MT. VERNON — A Mount Vernon man’s unique watercraft has Echo Lake boaters gawking — and even a bit concerned for his safety.

That’s because Rich French, 60, owns one of Maine’s most unique boats: a wooden longtail boat handmade and imported from Thailand. Vermont-based boatbuilder and researcher Douglas Brooks said it may be the only one of its kind in New England.

The longtail boat is mostly used in areas with shallow water, including the bayous of the southern United States. The Thai longtail is commonly handmade with local wood and can be up to 98 feet long. They have a canoe-like shape and have a large solid wood beam shoots out of the front to balance the boat’s weight.

A CNN report from 2016 referred to the boat, locally called “rua hang yao,” as “the gondolas of the south.” In that same report, boatbuilder Bang Bao said no plans are used to build the boats, sometimes because the boatbuilders can’t read.

Brooks, who has apprenticed with nine Japanese boatbuilders and written five books on the topic, said the Thai longtail boat is an example of an indigenous or vernacular boat, meaning it is native to a certain area.

“If he’s got the only Thai longtail in New England, that wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” he said.

Brooks said boats all through southeast Asian have a similar look to the Thai longtail, featuring flat sides and a flat bottom. These boats are built “plank on frame,” meaning the planks of the hull is laid across the frames of the boat.

“They’re quite well-known, they’re really classic,” he said.

Before returning to central Maine in May, French worked in the country of China. During that stint, he found Thailand to be more entertaining on holidays and weekends. It was there that French grew an affinity for the unique Thai longtail boat, which is used for passenger travel as well as freight in the country.

“These were just interesting boats to watch and ride,” he said. “I had one of these moment that it was something I’d like to have back in Maine.”

“They literally use them for everything,” French added. “If you get into some of these villages, the water is their road.”

Rich French, left, alongside boatbuilder Sorin Klongyuan and French’s commissioned Thai longtail boat in Krabi, Thailand, in 2018. French’s boat is used on Echo Lake in Maine. Photo courtesy of Rich French

French’s 30-foot Thai longtail boat was crafted by hand in Krabi, Thailand, by boatbuilder Sorin Klongyuan over a three-month period in 2018. It cost $3,000, but shipping charges and other fees added another $12,000 before it arrived in Maine.

“It just fit in a 40-foot shipping container,” he said. “There’s a lot of fees that I wasn’t aware of until after; it had to be fumigated, the boat had to be X-rayed.”

The engine is also a bit different from the common boat engines. Chris Cushman, a boat builder and restorer at Androscoggin Wooden Boat Works in Wayne, described the engine as “like a car engine with a 12-foot shaft and a propeller on the end.” French said piloting the craft took some getting used to, as you stand on the deck to use the motor.

French said getting the boat to the home took a lot of “new friends,” including Paul Wilson of Innovative Industries in Livermore Falls, who received the boat shipment and a number of locals who helped make the boat “lake legal.”

“Mainers came together to help a guy that hasn’t even been here for years,” he said.

One of those new friends is John Andrews of Fayette. Andrews said he has helped French get the boat up and running this year. He described the boat as looking “almost like a Viking ship.”

Boatbuilder Sorin Klongyuan decorates Rich French’s Thai longtail boat in Krabi, Thailand, in 2018. Photo courtesy of Rich French

“It’s a very unusual boat,” he said. “When you see it, you realize you’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

Andrews said during the boat’s first outing on Echo Lake, water leaked through the boat’s joints, due to the wood drying out from being stored for about two years. He said the boat had about eight inches of water in it before he and French beached the boat and let it soak up some water to close the joints tightly.

“We beached it and just let it sit there for a couple of days,” he said. “Over in Thailand, these boats are in the water for 365 days a year.”

Cushman said Mainers often pilot a number of interesting boats, but none like the Thai longtail.

“We see a lot of interesting really old wooden boats (in Maine), but they were made in the United States somewhere,” he said. “In this case, that one is all done with hand tools. It was all fared by eye.”

French said fellow boaters in Echo Lake often cruise by to take a look at the boat during his nearly daily outings. He said boaters often come out to ask if he is OK when stopped in the lake to eat because it looks like the boat may be in distress to an unfamiliar eye. Since the boats in Thailand primarily operate in salt water, it sits lower in the freshwater of Echo Lake.

“(The boatbuilder) didn’t know how the wood would do in fresh water and the concern is that the wood can rot,” French said. “Saltwater is a different environment and that’s something I have to see in time.”


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