The new Portland Ship Yard on the Portland, Maine, waterfront has everything a seasoned mariner would expect: 15 feet of water at low tide, a 330-ton Travelift, and plenty of indoor and outdoor space for working on boats. It also has something unexpected at a saltwater yard.
Tucked into the ground next to the Travelift bay is a freshwater tank for testing bass-boat engines after they’ve been in for repair. When Phin and Joanna Sprague founded Portland Yacht Services more than 30 years ago, the company made a point of providing all types of service. As bass-boat owners started bringing in their equipment for service, the company made sure it could accommodate them. When they moved into their new facility as Portland Ship Yard (Portland Yacht Services resides there, as well), the test tank made sense.
A few years ago, Jason Curtis, vice president of operations at the yard, was asked by his teenage son why the yard didn’t service bass boats like the ones they’d seen out fishing together. “I said, ‘Joe, we’re on the ocean — they’re not coming here,’ ” Curtis says. “He said, ‘I’m telling you, they’re coming.’ So I went to a tournament and started talking to the guys, and they found out we work on boats.”
Many freshwater facilities about a half-hour inland from Portland weren’t accustomed to working on big outboards, he says. “Nothing against the lake guys, but when someone would bring a 250-hp outboard to a shop on the lake, the whole shop would come around and be like, ‘whoa, a 250, we haven’t seen one before,’ so that doesn’t inspire the angler,” he says. “They come down here, and 250s are not a big deal. We work on them every day.”
The same goes for the electrical systems and pumps on bass boats. Curtis has since become a competitive bass fisherman and says that anglers from all over the Northeast get their work done at Portland Yacht Services.
A Family Tradition
The ability to service all kinds of boats was a building block for Portland Yacht Services. The Sprague family owned the property in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when all the members worked for a company that specialized in welding equipment used in the nuclear power industry. The accident at Three Mile Island pretty much shut down the family business.
Phin started working on boats at his home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. The town didn’t want him building boats on a residential property, so he went back to the family-owned buildings at 58 Fore St. and started Portland Yacht Services. Through the years, the company became known for servicing boats and engines, performing full restorations and building boats. Phin has a degree in geology from Harvard University, but he has always worked on boats.
Today, Portland Yacht Services and the shipyard have about 40 employees. As the business expanded, the company believed it needed to raise awareness of local boatbuilders; it held the first Maine Boatbuilders Show in 1987. “The first year was a dozen boatbuilders standing at a table,” Joanna says. “Within four years, we moved upstairs because we had so many builders.”
The show continues today. A newer event is the Maine Small Craft Celebration; the second edition will be held Sept. 22-23 at the yard. It’s a showcase for all types of boats smaller than about 25 feet.
In addition to servicing boats, educating the next generation has always been a priority for Phin. He supports MaineSail, a nonprofit that teaches kids to sail, and the Portland Arts and Technology High School’s marine program, which has adopted the American Boat and Yacht Council’s technician training.
“He really wants to educate kids on the water,” Joanna says. Their own three children worked in the marina on Fore Street and are still active on the water.
Another training program, Ocean Classroom, went bankrupt and owed money to Portland Yacht Services. The bank gave the Spragues three boats that the school owned. One is now a restaurant in Kennebunkport, Maine. A wooden sailboat, the Harvey Gamage, is part of the MaineSail program based at Portland Ship Yard. A third boat, the steel-hulled Westward, is also in the water at the yard. Phin would like to see it used for Arctic exploration.
Portland Yacht Services also has a mentoring and apprentice program. Kids start at the yard at age 14 or 15 and can earn the certification required to work as an entry-level marine technician. Portland Yacht Services also offers captain courses and similar curricula.
Curtis helped develop and run the Marine Troubleshooting Competition at the Maine Boatbuilders Show. Technical students are challenged to diagnose an engine problem on the show floor. Winners have earned tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships to Marine Mechanics Institute, Universal Technical Institute, the Landing School and other schools.
Time to Move
About 10 years ago, the Spragues wanted to expand the yard at Fore Street. “It was clear the city didn’t want a boatyard there,” Joanna says. “A marina yes, but not a yard.”
They started looking for alternatives on the Portland waterfront and found a site about 2 miles to the west, a rundown rail yard. “It wasn’t used much, and it was just bums living down here,” Joanna says.
The Spragues initially purchased 22 acres from the railway, and after Phin sold 58 Fore St. and acquired the new property, the Maine Department of Transportation seized 17 acres by eminent domain. “We are at least five years behind now because we had to go to court,” Joanna says.
The Spragues eventually got back 12 acres and moved forward with Portland Ship Yard on the 20-acre site. Because they are on a commercial shipping channel, they can’t put in a marina, but there are two Travelifts: one rated for 150 tons, and the other for 330. The larger one is the widest Travelift in the Northeast, at 42 feet. (Most are 38 feet wide.) The lift and accompanying bay that had to be cut into the waterfront were designed to accommodate the Casco Bay Lines ferry, which has a 40-foot beam. “We built this around the Casco Bay ferry without realizing there would be a demand for catamarans,” Curtis says.
With the extra width, Portland Ship Yard recently hauled the 83-foot charter catamaran Blue Gryphon, which has a 40-foot beam.
On the edge of the Travelift bay is a statue of George Cleeve, who helped found the city of Portland. Phin is a Cleeve descendant, and the George Cleeve Association commissioned the statue. It was originally planned for the Maine State Pier but wound up at Portland Ship Yard.
The yard will have a total of five buildings, including one that is 180 feet long with a door that is 66 feet high and 60 feet wide. The larger Travelift will be able to drive in and set a boat on blocks.
The yard will focus almost 100 percent on service. There’s an old wooden sailboat in a back bay that’s scheduled for the next stage of a restoration project in January. The yard will haul and store commercial vessels in the fall, and the work on recreational boats will be ongoing.
As for the bass boats, there was a recess dug into the ground where rail cars were weighed; it was going to be filled in, but Curtis came up with the idea of the freshwater tank. A swimming-pool pump keeps the water circulating, and the yard uses the tank to rinse off trailers and more.
“We’ve always been known for service,” Curtis says. “We have the capability to do most everything.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.