Schooner fleet, down some boats for the season, faces challenges
Rockport — If it is true, as the adage says, that a rising tide lifts all boats, the tide has not quite turned for the schooner tour business in the area.
In less than six months, two of the graceful, many-sailed vessels have been seized because their owners were unable to keep up the payments on them: the Nathaniel Bowditch, then owned by Owen and Cathie Dorr, of Rockland, in December, and the Timberwind, owned by Robert and Dawn Tassi, of Rockport, on May 1.
Bar Harbor Bank & Trust Co. filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Portland against the Timberwind and her owners because the Tassis failed to make payment on the first preferred ship mortgage they took out in 2009. The bank is seeking $329,054 in principal, interest and late fees, plus unspecified additional interest, costs, expenses and attorney's fees.
On the order of Magistrate Judge John Rich III, the boat was towed to Rockland, and a company known as Equinox named as substitute custodian May 2.
Attempts to contact John Bass II, lawyer for the bank, by phone and the Tassis were not successful.
U.S. Marshals hosted an auction for the Bowditch Feb. 14, but no one bid the minimum $250,000, and ownership went to the mortgage holder, Thomas Federle. The schooner is currently in Camden. Attorney Twain Braden, representing Federle, said the Bowditch was being prepared for an inspection by the Coast Guard.
“She's in great shape and looking for a new home,” he said.
Both Nathaniel Bowditch and Timberwind are listed for sale with David Jones Yacht Brokerage of Rockport.
A look at the listings on Jones' website yields several other names known to anyone familiar with the local schooner fleet: American Eagle, Charm, Heritage, Victory Chimes and Voyager are all for sale.
“I think there is a little changing of the guard, for sure,” said Jones, who does 90 percent of his business in wooden boats. A generation of schooner operators, most of whom have been at it for 30 to 35 years, is getting ready to retire, he said.
Jones said he might sell one of the big, expensive windjammers per year, so anyone thinking of getting out of the business has to plan ahead. It can take “a year or two” to sell one of these boats, he said.
The business is a way of life, more than a way to get rich, he said. “Someone's got to want this way of life,” to enjoy spending most of their time on the water, doing the hard work of running the boat and pleasing the customers, Jones noted.
Meg Maiden, marketing director of the Maine Windjammer Association, agreed with Jones' assessment. She said captains see themselves as stewards of their boats and want to find new owners who share their affection for the vessels and will take good care of them.
“You can't just put your boat on the market and expect that it will sell right away,” she said.
It is harder to make a go of it today than in the past, Jones said. Partly as a result of that, some operators try to supplement their income by running their boats for several months a year in southern waters, as well as the four- to five-month summer season in Maine. The warmer water, he said, is not good for the boats.
Another pitfall for operators is not having a large enough cash reserve, he said.
“Their vision doesn't match up with reality.”
Jones regretted the loss of several of the schooners which, he said, are “the trademark of the whole Maine coast.”
At least one owner is expanding his fleet this summer— Ray Williamson owns Maine Windjammer Cruises, based in Camden. His three schooners are Mercantile, Mistress and Grace Bailey. And this summer, he will also be running day trips and single overnights from Lincolnville Beach aboard the pinky schooner Summertime, which he has chartered from owner Bill Brown for the season.
Olad Captain Aaron Lincoln also added a smaller boat — The Owl — to the Camden fleet. Long-time mainstay in Camden Harbor Betselma is undergoing repairs and will not be put in the water this year, owner Alec Brainerd previously said.
Since the recession that began in 2008, the environment for his business has been economically challenging, Williamson said, with fewer people traveling.
“In general, it's not what it used to be – practically waiting lists to get on these boats,” he said. Now, windjammer captains have to work much harder to fill their boats, and may end up going out with less than a full load of passengers.
In addition, the vessels need a lot of maintenance, work that is not inexpensive, he said.
Williamson was guarded about the health of the local schooner fleet. Regarding the loss of several windjammers in a single year, he said, “That's not a healthy sign.” However, he said those that remain can still do well if the economy picks up some.
Maiden said the tough times have been going on even longer.
“It certainly has been challenging … since 9/11,” she said of the economic climate for windjammer tours. However, having fewer boats sailing may help those who remain fill their tours. “We're looking forward to a strong season,” she said, and her association hopes to be welcoming the boats now for sale back into the fleet within a few years.
One thing some people may not know, Williamson said, is that spending several days aboard a windjammer can actually be less expensive than a vacation ashore, because everything is included in a single price.
“I don't think people realize what a good deal it is,” Williamson said.
To introduce visitors to the pleasures of life on a schooner, he is offering one-night trips from Lincolnville to Islesboro on the Summertime, as well as two- and four-hour day trips. He said he hoped some people would enjoy their single-night trip enough to try a multi-day voyage on one of his larger vessels out of Camden.
For now, he said, adding another schooner doing multi-day trips from Lincolnville would not make sense, since he has not been filling the ones he has in recent years. Still, he sees a market in Lincolnville, as one of the few coastal towns that does not already offer sailing trips.
Perhaps that is how the business will rebuild itself. As Jones said of the multiple schooners with a local following that are currently for sale, “It's a great opportunity for somebody.”