Sea Worthy

  • Phin in his element, among boats.

  • Phin and Joanna Sprague of Portland Yacht Services fell in love while sailing around the world on the 72-foot wooden schooner Mariah and were married aboard the boat in Bali.

  • Stripped to its planks, this vintage sailboat is being restored for its owner, a merchant marine, to sail in his retirement.

  • Mechanic Dave Fogg tapes around the port lights on a boat whose decks are being reworked.

  • The fabric ceiling of this storage building allows in plenty of daylight.

At Portland Yacht Services, Phin and Joanna Sprague keep the boating community afloat.

An avalanche of ice slides off the roof, crashing with a whomp onto the snow bank below. In the distance, a solitary oil tanker emerges from under the Casco Bay Bridge and travels up the Fore River, passing rows of shrink-wrapped vessels arranged along the shore. Inside the West Commercial Street complex is a playground for giants. One hundred fifty marine vessels fill the cavernous spaces. Walking past one boat, Joanna Sprague pats the bow fondly, like she is touching the shoulder of a friend. She and her husband, Phineas (known as Phin), have owned Portland Yacht Services for more than three decades. Their intense dedication to the ocean is superseded only by their dedication to the seafaring community of Maine.

Phin and Joanna Sprague began their 42-year-long life together on the 72-foot wooden schooner Mariah. Joanna grew up near the water in Canada, where her family owned a small marina and campground. She was actively involved in the business—even delivering newspapers by motorboat. In the winter, her parents closed the marina and everyone headed south. Joanna, who went on to become a nurse, met 23-year-old Phineas Sprague, Jr., in Florida in 1973. She was working in the medical field; he was in the process of sailing Mariah with a small crew around the world—a voyage that he originally estimated would take 18 months.

Phin persuaded Joanna to join him on his journey. “The boat was already in Panama,” says Joanna. “Phin called and asked if I would help him get the boat across the Pacific.” She agreed, and they fell in love. “I never got off the boat.” They were married in Bali, aboard Mariah, on Christmas Day in 1975.

During the 1970s, off-shore sailors still relied on celestial navigation—using charts, a sextant, and astronomical bodies like the moon and stars (rather than satellites)—to guide their way. It was also a time of limited offshore communication. Phin and Joanna encountered many challenges, not only from uncertain weather, but also from potential dangers, including illness, piracy, and theft: Phin slept with a pistol under his pillow when they went through the Red Sea. They had unique adventures: theirs was one of the first cruising boats to go through the Suez Canal when it reopened between the Red and Mediterranean Seas in 1975, having been closed since the Six-Day War in 1967.

Through it all, they relied heavily upon their nautical skills—and one another. They had created a strong and lasting relationship. “When we first came back from sailing, it was hard to be more than 72 feet apart,” says Joanna. In 1977, four years after Phin left Maine, they returned to his home harbor. “We realized there was no place like home, and that Portland didn’t realize the asset that it had,” Phin says.

Phin has far-reaching connections to the Maine community. His mother was related to George Cleeve, an early settler and founder of Portland, whose statue still has a place of honor on the city’s waterfront. His father’s family came to coastal Maine as summer rusticators. Phin’s great-grandfather, a geologist and businessman, ran coal mines and made the family fortune by shipping coal to New England communities that had cut down all their trees and needed fuel. The Sprague name eventually became synonymous with energy products of every type, from oil to natural gas.

Phin, who spent summers on his family’s saltwater farm in Cape Elizabeth, came to know the sea early. The oldest of six children, he was allowed much freedom by his parents. He began rowing about by himself in the Atlantic Ocean—accessed via a short walk through the wooded lanes on the family property—in a 16-foot dingy at the age of six. “I acquired an allergy to the land and could literally only find relief in the breeze off the ocean,” Phin says. He changed his focus to land-based pursuits at Harvard, where he studied geology and rowed, planning to go into the family business. The plan changed when his grandfather sold the coal and oil company while he was in college. After returning from his worldwide sailing adventure, Phin worked for a Sprague enterprise at the Portland Company—which his mother’s family owned until 1956, and the Spragues purchased in 1978—before deciding to return to school. “I realized that an opinionated boat captain with a degree in geology needed to be more articulate and understand the language of business,” Phin says.

While completing his master’s degree in business administration at Northeastern University in Boston, and living in Cape Elizabeth, a friend from Prouts Neck asked Phin to repair a boat. That was 1981. “He asked me to put a fender on a Boston Whaler; I did it in my basement,” says Phin. “With a new baby and not much income, I was so thankful to get my teeth into something I understood. Then Eddie Rowe, who was doing the maintenance at the Prouts Neck Yacht Club, had a heart attack. They said, ‘Will you take it over?’”

Business began to thrive, and Phin and Joanna moved their enterprise into an old potato barn in Cape Elizabeth. Zoning laws soon made it impossible for them to continue there, so in 1984 they relocated to 58 Fore Street at the Portland Company, which was by then empty. In 1992, Phin helped establish the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Company and Museum on the lower part of that property—a pet project, as the historic railroad equipment was coming home to Maine and to the place where it had been built by his mother’s family. Over the next several decades, Phin and Joanna continued to build Portland Yacht Services, while also hosting events like the Maine Boatbuilders and Portland Flower shows at the complex. The couple has three children, who “grew up on the docks and working the shows,” and five grandchildren, “learning their knots,” Phin says proudly.

Phin and Joanna have also been active in many organizations that focus on the waterfront, such as SailMaine, for which Phin was founding president. This community-based nonprofit has been very successful at getting adults and children out on the water. SailMaine runs a competitive program with teams from area high schools. “When I was a child, I would sail and there’d be one other person in the whole group that would challenge you,” says Phin. “Now there’s probably six, or eight, or ten high schools that are all supplying excellent sailors. They all challenge themselves.” Phin and Joanna note that some of these students go on to schools like the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, the Landing School in Arundel, and the University of Maine’s school of marine sciences in Orono. “We’ve got some of the finest sailors in the world coming out of Portland, Maine. I am so proud to have been associated with this effort,” says Phin.

In the early 2000s, zoning on the eastern waterfront was changed to allow condos and hotels in an area that had previously been restricted to maritime use. Seeking to expand their business, although they had been counseled to sell it, Phin and Joanna sold the 10-acre property at 58 Fore Street with plans to move to a new, larger location at the opposite end of the waterfront. “We looked around and had 25 to 30 people working for us,” says Joanna. “We had hired their kids after having them as kids. This was our family.”

However, the new location was industrial space that had long been abandoned as a contaminated brownfield, so Phin put his geological background to use in creating a remediation plan. This required that they get permission from several different governing bodies, and buy-in from the community—which was not always forthcoming. “Growth means change. People struggle with it,” says Joanna. Phin was not deterred. “Unreasonable people have a vision and attempt to adapt the world to their vision, therefore all human progress is the result of unreasonable people,” he says, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw. When the land was clean, and they were about to break ground, they learned that the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip might come to Portland if more room was available. Phin and Joanna offered to move their boatyard; subsequently, the Maine Department of Transportation exercised its right of eminent domain to take 18 of their 23 acres for Eimskip. Joanna says this set them back five years, but nevertheless, Phin and Joanna decided to once again move forward with their plans to expand Portland Yacht Services and create a shipyard for Portland. In 2014 the Spragues finally moved their company to the remaining five acres and acquired additional land on which they plan to build.

Portland Yacht Services now has two buildings for boat storage and repair: one is 19,200 square feet, the other is 27,600 square feet. The warehouse-like spaces are cool and smell of paint and gasoline. One man, bundled in a sweatshirt, kneels under a hull, inspecting it with a handheld lamp. The grating sound of a sander echoes from across the room. The company has 60 employees and hires six additional dockhands in the summer. “We do anything we need to in order to stay open year-round,” says Phin. “We have never laid anyone off in hard times.” Jo- anna chimes in, “Many of the small boat yards on the coast find it hard to stay open in the winter. So they are unable to provide the volume of work that justifies manufacturer training that is required to be excellent. We can do this for our employees. This makes us the referral boatyard for more complicated problems.”

Joanna points out the 40-by-50- foot garage door. “One of people’s favorite things is to see it go up and down.” The boatyard currently has 12,000 customers, from rowboats with electric trolling motors to some of the biggest passenger boats on the Portland waterfront. To remove these big boats from the water, they use a large lift located on Berlin Mills Wharf, behind Becky’s Diner. Their goal is to be able to service all the boats of Casco Bay Lines, including the 122-foot Machigonne II. For this, Phin and Joanna have ordered a 300-ton Travelift. Their next building will feature a garage door that is 60 by 60 feet—six stories high.

The Spragues remain committed to their beloved clan of builders and sailors now comprising many generations, charting a life course the way they once navigated their way around the world, skirting obstacles and taking the long view. “We had the experience of traveling on the ocean for many years and it changed us,” says Phin. “Our hope is that we have presented the opportunity to as many people as possible to find a place for themselves and success in the marine industry. Maine has a rich heritage that will last as long as an old fella can row a punt from South Bristol to East Boothbay faster than he can drive.”

 

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