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May 13, 2013
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Fuel-efficient lobster boat design moving forward

Trimaran performs well, Penobscot East Resource Center finds

by Craig Idlebrook

The trimaran hull prototype.
The trimaran hull prototype.

STONINGTON — Lobster boat designs were as different as the Maine harbors in which the boats floated in the early 20th century. But by mid-century, those competing designs blended into the easily recognized, now classic, modern Maine lobster boat, said Nathan Lipfert, senior curator for the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath.

The outer hull design has stayed largely the same since then, he said.

"If there's a change in design, it's more been in the construction,” Lipfert said.

That may change if a project by the Penobscot East Resource Center continues to make progress. The center has teamed with Maine Maritime Academy professor Doug Read to attempt to create a new kind of lobster boat that can cut fuel costs by 25 percent or more.

To achieve this, Read is redesigning the hull, using a trimaran shape so it can use a smaller engine. Read reports that the project has taken a significant step forward, as lab test results this spring show the design significantly reduces drag.

"It's the lower drag haul which will give you a smaller engine," Read said. "We saw the drag reduction we were hoping to see."

The next step will be to test models of the boat in the sea in San Diego, said Robin Alden, executive director of the center. While Alden is cautiously optimistic, she says it's too early to know if the design will succeed.

"We have been taking one step at a time,” Alden said. "With a boat, you never know."

Alden and others began envisioning this project roughly four years ago, at a time when diesel prices were rising and lobster prices were crashing. They were searching for a way to reduce fixed costs for lobstermen, and cutting fuel costs seemed like a great way to help.

"The price of fuel is obviously going to be going up steadily and that’s such a big piece of a lobsterman’s cost picture," Alden said.

A more fuel-efficient lobster boat would have the added benefit of reducing the industry's carbon footprint. And if the new lobster boat design takes off, it could mean more work for Maine's boatbuilding industry, she said.

Finding that fuel savings with the traditional lobster boat design might be impossible, said Read.  Almost everything that could be done already has been tried, but the traditional hull hits a wall in drag efficiency. Read abandoned improving on the traditional design with even more respect for Maine's boat-builders than he had before.

"They are great," he said. "They're actually so good that it's actually impossible to do some additional improvement without doing something radical."

The trimaran design Read has chosen means the boat looks radically different below the surface, but it retains the familiar profile above the waterline, he said. That might be an important factor to win over a lobstering community that likes tradition.

Read has been holding feedback sessions with lobstermen and incorporating their suggestions, when possible. Skepticism has diminished as lobstermen see projections of fuel savings. Alden said she is seeing growing enthusiasm.

"The message at this stage of the project is that this is a good idea, but it had better be pretty," Alden said.

But more convincing might be needed. David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, is well aware of the need to save on fuel costs; his fuel costs have jumped in the last few years from $2,500 to $10,000 annually. But he's skeptical whether promised fuel savings will offset the price of buying a new boat.

"It’s obviously a big cost, but I’m not willing to change the whole scheme of things to address that,” Cousens said. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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