Shipyard overhaul brings tenants for traveling homeowners

Crew of super-yacht finds warm welcome in Belfast

Posted:  Monday, February 10, 2014 - 4:15pm
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BELFAST - The Queen Ann Victorian house built by Orlando Frost is large enough that in any of the downstairs rooms you can sit on the floor with legs extended in either direction and do exercises, which is what the majority of the seven-member crew members of Magic, a 130-foot yacht currently undergoing repairs at Front Street Shipyard, was doing on a recent evening.

The captain, Adam, explained half-apologetically that they were trying a P90X regimen, then went to join the others. They’d skipped their daily trip to the Waldo County YMCA to talk to me. True to the purposeful courses of a ship’s crew, they were finding a way to stick to the schedule.

Outside the house, it was dark enough that a passerby might miss the towering snowman built by the group of 20- and 30-somethings, some of whom had never seen snow before this winter. In past winters, the vast house might have been empty. But on this night, lights shining from every floor showed a home full of life. 

The owners, Bonnie Pierce and Michael Tracey, bought the historic mansion on Northport Avenue five years ago. At the time, both were teachers in New York, approaching retirement. They looked in Key West, Savannah, Ga., Charleston, SC and other cities in the Southeast expecting to settle near family there. But a trip north changed their minds.

Several years earlier they had visited Maine for the first time en route to Nova Scotia and liked it. On a return trip that included a windjammer sail in Camden, they were encouraged by the ship’s captain to check out Belfast.

Like a lot of visitors to Maine, Pierce and Tracey had only seen the one-time Poultry Capital of the World from the bypass. When they went into town, they found a walkable city with a year-round working population, community and arts to spare, and an appealing quirkiness. In short, it had many of the things they’d been looking for all along.

The home they eventually bought is steeped in local history. Orlando Frost had once owned Mathews Bros., and was mayor of the city for several years in the mid-1920s. He backed land purchases for what would become the Pierce and Anderson elementary schools and raised money to repave Main Street. In an unsuccessful attempt to revive the shipbuilding industry in Belfast after World War I, he commissioned the construction of the only five-masted schooner ever built in the city, the Jennie Flood Kreger.

Though he wasn’t a shipbuilder himself, the extent and variety of woods he used in his home shows an attention to detail befitting the trade.

“He built it like a ship,” said Tracey. “It’s as straight and true as the day it was built. When I saw this house, I fell in love with it.”

Since they bought the home, Tracey and Pierce have traveled south most winters — they spoke to me from an airstream trailer in Florida. Their home, with its seven bedrooms and five baths, wasn’t an obvious candidate for a rental, so in past years they had relied on caretakers.

For the seven-person crew of Magic, however, it turned out to be perfect.

“They were happy to be housed in one place, and our house is the size that can accommodate them,” Pierce said.

For the couple, the nautical connection was appealing. And references were a non-issue.

“They take care of such a large expensive yacht, so they’re already vetted in a way,” Pierce said.

Comparisons between a victorian home and a 130-foot yacht might seem natural. But for the crew, Pierce and Tracey’s home offered an unusual chance to stretch out.

“We live in a small area of the yacht,” said Zinta, a deckhand and one of three stewardess aboard Magic.

As others confirmed, the crew bedrooms are the size of large walk-in closets with two bunks to a room. There’s a shared seating area with a TV and books, and a crew mess. Much of their job, understandably, involves staying out of the way.

Onshore accommodations for extended periods have typically involved similar lodging arrangements, with the crew piling into a small house or multiple apartments if necessary. ‘Typical,’ in this case, refers to the seasonal yachting circuit — winter in the Caribbean and Southern states, summers in Newport, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Block Island and other yachting havens of Southern New England.

“Normally we chase the warm weather,” said Sarah, the chief stewardess.

In past years, a major overhaul like the current renovations to Magic would almost certainly have happened in Florida, where shipyards are numerous and the onshore infrastructure for crews well established.

The detour to Belfast owes much to Front Street Shipyard and its marine travel lifts, which are reputedly the largest north of Newport.

For now, the numbers of vessels with large live-aboard crews in need of temporary lodging is small enough to barely register as a part of the off-season real estate market. But business could pick up as the Shipyard grows into its new 485-ton travel lift — the one that brought Magic ashore — and a new workshop building slated for construction this spring.

“At any time we could have three or four different crews,” said Shipyard President JB Turner, speaking of past years. Last winter there were three large vessels, he said. This year, Magic was the only one of its size, but anticipated two more large vessels in the spring.

The absence of established channels ended up working in favor of the Magic crew. Adam initially tried several realtors and looked at some small rental apartments before he heard about Pierce and Tracey through someone at the Shipyard.

Sarah recalled seeing the historic house for the first time. “It was like, no way, we should just leave right now,” she said.

But Pierce and Tracey wanted to make it work. They liked the nautical connection, and though the crew’s budget wasn’t extravagant, Adam was able to throw in a jacuzzi that had removed from Magic during renovations.

If the happiness of the crew is an indication, the deal is paying karmic dividends.

“To go from bunk beds ... even in the captains quarters, what are they, twins?” he said, looking to Sarah for confirmation.

“We don’t even know what to do,” she said. “It’s so comfortable. We feel like we’re coming home every night.”

While the boat is ashore, the daily routine for the crew changes a bit, but there’s as much work as ever. Drew, the boat’s engineer, said there’s always maintenance to be done, and with the renovations to the boat, there are workers to oversee.

“Ultimately it’s about managing contractors,” he said.

The stewardess have their own list that extends several weeks out, including routine upkeep on the massive vessel.

Adrian, the boat’s chef, has been using the time in Belfast to research and test new recipes for Magic’s owner. During the week, he cooks for the crew at the house.

“On weekends they’re on their own,” he said, dryly. 

Despite the ice storm and stretches of frigid temperatures, the crew, spoke enthusiastically about their winter in Maine. Outside of work, they’ve gone snowboarding at Sugarloaf and hit some locals-only attractions, like sledding at the Northport Golf Course and ice fishing on Swan Lake. They’ve become regulars at the Y, thanks to a modified “family” membership arrangement. Adam even got an apprentice hunting license.

“We’ve made some friends for sure,” he said.

As of late January, Magic was expected to be at Front Street Shipyard until March.

For as much as they’ve enjoyed their time in Belfast, the crew members were quick to point out that they don’t want the work to take any longer than necessary.

“We are making the most of it, then we’re back off to the races,” Adam said. “We’re here for a reason.” 


Ethan Andrews can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com