BELFAST, Maine — For a quarter century, Maine Seacoast Mission’s ship Sunbeam V has brought telemedicine, meals, fellowship, care and cups of coffee to the people who live in Maine’s year-round island communities.
But for the last year and a half, the steel-hulled ship with the white cross on the prow has been absent from coastal waters as it underwent a $1.5 million refit at Front Street Shipyard in Belfast.
Now, the Sunbeam is all spruced up and ready to get back to work. The ship returned to its home port in Northeast Harbor on Friday afternoon, the last leg of its journey marked by a boat parade. Just a few days after that, the vessel will head to the islands so the crew can provide a flu-shot clinic for islanders.
“We’re all really thrilled to have her back,” said John Zavodny, president of the Bar Harbor-based nonprofit. “It’s the best of both worlds: we have our boat back, and she’s the Sunbeam from bow to stern, but completely updated and so much better than new.”
When it came to the Front Street Shipyard in May 2019, workers knew there was visible rust in the bilge area at the bottom of the boat. They planned to rip out the boat’s cabins, sand blast the steel, paint the internal sections with marine epoxy and update the ship’s equipment and cosmetics, and the hope was to have it done by Christmas.
But as with so many renovation projects, once the work crews got started, they found more problems lurking under the walls. The exterior of the boat was OK, but inside, the metal had rusted beyond anyone’s expectations.
“You have hot days, with the sun beating down on a steel boat, and cold nights, with condensation inside due to aging insulation,” said Graham Fitch, Front Street Shipyard’s project manager for the Sunbeam.
They ended up “gutting the whole thing,” he said. Workers first did extensive sandblasting to remove the rust, then replaced the 2-inch fiberglass insulation with 2-inch mineral wool insulation and a 1-inch blue board on top of that, providing a much higher R-value to the boat. They also added a vapor barrier to keep condensation at bay.
The rust wasn’t a safety problem — but it would have been eventually, Fitch said. “If we had left it alone, it would have become a structural issue.”
In addition, Front Street crews upgraded or replaced nearly all of the Sunbeam’s mechanical and electrical systems and rebuilt the galley, salon and cabins to be more modern and comfortable.
Five crew members, the captain, engineer, steward, nurse and community outreach director, live aboard the boat, which serves the islands of Frenchboro, Great Cranberry, Isle au Haut, Islesboro, Islesford, Matinicus, Monhegan, North Haven, Swan’s Island and Vinalhaven.
When crew members move back in, they’ll find cabins that seem a bit roomier because the little-used permanent upper bunks have been replaced by removable ones, and heads, or bathrooms, that also have been modernized.
“The focus was to make crew accommodations more comfortable for everyone,” Fitch said.
On the bridge, where the captain sits, the electronic equipment also has been updated and replaced with state-of-the-art gear. Another upgrade, Fitch said, is that the crew members no longer will need to use a hose to douse the front windows with hot water when they ice up in the wintertime. All the boat’s windows have been replaced, and the front windows are heated so will not need to be scraped clear anymore.
Front Street Shipyard crew members, who were putting the finishing touches on the Sunbeam this week, said it’s been a pleasure to work on the boat.
“It’s nice to work on a project that’s going to stay here in Maine, and go to the islands, which really need this boat,” Fitch said.
When islanders are able to come back aboard the boat — something that can’t happen right away because of COVID-19 — they will not find it changed beyond recognition.
Far from it, Zavodny said, adding that it will still be the same Sunbeam they know and love.
He told the story of one of the first community meals he attended on the boat after he was named president of the Seacoast Mission in 2019.
“A little guy, a toddler, comes in and starts saying, ‘Pirate ship! Pirate ship!’ And his mom said, ‘OK, honey,’” he said.
The little boy walked across the salon, opened the cupboards and pulled out a pirate ship, which he played with happily for the rest of the meal.
“For this 2- or 3-year-old, this was the Sunbeam,” Zavodny said. “It shows me the level of comfort. It’s their living room and family, all in one. The Sunbeam, in many ways, is the boat of the islands. They love it. They feel so comfortable here.”