The Lure of Power Boats

A trip through Maine's waters shows these bad boys' irresistible appeal.
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THOMASTON, Maine -- Sure, I love the 14-foot tides, fish that tastes as sweet as the sea, and light and land all around.

It's no accident that American realist painter Andrew Wyeth knocked off "Christina's World" just seven miles down the road.

But honestly, I come to Maine for the boats.

Not those cute little retro sailing schooners that ply tourists with a taste of Maine's great sailing past -- I want the big, fast, world-class, ultra-high-tech yachts that are coming from these rugged shores.

Maine boat-building is positively chic.

There are many storied builders turning out excellent boats. The

Hinckley Company up in Southwest Harbor is probably the best known, with its elegant power and sail semicustom yachts.

More traditional craft come from

Morris Yachts over in Bass Harbor. I like what

Hodgdon Yachts in East Boothbay is doing with its 105-foot "sensible" cruiser and very sexy 61-foot cafe racer.

Even lobster boating has gone upscale.

Young Brothers, from up past Mount Desert Island in the hardcore fishing town of Corea, is now finishing its traditional lobster boats -- the ones you see on all the postcards -- in fancier cruising trims.

These boats may look old-school, but they fly. A Young Brothers 30-footer holds what is probably the outright speed record for a boat of this type: A blistering 64 mph.

But I am particularly partial to what one yard is doing with high-tech yacht construction: the

Lyman Morse Boat Building Company. (Full disclosure: I helped build owner Cabot Lyman's house when I was teenager, a thousand years ago. But that doesn't give me a positive bias. I was quickly -- and rightfully -- fired.)

Lyman Morse specializes in best-of-breed pure custom yachts, built from mostly traditional, wholesome designs.

Business is good. LM recently expanded to 185 employees and has five boats under construction, including its first composite-hull catamaran. It also manages and maintains a healthy 70 to 75 yachts.

Drew Lyman, one of Cabot's sons, who now manages the service end of the yard, met me one recent rainy day at the company's dock on the harbor. There we took an on-the-water look at what LM is doing in midsized powered runabouts: Its 30-foot Jet Boat.

The Jet Set

Jet boats hit the market about 15 years ago as an alternative to traditional propeller- and rudder-controlled craft. They use drives similar to those in so-called personal watercraft -- the hateful-to-watch but fun-to-be-on

Ski-Doos and the like -- that push a powerful stream of water out of the stern to generate speed and control direction.

Jet Boats tend to need less water to float -- about 18 inches for the 30-footer I was on, as opposed to two to three feet for a traditional propeller drive.

And because there is no prop, there's less to foul, dent or break off when you make an unscheduled touch with one of Maine's countless unmarked underwater obstacles.

The LM 30 Jet Drive was a flat-out blast to drive and control. Backing away from the tight dock was dead easy. And the 256-horsepower Yanmar diesel engine got us to a top speed almost instantly: We were skimming down the St. George River at about 33 mph with almost no effort.

Better yet, these boats can come with complete navigation systems, full routing and weather information monitoring and display packages. They can even be fitted with single-mouse controls for ultimate maneuverability and control, so you can go anywhere in the water.

About the only knock on these boats is that they are hardly earth-friendly.

Even though modern technology would allow for super-light boats that would be very fuel efficient, neither Lyman Morse, nor any other builder in the area, has one in the works.

There are two factors holding most builders back. Despite decades of mass production, boating remains an elitist, pricey endeavor. Most owners and yards, then, don't feel the pinch of the relatively small price of fuel against the whopping costs of construction and maintenance.

And more to the point, one is still going out on the water essentially alone to discover the marvelous but lethal sea. Out there, if your gear goes south, so do you. So innovation in important stuff such an engines is wisely slow and incremental. Fuel economy in boating will come. But it will take time.

Jet boats are like most power boats. They simply guzzle fuel: 10 to 15 gallons per hour is about normal.

But still, it's hard to beat the LM Jet Boat for speed, style and fun. If you have the spare $500,000 for one of these babies, really, what are you waiting for?

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.