August 24, 2019
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Maine Sea Coast Mission considers options for aging Sunbeam

MOUNT DESERT, Maine — Every Sunbeam eventually fades.

The Maine Sea Coast Mission, which offers pastoral, medical and other services to coastal residents, is looking at ways either to make their vessel of that name last longer or to start work on building a new one.

The Sunbeam is a vessel the mission uses to deliver such services to residents of Maine’s offshore islands, and the current one is more than 20 years old. Since its founding in 1905, the mission has used seven boats — five of them iterations of the Sunbeam — to provide spiritual, educational and medical support to residents of several offshore islands and Down East coastal towns. The mission is deliberating about whether it should refurbish the current vessel, Sunbeam V, or to start work on constructing Sunbeam VI.

The mission is based in Bar Harbor, but the Sunbeam’s home port is Northeast Harbor in the town of Mount Desert. Offshore communities it visits regularly throughout the year include the Cranberry Isles, Swans Island, Frenchboro, Isle au Haut, Matinicus and Monhegan, according to Scott Planting, president of the mission.

The Sunbeam also visits the island towns of North Haven, Vinalhaven and Islesboro, but less often because of the state-operated vehicle ferries that serve those communities, Planting said. All told, there are about 3,000 residents on the islands served by the Sunbeam.

On Monday, 10 executives from seven renowned Maine boat-building companies visited with mission officials on board the 75-foot boat to offer their advice and expertise concerning what the mission should consider while deciding whether to refurbish or replace the Sunbeam. Jaime Weir and Jock Williams of John Williams Boat Co.; Tim Hodgdon and Sandy Spaulding of Hodgdon Yachts; Bruce Washburn of Washburn and Doughty; Jim Foley of Billings Diesel and Marine; J.B. Turner of Front Street Shipyard in Belfast; Stephen Wessel and Linda Greenlaw Wessel of Wesmac Custom Boats, Inc.; and Phil Bennett of Hinckley Co. donated their time in consulting with Planting and Sunbeam Capt. Mike Johnson, according to mission officials.

Planting said Thursday the executives took a close look at the boat, even removing the floorboards and crawling into the bilge area below deck. He said that, by and large, the boat is in good shape, but it does have certain shortcomings.

A new, more efficient engine was put in the boat six years ago, he said, but it has not made the boat any faster than it was.

“She’s slow, moving at about 8 or 9 knots,” Planting said, or at about 9 or 10 mph. A smaller boat could move faster, at around 18 knots or 20 mph, which would reduce the Sunbeam’s travel time to its regular island stops and would make it more feasible for the vessel to travel east to Washington County, where the mission also provides services to several mainland communities, he said.

The Sunbeam’s size makes it difficult to maneuver in some of the tight harbors it visits, Planting added, some of which are more crowded now than 20 years ago. And it has a high profile, making it susceptible to strong winds.

But there would be tradeoffs to having a smaller boat. One of the Sunbeam’s primary functions is to serve as a gathering spot at the communities it visits, which means it often hosts more people in port — sometimes eating food prepared on board by the ship’s staff — than it does when traveling between islands.

Planting said the vessel also has telemedicine offices on board, where island residents can meet with mission nurse Sharon Daley and communicate privately via the Internet with doctors on the mainland. And he said he would like to expand the mission’s education programs, possibly to include STEM classes on Sunbeam for island school children.

On top of that, he said, the interior has become worn over the years.

“It’s like your wallpaper [that] over 20 years begins to fade a little bit,” Planting said.

If the mission retrofits the Sunbeam, it likely would upgrade its bow thrusters to improve maneuverability and would install gyro-stabilizers to make it more stable in heavy seas. The cost of refurbishing the boat, he said, likely would be around half a million dollars.

If the mission decides to commission a new Sunbeam, it likely would have to raise between $2 million and $3 million, Planting said. It could also buy a used boat and then retrofit it to meet the mission’s needs, the cost of which probably would land somewhere in between refurbishing the current Sunbeam and building a new one.

“You’re not going to get everything you want in a boat,” he said.

Whatever option the mission decides to pursue, Planting added, “we would have to raise some money.”

Planting said the mission expects to make a decision on the Sunbeam’s future sometime this year and then will have to initiate a fundraising campaign to cover the expense. How long the fundraising effort might take is not clear, he said. After the money has been raised, it probably will take another year or more to bring the finished product to fruition.


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