanting a solid and seaworthy small boat for coastal waters.
Working boats with this hull shape have plied the coastal waters of Maine for over a century. This Gardner version is 18′ in length, but stretch it out a bit and it becomes a Pulsifer Hampton 22 center-console inboard. Stretch it out a bit further to 20′ or 30′ or more, put a cabin and pilothouse on, and you have the iconic Maine lobsterboat. This hull design has evolved over the years in the Maine waters and boatshops to handle highly variable and oftentimes challenging coastal conditions, so I knew that it would be just right for Puget Sound. If you’ve ever seen a lobsterboat race, when heavy workboats can be moving at over 50 knots, you know that this is a capable design! Needless to say, I soon bought the NSWB boat. I named her MOON LADY, an English translation of my mother’s Chinese name, and to follow the Maine tradition of naming working boats after wives, mothers, sweethearts, and daughters.
Gardner drew the design in 1981, basing it on old photographs and measurements of an 18′ workboat from Washington County, Maine. He described the design as a double wedge, the first wedge being the sharp high bow and the second a wedge turned flat for the stern. This creates a practical workboat that has a foundation of a broad stern set firmly in the water to support the weight of a powerful outboard for speed, along with a sharp entry and planing hull for maneuvering easily through chop and messy currents. Its 18′ length and 6′ 4″ beam help make the boat seaworthy for coastal waters and give it plenty of open work space. Gardner describes the build in detail in Chapter 7 of the second volume of his Building Classic Small Craft.
The boat here, built by instructor Jody Boyle and his students at the NSWB, was constructed directly from Gardner’s instructions with few changes made to the design. It was lofted from his lines drawings and offset tables, then built upside down, with carvel-planked 5/8″ red cedar on flat, white-oak canoe frames 5/8” x 1-3/4″ on 8″ centers, as often used on the Washington County workboat. Gardner suggests that thicker, more typical frame stock could be used, and notes as well that the boat could be built lapstrake.
While MOON LADY has a white-oak transom, which was Gardner’s preferred transom wood, it is 1/4″ thicker than the 1-1/2″ stock he listed. The stouter transom does well supporting my heavier, four-stroke outboard motor or, for that matter, any of today’s more powerful outboards. The transom also has large quarter knees as well as a keel knee.
Instead of the 3/8″ plywood specified by Gardner for the foredeck, MOON LADY has tongue-and-groove cedar planks covered in Irish felt and painted canvas. The same cedar planks replaced the 1/2″ plywood indicated for the forward bulkhead. All the interior wood is oiled and there are no varnished surfaces, whereas most traditional Maine workboats are painted. For safety and security, Gardner specified a removable watertight panel for access to the bow compartment, but this build has louvered frame-and-panel doors instead, which help to air out the enclosed space. Gardner’s book had no information on seating arrangements beyond a pine 7/8″ x 10″ thwart at station 6, so Jody created a layout consisting of a single thwart with side benches on both sides running the full length of the cockpit. The plans call for 5/8″ pine floorboards with the center one removable to provide access for bailing, and a ceiling of pine or cedar from the floorboards to the risers.
This Down East Workboat is Coast Guard rated for six passengers and a 45-hp outboard, but I’m using a 2020 25-hp, four-stroke Yamaha. With this engine, the boat planes easily at 12 knots at one-third throttle and has a top speed over calm water of 15 knots. As I had expected, the boat is adequately seaworthy for a traditional skiff designed for coastal waters. In chop and small waves, the boat holds its line very well due to its full-length keel yet can turn smoothly and sharply as needed with a high degree of primary and secondary stability due to the broad tumblehome stern. Spray over the bow isn’t a problem except when plowing at speed through steep chop or boat wakes and, even then, is only a light spray. The boat can hold the full capacity of six persons in comfort and with plenty of extra space for gear. I’ve also outfitted the open section with four large, inflatable beach rollers secured under the side benches for flotation. The ample storage compartment under the foredeck holds much of the gear needed on a small cruising boat: extra lines, anchor, flotation, fire extinguisher, manual pump, portable toilet, tools, cushions, and life jackets. A 12V battery for navigation lights and two small bilge pumps are secured in the bow compartment to help keep the bow down by countering the weight of the motor, gas tank, and skipper in the stern. One of the modifications I made is adding oarlocks for emergency rowing capability.
As one can imagine for a boat of this size, it is easily moved on the road with a 1,000-lb load of both boat and trailer. I keep the outboard in place during towing and in its nearly fully lowered (third notch) position without bracing and for good clearance above the road. I and one other person easily launch or load the boat on its EZ Loader trailer.
I’ll use MOON LADY as a coastal cruiser throughout Puget Sound and the rest of the Salish Sea, while overnighting aboard as needed at anchor or at marinas. It’s a practical and safe boat for crabbing and fishing, as well. During the frequent light-wind periods of the summer months in Puget Sound, MOON LADY will tow my sailboat, an 18′ L. Francis Herreshoff Carpenter, thus extending that boat’s range in the Sound, the San Juan Islands, and even Canada’s Gulf Islands. With the workboat’s speed and interior space, it will do well as one of the support chase boats during the Salish 100 small-boat cruise in the summer on Puget Sound.
I never thought that one day I would be exploring Puget Sound with a boat meant for Maine, but thanks to the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, I have a Down East Workboat and look forward to many miles of pleasurable cruising. I heartily recommend this well-founded Gardner design. It’s an affordable and capable boat for protected coastal waters.
Denis Wang lives in the Puget Sound coastal town of Port Hadlock, Washington, as a recent transplant from mid-coast Bayside, Maine. Now retired and actively engaged in small-craft boating and permaculture gardening as hobbies, he was a researcher in oceanography and marine ecology as well as a science department administrator and teacher at independent secondary schools in Colorado and on the East Coast. Denis has been an avid sailor in both large and small boats for most of his life and has been an officer in the Down East and Puget Sound chapters of the Traditional Small Craft Association. Recently, he has been a volunteer in helping to organize the Salish 100 cruises of the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend.
Denis would like to thank the student builders at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding for their fine work: Bill Billingsley, Nick Dighiera, Brandon Adams, Sam Trocano, Alex Ashley, Gabriel Partridge, Bobby Ferrar, and K Woolfe. During the project, which spanned more than six months, four students, on average, were working on the boat at any given time.
Down East Workboat Particulars
Inside depth amidships/2′ 9″
Drawings, offsets, construction details, and descriptions were originally included as a nine-page chapter, “Down East Workboat,” in John Gardner’s Building Classic Small Craft, Volume 2, published in 1984 and now out of print. A more recent edition, Building Classic Small Craft: Complete Plans and Instructions for 47 Boats, combines Volume 1 and Volume 2, and is available from The WoodenBoat Store for $40.
Is there a boat you’d like to know more about? Have you built one that you think other Small Boats Magazine readers would enjoy? Please email us!