EASTPORT, Maine — Those who have been quietly but persistently matchmaking the cruise ship industry with the lesser-known charms of the Washington County seaside community of Eastport see downtown port activity in 2012 as something of a preview of coming attractions.
Herbert Hoover was president the last time Eastport was a regular port of call for passenger ships, a trend that a small cadre of Eastport boosters is busy reviving. Last year saw cruise ships large and small make seven visits to the breakwater port adjacent to the downtown historic district along Water Street. One, the Grande Caribe was diminutive at 184 feet, while another, The World, was a 644-foot, 12-deck behemoth.
Offering 40 feet of depth at low tide, Eastport’s downtown berth is capable of accommodating cruise ships of any size. Unlike Bar Harbor, which has no cruise ship terminal but still accommodates over 100 cruise ships a year, Eastport’s harbor doesn’t require passengers and crew to be ferried back and forth from shore in tenders while their ship sits at anchor offshore. Shops, restaurants, performing arts venues and other Eastport attractions are only a quick stroll away.
All in all, the four spark plugs behind reviving Eastport’s cruise ship economy — Chris Brown, Chris Gardner, Tessa Ftorek and Amy Powers — see the 2012 visits as a something of a blind date that went very well.
Abraham Lincoln was nine years old in 1818, when Chris Brown’s ancestors first opened S.L. Wadsworth & Son Chandlery on Eastport’s Water Street. The company’s website describes it as America’s oldest ship chandlery and Maine’s oldest retail business. Brown, the sixth generation of his family to operate what he describes as a “hardware store,” says he has been working largely as a behind-the-scenes volunteer for the past 10 years to lure cruise ships back to Eastport.
“There were all sorts of logistics required and a constant string of emails, given these cruise lines’ lack of knowledge of what Eastport is,” Brown said of what it took to make last year’s seven cruise ship visits both a reality and a success. “There was a lot of back-and-forth, which was all indicative of the care that was taken in preparing for these visits. We created an Eastport business locator map. When The World came in, we put a concierge on board the minute it docked. All this effort led to the rest of what we saw that day.”
Hundreds of Down East residents, some traveling many miles, came to Eastport’s downtown wharf on Oct. 9, 2012, to see The World, a passenger-owned condo-ship that has been described as both a “floating city” and “the world’s largest yacht.”
“Bar Harbor and Portland have cruise ships coming and going all the time, and one ship coming in isn’t treated any differently than the others,” Brown said Monday. “The community’s enthusiasm for The World’s visit and the other visits helped us to get pretty good ratings. It took months of advance preparation, but those onboard, including the companies that own and operate these ships, really appreciated the level of detail we invested.”
Brown and Chris Gardner, who is executive director of the Eastport Port Authority, both point out that the successes of 2012 won’t spill over until at least 2014, as cruise lines set their itineraries years ahead of actual cruise departures.
“The tremendous number of hours that Chris [Brown] and Tessa [Ftorek] and Amy [Powers] invested in planning Eastport’s audition in 2012 will play out in 2014 and beyond,” Gardner said Monday. “From both our perspective and that of the cruise line operators, 2012 went really well. And it’s all a result of taking a new approach a few years ago to managing the whole bay, not just the cargo port. Chris Brown has been a huge part of that success. He and others have been great coordinators for the community, and the success we had last year reflects the efforts of a whole team of people.”
Ftorek said 2012 was something of “a test” for Eastport as a viable port of call.
“And we passed that test in a real big way,” she said Monday. “One of the big forces in our initial success with cruise ships has been Jett Peterson, who chairs the port authority board. She promoted and promoted and pushed. The ships that have come in were amazed by how many blue-vested ambassadors we had on shore and the quality and the genuineness of the welcome these passengers received. They can see the pride, and it’s made for a huge success. And we hope for more.”
Brown, Gardner and Powers will tag-team this spring in Florida at three major cruise industry trade shows, promoting Eastport as a unique North Atlantic port of call.
“I keep holding out hope that we’ll get at least some smaller ships in 2014,” Brown said. “At this first March trade show, the big lines will be working out their 2015 itineraries. But the smaller ships don’t have that long-range booking horizon. I do hope to see The World back in 2014.”
The management and crew of The World were so pleased by their Eastport reception last summer that Brown will receive an award from the ship at a ceremony in early March in Florida, where the ship is based and where Brown spends his winters. Joining him at that event will be Amy Powers, director of CruiseMaine, the Windham-based organization that promotes Maine ports to the cruise ship industry.
Powers said the award will help Eastport stand out for its exceptional service to cruise ship visitors.
“We’ve been recognized by the best of the best,” Powers said in reference to The World. “They only spent one day in [Eastport], and the impression was everlasting, obviously.”