LONG ISLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine lobstermen have been racing their boats competitively for more than 100 years. You can bet they’ve never seen a craft — half boat, half car — like the one Steve Johnson has been racing at this year’s speed contests.

A 1994 convertible Pontiac Sunbird fastened to the top of Johnson’s boat turns heads as he zips along at 50 mph, sitting in a bucket seat and operating controls mounted inside the car. He calls it a “ca’-boat.”

Johnson has a history of showing up at the races in outlandish boats, but none that have drawn so many double-takes. “I’ve had a lot of boats, but I’ve never had so many photos taken of one before,” Johnson said. “Everybody waves. They think it’s pretty funny.”

Maine lobster boats are built to be sturdy and strong to withstand the harsh waters as fishermen pull their lobster-filled traps from the cold Atlantic Ocean depths.

But lobstermen don’t live for work alone, and first began racing for fun, it’s thought, about a century ago off the eastern Maine port of Jonesport. Back then, fishermen raced on Sundays — the one day they didn’t pull their traps – in sloops powered by the wind, said Willis Beal of Beals Island, whose grandfather was reputed to be among the fastest lobstermen in those days.

The races have since evolved into action-packed contests where boats with souped-up engines roar and scream across the water at speeds of 60 mph and more, leaving roostertails and rolling swells in their wake.

In Jonesport and other fishing ports like Boothbay Harbor, Harpswell and Winter Harbor, spectators line the shores and watch from 100 or more boats that crowd the race course. Like a floating tailgate party, they whoop and holler — cold ones in hand and grills smoking — as lobstermen compete for cash, prizes and bragging rights.

“It’s like going out to the stock car races,” Beal said.

Boats with names like the Red Baron, the Sopwith Camel, and the Voop became the stuff of legends through the years as they developed rivalries and pushed the limits. These days, the boat to beat is Foolish Pleasure, a Beals Island vessel that holds the all-time speed record of 64.1 mph.

The races aren’t just about lobster boats.

Nobody pretends that Johnson’s boat is used to pull lobster traps, but he’s allowed to race nonetheless in the work boat class. Besides, the races are also about fun and show — and nobody can deny that Johnson fits the bill on those counts.

Johnson, 54, lives in this island town, five miles off Portland, with fewer than 200 year-round residents. He was a lobsterman before opening his boatyard in the 1990s.

Back in the 1970s Johnson first began racing his boats, and since has earned a well-deserved reputation for creativity. He once equipped a lobster boat with a 1,350-horsepower engine that came from a 1942 PT boat — the type used by the Navy in World War II. Another time, the engine he put in his small boat was so big he had to build outriggers on the boat so it wouldn’t roll over.

Over a few beers this spring, Johnson and some friends decided it’d be a hoot to make a “ca’-boat.”

To make it happen, he turned to an old 26-foot cabin cruiser – reminiscent of the S.S. Minnow from the “Gilligan’s Island” TV series – that someone left at his boatyard years ago, and a sapphire-blue Sunbird with a dead engine that a friend offered up.

With a circular saw, he cut off the boat’s hull at the waterline, built a fiberglass deck, and chained the car — complete with well-worn tires and a convertible top that goes up and down — on top.

“It’s legally registered and we put navigation lights on it, on the stern and on the bow’ to make it legal,” he said.

Life jackets are stowed under the hood, where the engine used to be. He also took the time to put a fake lobster trap hauler on the side of the boat – but only for show, of course.

Inside the car, Johnson installed a GPS, a VHF radio and marine controls between the seats where the gear shift once was. Otherwise, it looks like a normal car with a speedometer, wiper and light controls, and a radio/tape player under the dash. The odometer reads 100,959 miles. The key is in the ignition.

Demonstrating his contraption, Johnson takes hold of the steering wheel and revs the engine. The steering wheel is connected through a hydraulic system to a pair of 200-horsepower outboard motors.

The bow lifts, the engines growl and water sprays behind the stern as he gives the boat some gas. As it turns out, this boat was built for more than just show – it’s also got serious speed. In the season’s first two races, he topped out at close to 50 mph.

The Sunbird rides smooth across the water, almost like going for a Sunday drive. In fact, Johnson has done just that – taken his wife, Lynn, out for a leisurely Sunday ride across the bay, their black Lab, Hunter, in the back seat, oldies music playing on the tape player.

When Johnson showed up at the season’s first race in Boothbay Harbor, Jon Johansen’s jaw dropped. Johansen, president of the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association, said the Sunbird has been the talk of the races this summer.

Johansen even put a photo of it on the front page of his monthly newspaper, Maine Coastal News, leaving two other boats behind during a race last month.

“My front page says, ‘What the Hell’s That?'” Johansen said. “That’s what everybody says when they see it.”

Johnson’s already trying to figure out how he’ll outdo the Sunbird in future races.

“Next year,” he said, “maybe it’ll be a school bus.”

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