When Wayne Hamilton was 13 years old, two friends of his father’s gave him an 11-foot lapstrake tender and a 5-hp outboard. The Searsport, Maine, native did what any kid who grew up on the coast would do: He bought a dozen lobster traps. By the middle of the summer, he had purchased 12 more, and in a few months, he’d acquired another dozen.
When he hauled out at the end of the season, Hamilton had only 12 left. “There was an older fisherman who thought he owned the bay, so he cut them off,” says Hamilton, now 72 and the owner of chandlery Hamilton Marine, which is headquartered in Searsport. “He used to sharpen his propeller with a file. In those days, we had sisal rope, and he would just run over them.”
The following season, Hamilton bought larger-diameter black polypropylene rope, which is much tougher. “I put a lot of it out, so it was floating on the water,” Hamilton recalls. “I was fishing on one side of the ledge, and he was on the other. He went through the line and it wrapped up and stalled his engine. I was in my boat with my father, and I bent over the side doing belly laughs. He left me alone after that.”
Decades later, when Hamilton was starting his business selling marine equipment to commercial fishermen, he displayed that same perseverance. He had gotten his mother and mother-in-law to co-sign separate $10,000 business loans, and in 1977, Hamilton opened a wholesale account with Manset Marine in Rockland, Maine.
He started out selling marine equipment from his garage. Every Wednesday, he’d load up his mustard-colored Chevy Blazer and snowmobile trailer with marine equipment and go to the commercial fishing co-ops to sell gear to the commercial anglers. One new piece of equipment he had was survival suits. They weren’t yet required on commercial vessels, and the fishermen worked year-round in Maine, so he would go to the co-ops early in the morning and ask if they wanted to see him jump in the water.
“Of course they did, so I’d jump in and do my dance and come out, unzip the suit, and I was nice and warm while they were shivering,” Hamilton says. “It was like planting seeds in a garden.”
A week or so later, he would go back and jump in the water again. “That was fertilizer, and the third time I’d go around, I was much more successful,” he says. “They had to get to know you. … In Bass Harbor, I was at the C.H. Rich co-op, and I was winding up my talk on my third time around, and I was reaching for the door and all of a sudden, I hear, ‘I’ll take one, I’ll take two,’ and the leader of the pack said, ‘You know young fella, the first time you came I was going to buy those, but I wanted you to earn your money.’ ”
For Hamilton, earning that business was about more than making money. “I was always concerned about the safety of fishermen and anybody who worked on the water,” he says. That’s why he’s the Searsport harbormaster and was a harbor pilot for 53 years. “I just want to help people, so my goal with being harbormaster is to help people and rescue people.”
He opened stores in Jonesport and Southwest Harbor, Maine, because he wanted to make it easier for local commercial fishermen to get the equipment they needed. “I try to work with them,” he says. “I think the world of them.”
Like many kids who grew up in Searsport and spent their lives on the water, Hamilton spent his formative summers mowing lawns and lobstering. During winter, he shoveled driveways. He thought he would attend Maine Maritime Academy, but the school had strict rules about being married, and Hamilton was already planning to marry. He instead attended vocational school but didn’t finish the two-year program.
Hamilton worked for the railroad as a carpenter, as a painting contractor and a dock watchman, and as a longshoreman. “I didn’t say no to most anything,” he says. “While I was a longshoreman, I was hand-trucking in the hold of the ship and moving 500-pound bales of pulp. They put aluminum plates down to truck on, and they left a hole, and I fell down the hole and landed on my butt and caught the load and snapped a disc in my back.” Hamilton tried to let the injury heal on its own, but that didn’t go so well. In late summer of 1975, he underwent back surgery.
Hamilton’s wife, Loraine, was working at a local bank, and the couple photographed weddings from 1973 to 1983. Wayne had launched Hamilton Marine from his garage, which he expanded twice. He also added a storage trailer and pallets. “I found out you couldn’t sell from any empty basket, and I kept going and going,” he says.
Hamilton Marine’s staff expanded to include a couple of local employees. Loraine left the bank in 1980 to join the company, and in 1982, Hamilton bought a seine loft in Searsport. “I didn’t realize how important location was,” he says. “I thought I had all the business, and when I moved into the seine loft, every month my business tripled.” He paid for all the inventory, which he estimates was worth a couple hundred thousand dollars. He also took a loan on the building.
Around 1990, Hamilton Marine moved into what had been the Merrill Transport building. Today, the 12,000-square-foot building houses the offices and some warehousing, and the company added a 14,000-square-foot building not long ago. One machine at the Searsport facility is “Mighty George,” a 5,000-pound press that can put swages in cable up to 1¼ inches thick. It can also cut chain.
Through the years, Hamilton Marine has expanded across Maine with locations in Jonesport, Southwest Harbor, Rockland and Portland. The company is finalizing a deal for a new location in Kittery. There are about 100 employees at the Searsport location and 170 overall.
“I’ve had people ask us to go outside the state of Maine, but I’d like to do a better job taking care of our Maine people,” Hamilton says. Some businesses have inquired about buying his company, he says, but “usually an investor wants to make so much money, they’d want more out of the business than I make.”
Hamilton says his company is like an extended family. The staff celebrates birthdays together, and every year, the employees have a Health Heroes weight-loss competition. He knows nearly all of the employees by name. His nephew still works for him, and Andy Blanchard, the CEO, is the son of Hamilton’s childhood best friend, Charles M. Blanchard Jr.
Hamilton opened the Portland store in 1995, the year that West Marine came to town. Hamilton’s good friend Tom Yale, president and CEO of Yale Cordage, gave Hamilton space in his building, and Hamilton Marine established itself on the Portland waterfront. In 2018, developers purchased the property, and Hamilton Marine was forced to move to a new location on Presumpscot Street. “We look at it as our superstore,” Hamilton says of the 22,000-square-foot facility. The left side is dedicated to commercial marine and fishing equipment, and the rest of the outlet is retail.
Looking at the stores, Hamilton says Searsport sells the most overall volume, while Portland does more retail. Hamilton doesn’t release sales figures and says he can’t estimate the breakdown between retail and commercial. The company sells to commercial fishermen, as well as to tug operators and shipping companies. Hamilton Marine is also a distributor for some products, and the company sells direct to boatbuilders. “We try to do a good job taking care of the boatbuilders,” he says.
In addition to the products Hamilton Marine carries, including seemingly never-ending variations of line, the company has its own branded buoy paint. “We found a formulation with a paint manufacturer that is really rugged,” he says. “We had guys in Jonesport scrubbing it with brushes and files. They even towed a buoy behind a pickup truck.”
More recently, Hamilton Marine has been building up its online service. Like many business owners, Hamilton says finding and keeping employees is the biggest challenge. “We like people to have marine experience. The more south you go, the harder it is to find people,” he says. “We can’t pay a technical person’s wages. Retail is a balance. You need to provide good prices.”
Hamilton says the company has felt the impact of tariffs because of the products it imports.
After 43 years, Hamilton says he’s trying to scale back. He’s retired from the board of directors for the local hospital but remains on the board of the Penobscot Marine Museum. He has a handful of trophies in his office for winning an annual dinghy-rowing competition held in Searsport Harbor as part of July Fourth celebrations. Many mornings, he rows out to the nun buoy in the harbor and back — 1½ miles — to stay in shape. He still owns Ciloway 3, his BHM 36 lobster boat designed by Spencer Lincoln 26 years ago as one of the first Down East-style recreational boats.
With Blanchard running day-to-day operations at the company, Hamilton says he’s still touching the business every day, but he’s also found a way to have some fun. “When Loraine passed, it was really a scary thing, so I went and bought two Dodge Hellcats and a Demon, and that’s what I do in my spare time,” he says. “I’ve built a couple garages for them.”
The high-performance versions of the Dodge Challenger have up to 808 hp. Hamilton says he enjoys testing his skills on the dragway. He has run 107 mph on a 1/8-mile track, and he wants to take the car to the old Loring Air Force Base in Aroostook County, Maine, where performance cars can go out on the runways and make speed passes.
Just like the 13-year-old who wouldn’t put up with anyone cutting his lobster-pot lines, Hamilton wants to make sure he’s the fastest guy on the track.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.