Living and selling the Maine life

Posted on Written by Richard Armstrong

maineshow1Publisher, show producer and ‘boat freak’ John Hanson turned his adopted state’s charm into a career

For John K. Hanson Jr., a failed attempt in boatbuilding led to a more rewarding and successful career as a marine journalist and boat show producer. Hanson is the founder and publisher of Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors magazine, which celebrates 25 years of publication this year.

“I was a lousy builder and had no money,” says Hanson, 61, with a laugh, about his Southwest Harbor Skiff Co.

After he closed shop in the mid-’70s, he was assigned to write an article about the 1976 Montreal Olympics for the fledgling WoodenBoat magazine. The article earned him a full-time job later that year as WoodenBoat’s advertising director — his entry into the publishing world.

maineshow2By the mid-’80s he was pondering his own publication. One afternoon he was cruising the Fox Island Thorofare between Maine’s Vinalhaven and North Haven islands with his then-wife and two artist friends aboard his 22-foot 1962 Ray Hunt-designed bass boat, Buffalo Soldier (which he still owns). The four were discussing life on the water and the beautiful waterfront architecture, the harbor scene with lobster boats and pleasure boats, when they saw porpoises swimming off the bow. “I thought, This is what I want [the magazine] to be — all of these things from life in Maine, with boats as the focus,” he says. “We’re selling a lifestyle.”

Founded in 1987 in Camden and now in Rockland, Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors continues to succeed thanks to loyal readers. It has retained a circulation of about 20,000 while navigating a parched economic landscape and a sea change in the publishing industry. The magazine is published five times a year and the October-November edition will be the official 25th anniversary issue. “We’re very fortunate that we’ve been able to do what we wanted to do editorially,” Hanson says. “This is what I wanted to do — to tell stories about what I think is cool and important along the coast of Maine.”

He also wanted to build a mutually beneficial relationship with his friends, the boatbuilders and craftsmen and women who create uniquely Maine products, but historically didn’t have the time, money or inclination to promote themselves. These are still his core advertisers.

Jersey boy Down East

Hanson grew up in Rumson, N.J., and sailed on the Shrewsbury River. “Taught sailing and worked in boatyards,” he says. “I still have the 3-hp Evinrude Light Twin engine I bought with my First Communion money. Today we have it on our Grumman sportboat.”

Hanson graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1973 with a degree in theology. A love of boats led him to The Hinckley Company in Southwest Harbor, Maine. “I had just graduated and wanted to see Maine,” he says.

He visited the only people he knew who lived there. Martha Robinson was a fellow Rumson native and the daughter of Yachting magazine editor and nautical author Bill Robinson. And she was married to a member of another prominent nautical family: Hank Hinckley of the renowned boatbuilding clan. Over dinner, Hinckley offered Hanson a job on the paint crew at the Hinckley yard. “My first job was to grind the paint off the bottom of a Hinckley 49,” Hanson says.

The work was dirty and hard, but he was struck by the collection of characters that populated the yard crew. “I walked into this slice of old Maine that you wouldn’t believe,” he recalls. “Hinckley was an absolutely magic place to be for a boat freak like myself and I was learning so much and just having this wonderful time.”

A magazine spawns a show

Fifteen years into publishing the magazine (originally named Maine Boats & Harbors), Hanson launched an offshoot now known as the Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Show, which celebrated its 10th anniversary on Aug. 10-11. “We knew it was a really good idea,” he says. “Ninety percent of the people there build stuff and they want to talk about their passion.”

Boats — from kayaks to cruisers — furniture, jewelry, crafts and just about anything else that’s Maine-built were on display, with the creator usually on hand to discuss its merits. The show has grown into a bona fide summer event in Maine. A new exhibit this year was “The Village Green,” a collection of about 20 exhibitors with businesses involved in the sustainability disciplines of the home-building industry.

maine2Also new was an exhibit called “Under the Hood: What Goes Into a Maine-Built Boat?” The boat was a partially constructed Back Cove 34 without a deck or cockpit so visitors could see the fundamentals of hull construction. “I’m very fortunate that I get to go into boatyards all the time and see how much thought goes into these boats to make them work,” Hanson says. “That’s the impetus for the exhibit.”

Hanson says a running joke among his staff is his tendency to start a meeting with the comment, “I have a good idea.” But, he says, adding new and innovative features is imperative to the show’s continued success. “I think that’s what you need to do to stay in the show business,” he says.

As he has done with his magazine, Hanson infuses the show with a quirky sense of Maine and flat-out whimsy. Hollowed-out zucchini squashes become sailboats that are raced across a pond. This year a stand-up paddleboard jousting contest made its debut. “It sets the whole tone that we don’t take ourselves so seriously,” Hanson says.

And then there are the dogs. The biggest draw of the show is the annual World Championship Boatyard Dog Trials, in which competitors show off their training and best tricks. Hanson’s old golden retriever, Fagan — a fixture from his Hinckley days — was the inspiration for incorporating dogs into the magazine (from the very first issue) and into the show. Fagan’s spiritual lineage at the Hanson home is represented by Penne, a mini-labradoodle, and Roger, a Jack Russell terrier.

“Readers love it,” he says of the canine infusion. “It resonates with all of them and gives them an access point. Most of us share a love of pets. We share the bond, and it’s a strong one.”

A new venture

Adapting to the digital age, the company recently launched USHarbors.com, a website that provides tide charts, coastal weather forecasts, buoy data, weather radar and local information for more than 1,100 harbors in 20 coastal states. He credits staff members Jamie Bloomquist and Joshua Moore with creating and managing the site, which has become an entity separate from the magazine. Hanson expects the year-old startup to soon begin turning a profit. “We’re getting great traffic — well north of 150,000 unique visitors for our New England ports,” he says.

Those visitors are drawn by the local knowledge and editorial content accompanying real-time tide and weather data. “We feel this [part of the business] could grow substantially,” he says.

maine3Looking back, Hanson, a self-described serial entrepreneur, is proud of what he has built, but quick to credit the staff around him. “I’m blessed with a terrific editorial department,” he says. “[Executive editor Peter Spectre] has such a gentle wit and he gracefully and easily makes all of our writing better.”

The key is to maintain a balance that pleases both readers and advertisers, he says. Preserving editorial integrity creates a product appealing enough for readers and advertisers to spend money on. “We have remained true to our philosophy,” Hanson says. “Our customers are very sophisticated consumers and they would see pandering for what it is.”

Despite an economy that has seen print advertising dollars shrink, Hanson says he’s optimistic that the print and digital publishing worlds can be mutually dependent and equally viable. “We don’t think print is dead,” he says. “They’re just different ways of reading things. The Internet is its own entity, but it’s not going to kill print.”

Still, adjusting to the digital component of publishing has been a challenge, as it has for all of the traditional journalists in the industry. “When I started in the magazine business in ’76, I read everything I could on magazine publishing,” Hanson says. “The industry was mature and hadn’t changed much through the years. But [digital media] is all new. I haven’t anyone to crib from, but it’s exciting and I like to start new ventures.”

Regardless of the learning curve, Hanson says he plans to stay the course. “I have an 11-year-old and a 9-year-old at home, so I’m in the saddle for the long term,” he says.

And that’s OK with this transplanted Mainer. “Growing up outside of New York City, I have tons of friends who have done considerably better financially than I have,” he says. “But they don’t have a desk looking out at Rockland Harbor. And right now I’m watching a Hinckley Picnic Boat heading out on a sunny summer day.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.

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