ROCKLAND, Maine — This week, Captains Doug and Linda Lee and their crew were putting a fresh coat of red, white and blue paint on their schooner Heritage, an annual task for the past 30 years.
“This is the crunch time, when we worry whether we can get it all done in time,” Doug Lee said as he continued his part of the paint job.
The Heritage, which has a 95-foot-long deck, will begin carrying passengers around Penobscot Bay beginning June 4.
The Lees have made the North End Shipyard off Front Street in Rockland their home since 1973. Each summer about 600 passengers from outside the city come for the adventure of sailing aboard the Heritage.
Rockland Harbor Master Ed Glaser said the success of the windjammer fleet and the Lees is simple.
“There’s a natural charm to the windjammer industry. There’s a historic connection to the midcoast,” said Glaser, a former schooner captain himself.
The windjammer fleet is an important economic engine for the area, Doug Lee said.
“We’ve brought more people to Rockland than any other business,” he said.
The majority of passengers are returning customers or people referred by past passengers, he said.
Between the 10 schooners of the Maine Windjammer Association, which includes the Heritage, and the three of the Maine Windjammer Cruises — all located in Rockland and Camden — more than 300 passengers can be carried on each trip.
No formal economic study has been done on the windjammer fleet’s impact since one about 10 years ago, when four schooners went before the Rockland City Council to obtain berthing rights in Lermond’s Cove. That study indicated the impact of those vessels was $1 million annually.
Meg Maiden, marketing director of the Maine Windjammer Association, said, however, that there are many anecdotes of the schooners’ benefit to the community. Passengers often stay at hotels before or after their trips and buy meals and goods.
A schooner life
Doug Lee’s roots to the sea run deep. His father, Maynard “Bud” Lee, was involved in schooners in West Bath, where he was raised.
Doug met Linda while she was attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Glaser said the Lees are the perfect couple to operate a windjammer.
“Doug and Linda are great hosts, they are great entertainers, they are great sailors, and they are great historians,” Glaser said.
The Lees’ first interaction with Rockland came a few years before they acquired North End Shipyard. The couple worked aboard the much smaller 58-foot schooner Richard Robbins from 1969 to 1971. Doug was a relief captain aboard that schooner while Linda was a relief cook.
After that, the couple spent the next two years rebuilding the schooner Isaac H. Evans at the former Percy & Small shipyard where the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath is now located. The Isaac Evans was built in 1886 in Mauricetown, N.J., and for many years was used to harvest oysters on the Delaware Bay.
The Lees overhauled the 65-foot vessel and converted it into a passenger schooner.
The couple looked for a place to sail their schooner and initially looked at Camden but there was no space in the inner harbor for them. They turned to Rockland because of its large harbor.
The site that met their needs was the former Rockland-Rockport Lime Co. property on the North End waterfront. The waterfront neighborhood had once been the home of working lime kilns and docks used to ship the lime to ports in southern New England.
The Lees’ first season sailing out of Rockland was in 1973. They initially leased the shipyard property but in three years managed to purchase it.
Capt. John Foss, who operates the schooner American Eagle, is also a co-owner of the shipyard.
In the late 1970s, the couple decided to build their own schooner. Over the next 5 1/2 years, they designed and built the Heritage at North End Shipyard.
The construction was done during the off-season when they were not sailing the Isaac Evans.
The construction of the Heritage cost $500,000, not including the couple’s sweat equity. The couple used the Isaac Evans as loan leverage and also got help from a neighboring businessman and the bank.
At high tide on a chilly April 16 in 1983, the Lees’ pride and joy was launched before 3,000 guests who came to celebrate the newest addition to the Maine windjammer fleet.
Once the Heritage was built and ready to sail, the couple sold the Isaac Evans to friend Capt. Ed Glaser, who later sold it to Capt. Brenda Thomas. Thomas’ schooner also sails out of the North End Shipyard.
The Heritage, except for the masts, is wrapped in plastic during the winter to protect it from the elements. Lee said he likes to keep the wrap on as long as possible.
At the beginning of April, the crew starts scraping off paint and then applying 40 gallons of new paint. Deteriorated planks are replaced.
When the vessel is docked for the winter, grease is applied to the masts to prevent weather damage. In the spring it must all be cleaned off. Lee said if there have been many gales during the winter, the side of the masts facing the east winds have little of the grease remaining.
A new addition to the Heritage this year is LED lighting in all the cabins. Lee noted that all the lights and equipment are run by battery and this will reduce the amount of energy used.
Over 30 years with the Heritage, Lee said he has never had to cancel a trip because of poor weather. The schooner also weathered the Great Recession, but Lee said that had less of an impact on the business than the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“After 9/11, it’s never been the same. People are more apprehensive about doing adventurous things. People tend to stay home more,” he said.
Lee wondered aloud whether the Boston Marathon bombing would reinforce that fear.
But the sailing business has been a good one for the family, he said. However, the couple’s two daughters have decided not to continue in the family business. Clara works for Google in California and Rachel works for John Hancock insurance in Boston.
After more than 40 years of sailing schooners, the Lees said they are not sure how much longer they will stay in the business.
“An exit plan is difficult,” Doug Lee said. “We’ve had three to four people over the years interested in doing it but in the end did not. You need to find someone who is going to love it, otherwise it’s not going to work.”