Sampan on the Passy

Incidentally oriental: an eye-catching boat in Belfast

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 6:30am
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Maynard Haslett, of Washington, rows a dingy out to his 30-foot riverboat, "Shanty," anchored in the Passagassawakeag River in Belfast. (Photo by Ethan Andrews)

BELFAST – A local blogger was on hand when Maynard Haslett launched his boat Shanty at the public landing in February. Later a few photos appeared online under the slightly befuddled headline "Junk in Maine Waters??"

Shanty's striking look — her cabin painted in bright yellow and vermilion, topped with a flared roof reminiscent of a pagoda — seems almost engineered to evoke a traditional Chinese fishing boat.

For Haslett the attraction was to the shape of the hull, which is not a junk at all, but a "sampan." The rest of the details came together from a variety of inspirations.

The Sampan 30 was designed by George Davis, with whom Haslett worked at Lyman Morse in Thomaston.

Haslett had been a cabinetmaker in several mid-Atlantic states before moving to Washington, Maine with his wife Denise Hylton. At Lyman Morse, his interests shifted to nautical carpentry. Hylton, who is the deputy town clerk in Washington, had sailed for years. They both wanted a boat.

Davis had designed and built a 46-foot sampan for himself. When Haslett saw it, something clicked.

"That’s really where I was bit with the idea of doing something like this,” he said. "It was a way we could get on the water and we could afford to do it."

Davis and Haslett started building Shanty in a rented shop in Bayside last summer. Over several years Haslett had squirreled away between a third and a half of the wood for the boat, salvaging good lumber from building demolitions and yacht “mock-ups" (full-sized rough models that are commonly — though less so in recent years, he said — built for deep-pocketed clients to get a better sense of the design and make adjustments before building the real thing).

The salvaged wood was supplemented with around $4,500 in regular dimensional construction lumber (Haslett went as far as to say that everything but the cleat on the bow could be bought at Viking Lumber or a similar retail yard). 

Inside the finished boat, the patchwork is visible: a few boards of white oak in the bow, a lot of new spruce around the bulkhead, pressure treated lumber for bracing. A canopy over the small afterdeck is supported by four rough-hewn cedar posts. The roof of the cabin is covered in asphalt roll — a sheet form of the material in ashphalt shingles.

After the launch in February, Shanty spent around two months at a slip outside Front Street Shipyard where Haslett has worked since 2011. The boat had no motor. When the recreational boats of summer arrived, Shanty was towed upriver to an anchorage at Board Landing. 

The setting suits the boat, which was named for Shantyboat, Harlan Hubbard's riverboat memoir about his travels with his wife Anna on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in the 1950s aboard a boat they built from salvaged wood. Haslett and Hylton have made a point to spend time on their own shanty boat two-to-three times a week, and occasionally on weekends. 

On one of these occasions last week, Haslett recalled the construction as a welcome change from the high-end work he and Davis were used to.

“We’d goof a bit: Now we get to build the tree house,” he said.

He pointed up at the canopy on the afterdeck. The construction was rough, but there was also a mathematical complexity to braces, which flared out and at the same time changed pitch so that the back sat slightly higher than the front. 

The same big picture approach applied to the hull. From inside the cabin the mix of unadorned lumber had a piecemeal look, but the view from the water showed the sampan form in uninterrupted black.

“She’s not a simple square barge. She’s got shape everywhere," he said.

Shanty's shallow draft and nearly-flat-bottomed hull make her unsuitable for open water, but the islands in Penobscot Bay form enough of a buffer to enough to give a riverboat a little range. As of last week, Haslett was preparing to install an outboard motor and a rudder and tiller assembly. 

“I’d like to go up the Penobscot [River] to Bucksport. Just drift up. That would be so cool. Work with the tides," he said. "But we’re certainly not going outside and Down East with the boat.”

As for the cabin and its apparent nod to the (definitely out of range) Far East, Haslett said the yellow and red paint job was actually inspired by a house on Route 186 near Prospect Harbor. In the haste of putting the boat together, he used Rust-Oleum-brand safety yellow and safety red.

“Honestly I was just captivated by the look,” he said.

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Ethan Andrews can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com