Ah, the boatyard truck—an ageless beast that doesn’t sweat the small stuff, such as leather upholstery (or even having upholstery), chrome trim (doors often aren’t that big of a deal), or 0-60 performance numbers (6 mph is an average speed for a boatyard truck—who needs to go 60?).
The boatyard truck is all about getting the job done: pulling, pushing, lifting, lugging, all those things that need doing in a boatyard.
There’s no standard manufacturer or model for a boatyard truck—all that’s really required are a few basics.
First, it needs to be rugged. Nobody cares about style—in fact, the less fancy stuff, the better, as that’s all liable to get broken during the carrying out of daily duties. Dents, dings, gouges, and scratches are all part of a day’s work and mostly considered badges of honor. Never mind metalflake paint jobs or racing stripes: what counts on a boatyard truck is a solid frame—the heavier the better—with good weight-bearing points on either end for pushing or pulling.
Consider the 1974 GMC dualie that’s served the J.O. Brown yard out on North Haven for the last 40-something years. The boom on the back end of the GMC actually came off a ’37 Ford (and was possibly mounted on something else prior to that).
Daily tasks for the Brown truck might include everything from dragging granite mooring blocks to lifting all sorts of things: engines, boats, lumber—anything that needs hoisting or yanking. Its tipping point is 2,500 pounds, reportedly attempting to lift anything heavier than that with the boom will pick the faithful GMC’s front end off the ground. But blocking the rear bumper will prevent a wheelie situation.
Simplicity and maneuverability are also important features for a boatyard truck—and Newcastle Marine’s one-of-a-kind 1985 Ford F150 is the epitome of both. Take a look down into the Newcastle Marine yard from the Route 1 overpass the next time you’re driving through Newcastle: you’re likely to see a v-e-r-y stubby, green-cabbed pickup moving boats around—the frame shortened to the point where the rear tires are positioned just behind the cab.
Newcastle Marine owner John Traina said that necessity was definitely the mother of invention: “The way the buildings are laid out, it’s a pretty tight squeeze when you have a boat on a trailer.”
For years, Traina used a converted sidewalk snowplow for moving boats. It could turn on a dime; but eventually parts became hard to come by. He said inspiration struck him one day while he was looking at the old Ford F150 sitting in the driveway. The pickup’s box was rusting out, but the frame was solid and it ran like a top.
Local metal fabricator Maurice Hyson followed Traina’s design and came up with a stubby workhorse with simple, rugged components—from the Mercruiser hydraulics that elevate the trailer hitch to the outboard gas tank and custom wooden bench seat in the cab—that will still turn on the proverbial dime.
Boatyard trucks also require some power—not in terms of speed, but for sheer low-end muscle.
The first time I went out to Long Island off Portland to visit Johnson’s Boat Yard, Steve Johnson said he’d pick me up at the ferry landing. “You’ll recognize me, Cap,” he said in his packed-gravel voice.
He had a point: the ten-wheeled, camouflage-painted 1987 Kaiser troop carrier he was driving did sort of stand out in the parking lot.
The diesel-powered monster is all about the grunt: “She’s got an 855 Cummins,” Johnson told me as we bombed up the road to the boatyard, “and a super-low low gear. You couldn’t stall her if you wanted to. Just pop the clutch and away she goes. We use her to haul boats and my brother lugs lobster gear with it.
“She doesn’t care how much of a load you put on her.”
What’s even better is that the odometer turns backwards when you’re in reverse, Johnson pointed out—and he spends a lot of time in the boatyard backing up.
“It’s a great way to keep your mileage down,” he said.
While you’ll find all sorts of vehicles employed as boatyard trucks, there’s one thing they all seem to have in common: the people who depend on them respect them.
I remember being on hand one spring day a number of years ago when a yard was getting ready to launch a brand-new boat for an out-of-state customer.
Due to some cross-up in communication, the customer’s family and friends had shown up a day earlier than the boatyard expected to launch; things became quite tense very quickly. The customer pointed at some elderly family member and announced to the yard owner that if Grammy So-and-So passed away overnight (she looked to be in decent health, but one never knows ...), the boat would be cursed.
With the tide retreating from the launch ramp, Jake, the driver of the yard’s 1949 Dodge Power Wagon, was consulted. The boat could be made ready to float in about an hour; would there be enough water to launch?
Jake eyeballed the ramp and scratched his head. “It’ll be close,” he said, Clint Eastwood-style.
When the anxious moment came, there wasn’t a lot of hope in the air: normally, Jake would back the low flatbed of the Dodge into the water, let off on the winch, and let the cradled boat slide overboard off the angled body. The tide was now so low (with hardly any ramp left), it didn’t seem possible.
Jake pulled around and got lined up with the ramp; he revved the engine, popped the clutch, and rocketed across the yard backwards. As the truck raced toward the ramp, it was obvious what he was planning: slam on the brakes at the last moment and skid the cradled boat off the flatbed into the harbor.
It probably would’ve worked, except when Jake stomped on the pedal, every brake line on the Power Wagon blew.
The good news was, the boat (and cradle) did slide off the truck body and the boat floated clear. The launch party screamed and yelled their approval.
The bad news was, Jake’s truck ended up partially submerged with water halfway up the doors, the tires mired in the mud off the end of the launch ramp.
I watched Jake grunt and push to get the driver’s door open; he stepped down out of the cab and into the water.
Jake slowly slogged his way up the ramp, then paused and looked up into the sky. He sighed, then turned around and waded back out to the truck. Once he pried the driver’s door back open, he began winding up the window.
“What’re you doing, Jake?” I called to him.
He pointed up to the sky.
“Looks like it might rain.”
Now that was a man who cared about his truck.
A former offshore lobsterman, Brian Robbins is senior contributing editor for Commercial Fisheries News.