BELFAST, Maine — It was the best show in town, and maybe even the county.
A crowd gathered this week at Front Street Shipyard, watching avidly as managing director J.B. Turner deftly moved a massive schooner around the yard with his two hands.
Turner wore a yellow remote control device around his neck and concentrated hard on the controls as he swung a huge marine travel lift into place to haul the 115-ton-plus Spirit of Bermuda back to Belfast Bay.
Around him, catamarans, motor yachts and other vessels — many worth millions — stood ready for their turn to return to the ocean after safely waiting out Tropical Storm Irene on shore. In addition to the boats, the shipyard also was filled with the sounds of construction. Workers quickly swung hammers, speeding to get the project’s next phase completed before the snow falls.
The chattering onlookers remarked on how all those huge boats were smoothly wrangled back to the water. They also talked about the difference a year has made to the scene at the waterfront.
“This is a great operation, isn’t it?” said Jenness Robbins of Searsmont, who had come to Belfast to see the show.
Arch Spencer of Belfast agreed.
“We’re astounded at how fast this is moving,” he said. “I just think it’s wonderful, all the activity there is on the Belfast waterfront.”
Last September, that part of the harbor was home only to the crumbling remnants of the Stinson sardine processing plant and a lawsuit, as the city of Belfast sued the development company that had promised to turn the plant into a fancy condominium project but didn’t follow through.
When a group of Maine boatbuilders and maritime professionals purchased the property in January to turn it into a major regional shipyard, city officials breathed a sigh of relief.
Those same officials are still sighing, this time with delighted surprise that just eight months later, the shipyard is “maxed out,” in the words of Turner. He said workers had hauled 35 ships out of the harbor ahead of Irene and couldn’t fit another one in the yard even if they had tried.
“They’re incredibly successful in the first few months of their business, and they really haven’t even begun yet,” said Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley. “It’s going to be incredible.”
Partners in the project are Steve White of Brooklin Boat Yard, Ken Priest of Kenway Corp., Taylor Allen of Rockport Marine and Turner.
“Frankly, one of the things I really like about this venture is that four boatyard guys have come together to launch another venture,” Allen said Friday. “If it works like I hope it does, it’s going to attract more boats to the state. It will be good for all the surrounding yards.”
While he wouldn’t comment on how much money has gone into the project so far, everything about it has been big.
The boat yard’s travel lift, used to move the boats to and from the water, is able to lift boats weighing more than 165 tons.
“To the best of my knowledge, it’s the largest lift in the state of Maine,” Allen said.
It’s also wide enough to be used to service large catamarans, including several that came in ahead of the storm that are home ported in places like California, New Zealand and Italy.
“There’s a lot more work going on up there now than I ever thought, so early on,” Allen said. “It strikes me that word is getting out that the shipyard is there and running.”
Moyra MacKay of Toronto, who was busy getting her catamaran ready for winter, said she had learned about the shipyard in a magazine aimed at boating aficionados.
“The people are fabulous,” she said. “They’re very knowledgeable, very helpful, very friendly, very accommodating. We’re very satisfied.”
Simon Colley, captain of the Spirit of Bermuda, was circling his boat, snapping photos as it was moved to the water. He said that the schooner had been built at Rockport Marine several years ago, and comes up to Maine annually to be refit after a busy season of taking every eighth-grader in Bermuda for a five-day-long sail.
Even though some might find it nerve-racking to watch such a large boat move around on land, Colley said he wasn’t worried.
“These people are professionals. They know what they’re doing,” he said.
Turner said that while last weekend’s Tropical Storm Irene was the first large storm that Front Street Shipyard weathered, the 22 crew members working there brought plenty of experience with them so they could do it with a minimum of stress.
The storm, which attracted boats from all over the Maine coast, will be good advertising, he said.
“That’s what we’re all about,” Turner said. “Showing people we can get the work done safely and efficiently is really paramount. We know that word of mouth is better than anything else.”
He said he didn’t mind the onlookers, more than 100 of whom had lined up on Saturday when crew members pulled a 90-foot motor yacht out of the harbor.
“It’s the way it works in boatyards,” Allen said. “There’s a lot going on. A lot of activity. Interesting things are happening.”