“People have a big misconception that I always wanted to build boats,” said Richard Duffy. “They’re really wrong because I never intended to build boats for a living.” Duffy’s story, to hear him tell it, is that of a poor boy who built his first boat with his father to replace an old one that leaked. The rest just sort of happened. Only, it didn’t. What Richard Duffy did was what has to be done in Maine in order to be successful: he filled a need.
Richard Duffy had a remarkable relationship with his father, a friendship many men would envy. Ralph Duffy, whom everyone called Riley, though 42 years older, was Richard’s business partner and best friend. They worked together until Riley was 81. Richard had a brother seven years older, but those seven years made for a gap in understanding that neither breeched until both were adults. Richard remembers his father spending hours and hours with him as a child and taking him hunting and fishing.
But this father and son fished lobster together, too. Riley had a 20 year-old Chummy Rich 32; so the year Richard turned 14, the two built a 16-foot wooden outboard for him to fish in. “Even back then,” Richard recalled recently at his waterfront Brooklin house, “I could make as much as a carpenter would: $30 to $60 a night or day.” In 1964, that was a lot of money for a kid to make after school and weekends.
Richard tried college, but didn’t take to it. After a year and a half, he decided, “I was either going to be escorted out or leave on my own, so I left.”
With the draft imminent, he joined the Air National Guard and took a number of odd jobs before and after putting in a year of service.
The spring of 1969 he went back lobstering with his father. They started with 125 wooden traps that he referred to as “old wrecks.”
That fall, they went scalloping. Riley would have been 62 at the time, but Richard spoke admiringly of him, saying, “He was the toughest man I ever met. He wasn’t big — tall — but nothing bothered him.”
They didn’t have enough money to buy proper gear, so Richard built a couple of drags, getting a welder to cut the tops. He recalled, “There were a lot of scallops. Scallops everywhere. We did well at it. But the boat — I remember one trip, it was blowing nor’ west coming back and by the time we got back to Blue Hill, the caulking on the boat was shaken out.” Although they knew better, they caulked the boat from the inside and said they had to stop every half-hour to pump it out just to keep it afloat.
It was time to build a new boat, so that next summer, 1972, Richard suggested getting a fiberglass hull, a 36-foot Jarvis Newman, and finishing it.
“Back then, it was a big deal to have a 36,” he said. “We finished it, and it looked great.” With the new boat, and like most fishermen, Richard and Riley alternated lobstering and scalloping. After they finished scalloping, they built “a bunch of new traps” and a few skiffs and outboards until it was time to start lobstering again.
The spring of 1973, Richard recalled suggesting that they try to build a hull. He explained, “There were other boat builders, but not many in that 34 range. Beal’s Island was known for fast boats, but the Newman and the Repco didn’t have the speed the Beal’s Island boats did. I wanted to build a faster fiberglass boat.” He added, “We still didn’t know what we were doing. We weren’t boat builders.” He explained, “We wanted to make the bow–the Beal’s Island boats go right into the skeg, and we wanted to incorporate sort of the Bass Harbor [type], where in the aft part it went into the keel: the bow graduated more down to the bottom of the keel so it would drive better in the water.”
They made a rough model and then put up a plastic building for a boat shop. They built a wooden plug of poplar, called “popple” locally. They worked for almost three months on that plug, starting at 5 in the morning and working till 4 in the afternoon. Because heat built up in the plastic building during the day, Richard had to open the end flaps, to keep the temperature even. But one weekend, he left for his National Guard duty and forgot to open the flap. When he returned, the wood had warped. Sick at the thought of three months’ work lost, he almost burned the boat. but his then-wife suggested he wait till morning, and he had the sense to take her advice.
The next morning, Riley and Richard decided to fix it up as best they could, take a mould from it, and then leave it till the next year. “We faired it up and filled and sanded it,” Richard recalled, but admitted, “It was never quite as good as it had been.”
In January 1975, Richard moved to Brooklin and built a 30- by 50-foot boat shop, plywood-lined. Richard and Riley built a new mould. “It was smoother,” Richard recalled. “It was a little bit better, but still it was not up to today’s standards. It still had a few waves in it.” They built three boats from that mould.
The spring of 1975, they sold their first complete lobster boat to Merton Eaton, of Stonington, who still uses it for his year-round fishing. Eaton reported that in thirty-three years, “I’ve had no problems at all other than wear and tear,” He put in a new diesel engine in May of 2007. That same spring the Duffys sold another complete boat with pot hauler, power steering, a 455 Oldsmobile engine, CB, and small depth finder for $17,500. Richard said, “A 35 today would go for about $185,000 to $200,000.
“I never planned to stop fishing,” Richard said. “I had never planned to build boats for a living. All we wanted was winter work, but word got around and in a couple of months, I had orders for eight or ten boats.”
With those orders, Duffy & Duffy hit the commercial fishing boatbuilding world and for the next ten years the business grew fast. The workforce grew to 35, with George Ralston keeping the books and doing all the ordering. Richard spent those years working 16-hour days and putting everything back into the business. He said, “My wife never saw me. I don’t know why I was driven so hard.” It cost him his marriage.
In the middle of all this, Richard recalled trying to borrow money from the bank and getting turned down. He thought he was through and told his father. That imperturbable man, furious, went to the bank and spoke to someone he knew there. The next day, Richard got the money.
Asked what it was that made his boats desirable, Richard replied that they were different from what was out there — and they were faster. His was the first 34-foot fiberglass lobster boat. Spencer Lincoln designed all the others: the 26, 30, 31, 35, 41, 42, 48, and the 50. Richard purchased the mould for a 56 from another company, from which he made three hulls.
The boat that made Duffy & Duffy so popular, though, was a 35-footer that Lincoln designed in 1981 that was much wider than the 34. “It had a flare to it,” Richard said. “It was pretty.”
He built a couple and sold them, then built one to take to the lobsterboat races with one of the first turbo-charged, after-cooled Caterpillar engines. But when he tried it, the propeller wouldn’t turn as fast as it was supposed to. The Stonington races were the next day.
Fortunately, the Caterpillar man was there and said he’d drive the propeller to Massachusetts to be re-pitched so it would turn such that the turbo-charger would cut-in and give it that burst of power. What was more, he’d get it back in time for the races in the morning.
Which he did, but cut it so close, there was no time to try it.
Richard and 20 or 25 others aboard reached Stonington as boats were lining up for an important race. With no time to have guests debark, he raced with their added weight and, he said, “Won easy.”
He won the next race, too, “by a lot” against a Young Brothers 33 with a Volvo engine.
“That one race,” Richard said: “I just couldn’t build them fast enough after that race.”
But the Young Brothers went back to their shop in Corea, and worked some miracles. By the Winter Harbor race, they beat Duffy’s boat. For years after, Young Brothers, Duffy & Duffy, and Holland, from Belfast, competed against each other, but after six or eight years, Richard said he got tired of it, and it was expensive.
He hadn’t raced in a year when Louis Stuart, from Cundy’s Harbor, approached him to build a racing boat. Richard declined, but when Stuart said he’d find someone who would, Richard succumbed and built a foam core boat with one double skin of fiberglass on each side of the core. Stuart put in a 454 Chevy re-bored to 585 cubic inches. Richard said he guessed the engine had 900 to 1,000 hp. Instead of a keel, he laid up an inch of solid fiberglass and added that afterwards. The boat would go 68 mph, but he said he had it going 73 mph several times.
No one would race him. He laughed out loud, remembering, and said, “We were so much faster than anyone else. I don’t think we ever raced a lobsterboat. We raced outboards.”
After that Richard got into building yachts, which just didn’t work. He could figure how many hours it would take to build a lobster boat, but yachts are so precise, it was a completely different business. Between contracts, the ever-increasing costs of Worker’s Compensation, problems with various governmental agencies, etc., he couldn’t seem to make money. Thirteen years ago, Richard sold Duffy & Duffy to Atlantic Boat, built a 50-foot offshore lobster boat and went offshore fishing. He sold that, built several smaller boats, and fished tuna for five years. Now 58 and remarried, Richard Duffy fishes lobster and in winter, relaxes.