JONESPORT – There is probably not a better-known fisherman on the coast of Maine than Benny (Bernard) Beal of Jonesport. For those that did not know him from his career fishing around New England, they knew him as one of the top lobster boat racers. Benny was a hard fisherman, a hard racer, a hard businessman and this translated into success.
One aspect of Benny’s life that few know is that he also knows how to build boats. Benny’s father was Elihu Ellis Beal, who was born in Jonesport in 1914. He served in the U. S. Coast Guard and came home to lobster and build boats with his father Riley. Riley, was born William Riley Beal on Beals on 13 February 1890. He would passed away at Milbridge on 9 May 1979. After World War I, Riley lobstered, but soon he was building boats on the northern end of Beals Island. Later the shop would be moved to Jonesport. Also involved in this enterprise was Riley’s two sons, Elihu and Adrian Velton Beal.
Benny added, “Grandfather learned out of state, the drafting and stuff. Grandmother had a goiter I believe and they had to go out of state for the surgery and they lived out of state quite a while. My grandfather could draft boats and build any kind of boat. In fact, he ran a shipyard during the war in Stonington. He did all the drafting, and they came out so near perfect that they were the best on the coast. The Government wanted him to go to the different yards to inspect the boats and stuff and he could take his wife with him but they wouldn’t guarantee him not to send him out of the country, so he didn’t take it. He worked in a shipyard out of state, but I don’t know which one. Anytime that someone wanted to build a dragger he’d go and draft it out for them. Other boat builders from Jonesport weren’t capable of drafting.”
Over the years I have numerous stories about the boatbuilders of Beals-Jonesport going to Stonington to work at what is now Billing’s Diesel & Marine building boats for the war effort. The Downeast builders built the skeg model and the ones from Mount Desert and around Brooklin-Deer Isle built the built-down model. The old builders always said the conversation would be quite lively as to which one was the better model.
Benny was born in 1932 and can remember his grandfather before he was building boats, saying that at that time he was just fishing.
The shop in Jonesport was just to the west of where Benny’s current dock is. This was built by Alton Rogers, who built numerous boats in Jonesport before World War II. Benny added, “We had a mill separate from the shop and the mill was about 60 feet long. There were big planers that you could run keels through and there were big band saws and joiners, everything to work with in there. Then the big boat shop, it was huge. You know an ordinary shop they had to tip a boat. Well, this one the floor of the shop lowered down. There were two big winches on each side to lower the floor. We hauled sardine carriers, 64 to 65 feet and then we built a boat on each side of her. That is what really ruined us cause my uncle took the orders and he didn’t get enough for them. We had a carrier in the middle and I think there was a 38-footer on each side, twin screw with two big Oldsmobiles in each one of them. Well this ran into a lot of more money than he figured. It took a lot of work but we built those two on each side plus the big one in the middle and there was still a lot of room. That is where I built the STELLA was on one side there. Then there was the loft where smaller boats, row boats and pods, could be built.”
Before he went fishing, he said, “I was driving plugs in boats. I was probably 6 or 7 and that was before we had the big shop, we bought that afterwards. They didn’t teach you just watched and learned. We all worked the big shop together, five of us bought it: my father, grandfather, Lester and my uncle Adrian. Elihu and Adrian were the ones that built the carriers and stuff outdoors to start with. There was no money in building boats at that time. You were competing with Canadian cheap boats.”
When they were building on Beals they built four large boats: the smack ARTHUR S. WOODWARD, and the sardine carriers BETSEY & SALLY, BIFISCO and MAINE QUEEN. Unfortunately, there is no complete list of the boats built by Riley or his two sons,
Benny started like most fishermen in Beals and Jonesport going out with his father learning what to do before getting their own small boat. He said, “I started in an outboard boat then I bought, from Harold Gower, about 20 or 22-footer. I bored a log, put it by the side of the keel. I put a Crosley motor in it and then after that I had a big air-cooled motor in it. Then I had my cousin, Lester started to build me a boat. He made the stem and stuff and it ended up a 22-footer. When he got ready to put the log in, he kind of gave up, so I bought that and finished it. That was the 22-foot DUMPLIN’ we called her and that was the first one that I built that I fished out of.”
In 1952 in between digging worms and clams Benny and Ellery Merchant, Jr. built the 28-foot STELLA ANN. Ellery clinched the nails and Benny did all the framing and planking. Benny added, “I think Dad helped me set her up, the keel and moulds. Riley sat down at the kitchen table and made the half-model over the way I wanted it. I notched into the moulds and straightened the bottom out the way I wanted it.”
He fished and raced her until the racing stopped for a time on Moosabec Reach. Benny added, “I sold her and I was working out of state and when I came back and tried to buy her. An old fellow in one of the western towns had her and I tried to buy her back for year and couldn’t buy her. When I finally bought her back, she had been hauled out in the woods and turned over and the planks were right off of one side, off the stern all together. I had the model so I made moulds for her and put them in her and set them up like I would for a new boat and then I kept pulling them in with long screws with washers on them. I got her shaped up anyway so she was just like new. Then I used knit fabrics and epoxy resins, which was a real expensive way of doing it. I could do it in my basement, no odor to it at all.”
Before the STELLA ANN made her second appearance on the racing scene, Benny raced the 28-foot Crowley BENNY’S BITCH in the diesel classes and dominated for several years. He said that the reason he sold her was that he wanted to race his own boat, not someone else’s. There was also the racer MEGAN, but we did not see her but once. Benny said, “I told Junior Backman, my uncle built boats, and I was going to notch into her mould and he said he didn’t think I ought to let her come up. I wasn’t satisfied with her at all when I got her done, cause I knew it wasn’t right. He talked me out of letting her go that way, so she came out too far dropped down. I fished her for years and I’ve still got her in the boat shop.”
Benny had a lot of fun racing, but he had the most fun racing Doug Carter and the Barlow designed BABE [Everett Barlow, 1962; 455 Oldsmobile] of Boothbay. Benny added, “Every year he’d say you ain’t sand bagging are you? I sand bagged all the time with him. Then I’d just edge him out. He’d work and work and the next year I’d go back and I’d edge him out again. I had more fun with him.
Another race he fondly remembered was his first race, which was in an outboard boat again Bill Church of Jonesport. It was real rough and he knew Bill had a faster boat, but due to the conditions Bill opted to go closer to shore and that was a longer distance. Benny decided to go straight for the finish bouncing up and down and when he came up, he got his bearings and pounded his way all the way down the course. He said, “I took one hell of a beating but I beat him. That was the first time I ever raced.”
Benny has owned a number of boats over the years. Elihu built him ANN MARIE in the 1970s. The 41-footer DONNA MARIE was also built by Elihu in 1972. In 1979 Clifford Alley built him a 39-footer named SHIRLEY JEAN, which Benny said was a lot like his grandfather’s model. In 1982 Doug Dodge finished off a Newman 46 named BESSIE MAE.
One of the best boats he owned was the PIONEER. He said, “I told my grandfather I wanted a model made like the one my uncle Adrian had. She wasn’t right flat and steady as some, but she was one hell of a sea boat. He made me the model for the PIONEER, only I put a lot of flare in her and she was different but basically in the sea she was about the same.”
When asked who built her, Benny said, “Well, now that is something else. My Dad and I built it and oh my God. I was buying and selling worms and stuff. I built a basement with 8 foot walls cause I needed it to handle worms in. Well, we built the PIONEER in the basement. People said “how are you going to get it out?” Well, it didn’t worry me any as I figured I’d get a big crane and take her out. Got ready to take her out, got the crane, and they said “oh we can handle her, no problem.” He got her picked up and went to turn her and the crane started lifting and was going to go right into mother’s house. So, he had to drop her. She was out over the cellar wall, but I had built a real rugged cradle for her and just as well, when they dropped her one end of that cradle caught on that wall if it hadn’t it would have taken the side right out of the boat. There she was sitting there. Next thing he done, he latched a bulldozer to the back end of the crane to hold it down. We finally got her down off the cellar wall and that was scary when they dropped her. I thought she was gone. After a while with enough action we got her down.”
When she came out, she was completely done and Benny thought all they had to do was install the engine. He explained, “She was 38 foot. The first straight sheered, high sided lobster boat at the time. We were way ahead of these other guys. I know one of the old fisherman said, “I see your new boat on the mooring and I’d be some proud of her.” She had a yacht finish. I sanded her by hand with blocks.
Benny not only fished off Beals-Jonesport, but also out-of-state. He said he fished out Gloucester and Nantucket going out over 200 miles fishing for lobster on the Continental Shelf. Benny was the first from Maine to fish that far offshore. Another one to do this Was Bob Brown of Gloucester, who was one of Benny’s best friends. Benny explained, “He was one of the first ones to go offshore lobstering. I met Bobby when I was long lining out of Gloucester. It was miles and miles every trip where we set, seems as much as 20 miles. We set an awful lot of gear. Bobby Brown was working doing the same thing with me at the same time. He tried to tell me I was paying my crew too much. I paid my crew well. He wouldn’t. He was hard on his crew. His way you have to break in new crew in every trip. You want somebody you can depend on. You have got to treat them right.”
The boat he used offshore out of Gloucester was ANN MARIE. Some would use the new fangled electronics to find their fish, but Benny knew exactly where he wanted to be and did not waste any time getting there and did not waste any time while he was fishing.
There was also a 55-foot Bruno Stillman that Benny owned. On a motorcycle trip through the White Mountains he stopped to see the progress. When he saw the boat, he told them, “We wouldn’t put that kind of work in an outdoor shit house. When I got her home, I took her over to Junior Backman’s and grounded her out and I worked on her there.”
Following a fall that broke his hip, Benny has stopped fishing. After more than eighty years fishing the New England coast Benny has left a last legacy showing that hard work and sheer determination will equal success. He did that fishing, but also when it came to racing.