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Updated: November 8, 2019

Portland shipyard’s custom-built hauling system targets large-boat market

Courtesy / Portland Yacht Services/Portland Ship Yard The Norwegian Viking ship Draken was the first boat hauled, last year, by Portland Yacht Services/Portland Ship Yard’s new custom-built, extra-wide mobile boat hoist.

Portland Yacht Services/Portland Ship Yard has acquired a custom-built, extra-wide mobile boat hoist and is about to complete a specially constructed indoor storage facility, all to fill a niche for large boats that were otherwise traveling outside of Maine for service and storage.

The 42-foot-wide hoist, made by Marine Travelift in Sturgeon Bay, Wisc., and able to carry 300 metric tons, or 660,000 pounds, arrived last year in the yard, at 100 West Commercial St., Portland. Boatyards commonly use such hoists in a range of sizes; they’re mobile, frame-like structures that are designed to lift vessels out of the water and transport them.

Construction of a 150-foot by 80-foot work building, sized to accommodate the lift, will soon be completed, said Phin Sprague Jr., who co-owns the company with his wife Joanna. 

“We should have the building that we can drive the lift into completed by Christmas this year,” Sprague told Mainebiz. 

The lift has been in use since arrival. Its first operation was the emergency haul of Draken Harald Hårfagre (Dragon Harald Fairhair), the largest Viking-style ship built in modern times, in Norway.

Draken was on an expedition to the U.S. at the time.

Portland Harbor need

The yard has long used a 150-metric-ton lift that accommodated some large boats. Sixty percent of the boats that Portland Ship Yard hauls in the Travelift are commercial fishing boats and Coast Guard-inspected passenger ships. The rest are large yachts transiting from Maine to the Caribbean. The yard stores over 250 boats. 

Sprague said the new lift’s design was based on what he and his team determined to be the need among even larger boats in Portland Harbor. That included, for example, the ability to  haul the Casco Bay Lines’ ferry Aucocisco III, 110 feet long and 32 feet wide; and the landing craft Ft. Gaines, at 36 feet across one of the widest vessels operating in Portland Harbor, he said. The lift also needed to be able to handle deep drafts (depths of the keel).

“So the lift is very specialized for a snapshot of what we think is a reasonably accessible market in this area,” he said. 

Sprague also designed a work building that would allow the wider lift to enter. It includes a heated floor and a large vertical-lift folding door.

“We designed the building and the width of the Travelift for the widest commercial boats in Portland Harbor,” said Sprague. “The commercial success of Portland Harbor and this region requires a shipyard. We don’t have the largest Travelift in Maine. But we do have the widest lift in Maine, and the second-widest in New England.”

The lift will accommodate other types of large and wide boats as well, such as catamarans and fishing vessels, he noted.

Until now, he said, larger boats have had to travel elsewhere for service, repairs and storage. 

“This is an opportunity for Ft. Gaines, for example, to stay in its own harbor,” he said. “The cost to go to Canada or other places hundreds of miles away is excessive.”

Additionally, traveling distances for repairs disrupts routine operations for these boats, he said.

“Instead of going south to haul the boat, they can do it locally,” he said.

The building is a key part of the system, he pointed out.

“We’re challenged because this is Maine,” he said. “The system is to have the lift and the building. For instance, it’s going to snow next week. How do you paint a boat outside in the snow?”

$20M investment

Portland Yacht Services launched in 1981. 

“When I started the business, I was putting a fender on a Boston Whaler in my basement,” Sprague recalled. “For a long time we were dealing with 22-foot boats, 30-foot boats. The size of the boats has grown immensely. As we organically grew the business, the size of the boats also grew. So there was an opportunity and a need.”

In 2014, the company moved to its present site. Since then, said Sprague, the company has made a commitment to invest over $20 million in the 16.75-acre facility. 

That investment included the 300-metric-ton lift, the building designed to accommodate the lift, and additional buildings totaling over two acres of inside space. A grant from the U.S.  Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration covered approximately a third of the cost of the lift and its building, he noted. The large-boat component of the business is now called Portland Ship Yard. 

Portland Yacht Services/Portland Ship Yard has over 12,000 customers. The number is significant for Maine and allows the yard to be at the cutting edge in training as well as in its outboard motor department, he said.

The new lift has brought large commercial passenger boats, fishing boats and trawlers, he said.  

The yard’s  projected 95,000 square feet of additional space will include two buildings for storage and service. They're due to be completed by March.

“We have room for four more buildings for the next round,” Sprague said. 

The yard employs 37 people and has an average per-hour payroll of $23.45 with a match of up to 3% in wages in an IRA.

Outside of its core business, Sprague's company has played an active role in Maine, helping to start the marine studies program at Portland Arts and Technical High School, providing state boating license courses, running the Maine Boatbuilders Show for 34 years, supporting the launch of the SailMaine youth program, and participating in other community initiatives.

But continued growth at the company has resulted in the need for more employees. The employee attraction program includes pay for continued education, an incentive bonus system for taking classes, and coverage of 100% of the employee’s medical insurance.

“We could use 20 more people right now,” Sprague said.

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