Mount Desert's Maritime Past, Present, and Future
Look at any map of Mount Desert Island or visit one of its many harbors and you’ll see why boatbuilding has been one of the biggest local industries here since the 1700s. When sea captain, shipbuilder, and businessman Abraham Somes arrived on MDI from Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1761, he chose what became Somes Harbor as the site for a lumber mill and shipyard. By the 1800s, four other shipyards had joined his in Somes Harbor alone: the Herrick Yard, the Mason’s Point Yard, the A.J. Whiting Yard, and a second Somes-owned yard. The owner of the Whiting Yard built the current home of The Gallery at Somes Sound as a storehouse where two-masted schooners could dock nearby and unload cargo directly into the building using a ramp. While that might seem like a tight squeeze, at least 45 vessels were built and launched along that shore between 1763 and 1889.
Some of these ships were among the 368 schooners, brigs, and sloops built on MDI and the islands of Cranberry, Tinker’s, and Thompson’s between 1782 and 1902. According to the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, the cargo transported on them around the world “included such ephemeral items as feathers from the birds shot down here or on MDI and ice cut from the local ponds in winter; plenty of fish from the surrounding waters (often smoked or dried) or collected further out to sea; milled lumber or cordwood from the local woods; cobblestones picked up off the beaches, or granite cut from the many quarries around the island.”
The second half of the 19th century ushered in an economic trend that is still in full swing today: summer visitors. This change was felt in the boatbuilding industry with a shift to building and maintaining smaller pleasure boats rather than large cargo ships. Visitors and summer residents began booking small vessels for day or evening cruises, and sailboats designed for racing began to dot the waters of MDI.
The final major changes to the industry arrived during the early 20th century with the use of engines (eventually internal combustion engines) and the introduction of fiberglass and plexiglass in boatbuilding. The construction of larger vessels remained concentrated in and around Southwest and Bass Harbors, while the yards of Mount Desert either downsized or shuttered.
Thanks to the pleasure boating and commercial fishing industries, Mount Desert has been able to keep its maritime spirit alive. Mount Desert Yacht Yard has been at the head of Somes Sound since the 1940s with Farnham Butler originally at the helm and son John the current owner. In the 1970s, two boatyards launched just south on Somes Sound and sit right across from each other: Henry R. Abel & Co. Yacht Yard on the east and John Williams Boat Company (also known as Jock Williams) to the west in Hall Quarry. Both yards offer service, repair, and storage. Abel’s also has a renowned restaurant on its site and has been the locale for The Neighborhood House’s annual Bash at the Boatyard event for several years running. Jock Williams, with a crew of just over 20 employees, has a brokerage department and very recently, after a 10-year hiatus, began building boats again, with the most recent launch on July 21, 2022.
The location of these two yards harkens back to the heyday of boatbuilding on Somes Sound. The features of the Sound that make it a popular attraction, deep yet relatively calm waters, also make it a perfect place to store, build, and launch boats.
While many on MDI know of Hinckley Yachts as a Southwest Harbor-based company, their footprint stretches past Somes Sound and around Sargent Head to the former Mount Desert Yacht Yard in Northeast Harbor. “This yard has a great feel to it,” says Kirk Ritter, General Manager at Hinckley Yachts. “It has a completely different feel than Southwest Harbor, and therefore a different appeal for our staff.” Standing in the middle of the yard at the corner of Harbor Drive and Sea Street, it’s easy to see why. The yard is tucked into the harbor while providing a gorgeous view of the docks and water beyond.
Referred to as the Hinckley Small Boat Division, this location is perfect for handling small craft. “We have a little travel lift and slip right here allowing us to handle small wooden boats like Bullseyes that are hard to run through a big yard like Southwest,” says Kirk. Most of their slips are rented out seasonally and they store customer vessels indoors during the winter months.
It’s not just the tranquil location that draws employees to this yard. As Kirk explains, “We have diehards that don’t want to work production, just service, and that’s who we get.” The Northeast Harbor yard is also home to various events, from post-launch celebrations to the recent Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County’s annual Hospice Regatta of Maine. For the latter event, Hinckley set up one of their shop spaces to host attendees, complete with green and white sails as curtains. Kirk envisions this as a place where other events can be held and members of the public can stroll down to have a picnic and enjoy the harbor views. “I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes and how it grows,” he says.
Just up Sea Street and around the corner on Main Street sits the brokerage office of Lyman-Morse, a boatbuilder based out of Thomaston and Camden, Maine. While Lyman-Morse launched 44 years ago, their Northeast Harbor office has been open for about four years. The office is staffed by Sales Director Eric Roos who can help customers with refits, service and storage, and new build projects, not just sales inquiries.
“We specialize in utilizing modern technologies to maximize efficiency in our projects,” says Marketing Director Mackenzie Lyman. “While our projects may look like beautiful classics, the work that goes into building them is cutting edge. The same goes for our refit and service projects – we use our decades of experience as sailors/boaters and as boatbuilders to provide our customers with unrivaled quality and cost-effective solutions to maximize their enjoyment of time spent on the water.”
One of the major challenges the boatbuilding industry (like most industries on the island) is facing this century is the housing crisis. “Most of our workforce is off the island,” says Kirk Ritter at Hinckley. “They add an extra half an hour or more to their day to work down here.” Once in Northeast Harbor though, they become a part of the year-round community. “They’ll go up to Ben’s (Main Street Variety) to get gas and lunch, for instance. Hinckley Yachts isn’t a huge business in the community but it’s still a part of it and adds to it,” says Kirk.