SURRY, Maine – Steve Wessel estimates that he has made 700 boats in his lifetime, and his company, Wesmac Custom Boats Inc., makes all kinds of watercraft, from lobster boats to research craft to millionaire yachts.
One of Surry’s largest employers, Wesmac employs 35 people – 50, counting subcontractors. But it suffers from a vexing problem for a business that depends on the water: Silt buildup means the town’s Patton Harbor boat launch, which is about a mile from the company’s landlocked office at 158 Blue Hill Road, is only available for the business’ use about an hour a day, at high tide.
As with nearby Blue Hill and its harbor, Surry has a harbor that effectively turns into a mudflat at low tide, limiting boats’ access to it and, potentially, limiting the harbor’s business potential.
Surry’s Board of Selectmen seeks to create all-tides access for its harbor, but its selectmen are just beginning to address the idea. They are forming a committee to investigate harbor conditions as a first step toward possibly asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the possibility of dredging the harbor.
“Dredging will be a great asset to the town. It’ll make access to get ashore for people that can’t get ashore now,” Wessel said. “They’ll go to the store, buy groceries and take it back to the boatyard, then they’ll go back out. You can’t get in anywhere right now when the tide is down. And if you do, if the tide’s up, you’ve got to get back on the water just as soon as possible because you’re going to go aground [at the harbor] or get stuck in the mud on the way out.”
Linda Greenlaw, Wessel’s wife, said she received an email last week inviting her to participate in a committee that would investigate the possibility of getting more out of its harbor, possibly by dredging.
Wessel doesn’t expect anything to happen soon. The idea has been discussed in Surry, a town of about 1,500 between Blue Hill and Ellsworth, for decades without anything being done. It also takes a bill approved by Congress to get a waterway dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that handles such work, said corps spokesman Timothy Dugan.
The corps has completed 66 navigation projects in Maine, and 170 in New England that keep rivers, bays, coves, and harbors navigable for commercial interests, fishermen and recreational boaters. Dredging is a part of that. Projects can take years to develop and, after the federal government pays up to $100,000 in feasibility-study costs, it shares the cost 50-50 with municipalities or other project sponsors, Dugan said.
Projects start when their sponsors contact the corps and request a study of the area to be dredged. If a project falls within corps guidelines, the corps conducts an initial appraisal of the “federal interest and benefit in conducting such a study,” he said.
“Costs can vary greatly, depending on the problem and the potential solutions,” Dugan said. “The time required could also vary greatly depending on many of the variables involved.”
Blue Hill’s selectmen support a dredging of their town’s harbor, and voters will determine at a town meeting this spring whether to support a $20,000 allocation that would finish the Army Corps’ study of Blue Hill Harbor, selectmen have said.
Without a dredged dock in Surry, Wesmac has to finalize its repairs of old boats or tests of newly built boats at the dock near Perry’s Lobster Shack in Surry, about five miles from its repair bays rather than the mile distance of the public boat launch, said Bill Grindle, the company’s general manager.
Wesmac has stayed in business despite the lack of ready access to water, contractions in the boatbuilding field and other Maine competition by diversifying its offerings and tailoring yachts and other craft to their owners’ needs. Their most famous customer is probably Kip Fulks, one of the founders of the sporting goods company Under Armour. Wesmac built what Greenlaw called a 46-foot pleasure craft for him about five years ago.
“He was a nice young family guy who was extremely happy. He came to visit on several occasions,” said Greenlaw, a swordfishing captain and author who achieved fame in the 1990s when she was among the people chronicled in the book and later the film “The Perfect Storm.” “A lot of times a celebrity doesn’t want to deal with the guy building the boat. They only want to deal with the office. But this guy was totally good about the project.”