Monster Machines: Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard’s 25 BFMII

It takes a big lift to get a big boat in and out of the harbor.

The shipyard’s Travelift, a model 25 BFMII, can lift up to 25,000 metric tons (55,000 pounds) and move at a top speed of 118 feet per minute. Martha's Vineyard Shipyard owner Phil Hale says it is much safer and more efficient than the old rail system. — Photo by Rich Saltzberg

For 46 springs, The Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard has deposited boats into Vineyard Haven harbor, and hauled them back out the following autumn. For 46 years, the shipyard has used mobile boat hoists manufactured by Marine Travelift of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

The shipyard’s current lift, a model 25 BFMII, can lift up to 25,000 metric tons (55,000 pounds), and even with a top speed of only 118 feet per minute, it’s a vast improvement over the old railway sled and cradle system used by the shipyard up until the tail end of the Johnson Administration.

“The Travelift is much safer and more efficient than the old rail system,” said Phil Hale, owner of the shipyard.

With the rail system, a truck or tractor moved vessels along the yard’s private railroad bed, which stretched from the heart of the shipyard to several feet below the water. Vessels pulled from the water for onsite wintering tied up the rails, cradle, and sled until they could be transferred to blocks, a process that could be time consuming. Unrestrained by rails, the mobile boat hoist can do in less than an hour what might have otherwise taken half a day.

The machine itself is a squarish and airy assembly of steel hung with two great slings. It sits on four 44.5- by 16.5-inch tires that, like all its movable parts, are animated by hydraulics. An 80-hp John Deere diesel engine provides the compression for the hydraulics. Weighing in at just shy of 20,000 pounds, the boat hoist requires a beefy pier to support it (not to mention whatever it may carry). Mr. Hale built such a pier, one that traverses the slope of the old rail bed in the shape of an elongated “U,” stretching far enough out into the harbor for boats to easily motor up to its mouth and slide over the hoist’s sling baskets.

According to Jack Anderson of Martin Walter Co, Inc. in Norwell, the regional dealer for Marine Travelift, once a boat is over the baskets, its weight has been properly assessed, and the hoist’s operator commences lifting, the hoist’s four hoist drums (essentially mechanized pulleys) automatically synchronize to maintain balance. Besides weight, the only other real limits on what boats can be hauled are dimensional — whether their hull width safely fits within the boat hoist’s 17-foot inside clearance or whether their overall height fits safely within the boat hoist’s loaded clearance height of 18 feet.

The 25 BMFII at the M.V. Shipyard is the third mobile boat hoist the Hale family has owned. Though both ends of the boating season are times when it sees its heaviest use, it doesn’t remain idle in the off-season. Even in the middle of winter the boat hoist can shift and shuttle boats around the shipyard for storage, repair, or trailering.

“It is in use 12 months a year,” said Mr. Hale.

Marine Travelift pioneered the mobile boat hoist back in the late 1940s and early 50s. The first models were not self-propelled but were still more advantageous than rail systems, and over the years they came to replace many of those systems across the country. According to Mr. Anderson, like Kleenex brand tissues, the company name has become synonymous with the type of product it manufactures. That is to say, many folks simply refer to mobile boat hoists as Travelifts. Marine Travelift now makes mobile boat hoists in a range of sizes and capacities. The largest one in New England is at the Newport Shipyard in Newport, R.I. Its lifting capacity is 500,000 metric tons.

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