Sailing on Legends
Cherryfield-based Downeast Windjammer uses traditional working vessels—and New England’s only commercial four-masted schooner—to show off the MDI coast.
Twenty-seven years ago, Captain Steve Pagels moved to Washington County from Long Island—but not, like some of his new neighbors at the time, to “get away from it all.” He came to become a schooner captain.
“I came here because this was the heart of the industry I wanted to be in,” Pagels says. “This was the place to be. I wasn’t running away from anything. I was going to where the competition was. And the customers.”
Today, Pagels sails the 151-foot Margaret Todd, skippering day cruises and charters out of Bar Harbor on New England’s only commercial four-masted schooner, and one of the most photographed. She’s docked in the center of the harbor, on a pier leased from the Bar Harbor Inn, and is a staple in the Bar Harbor photos of tourists and professionals alike.
“Those photos are a big part of our marketing,” Pagels says. “She’s what people hope to see when they come to Maine. We get a lot of people who see her, take a walk over, and then realize they can sail on her.”
Pagels’ company, Downeast Windjammer Cruises, based in Cherryfield, also runs a smaller schooner, an intimate sloop sailing vessel, a fishing boat, and two ferry lines: the Bar Harbor Ferry (to and from Winter Harbor), and the Cranberry Cove Ferry out of Southwest Harbor/Manset to the Cranberry Isles—most all of them old “working” boats or, like the Margaret Todd, boats built like them.
The Margaret Todd remains the heart of the business, bringing in more revenue than all the other boats combined, but Pagels has enjoyed growing the company and the fleet. Asked how many boats he has, Pagels laughs. “Too many,” he says. “We have 12 commercial vessels, about 40-foot and up. We have a number of smaller vessels at work, and quite a few that we’ve kind of accumulated.”
Pagels grew up near Long Island Sound’s South Bay, bought a sailboat with his first paper route money, worked as a commercial fisherman, did some hard-shell clamming and scalloping, ran freight in tugboats, and finally settled on a day-sailing business, before he came up to Maine.
“I love the old traditional boats,” he says. “Working boats. Lobster boats, fishing boats—there’s not too many draggers left, you know. Sailing vessels. It’s a heritage that’s disappearing, and I love them, love to see them work. It is hard to resist a boat you love. I thought I’d come here, get a 110-foot schooner, and be happy. But we’ve become more than that.”
Downeast Windjammer employs about 30 people this summer, most with some on-the-water role. Three workers in the Cherryfield office handle financial matters from billing and advertising to charters, Coast Guard inspections, and other logistics. A few others sell tickets in Bar Harbor.
Pagels bought the two ferry lines in the early 2000s, then set about improving the service, adding boats and runs. The Cranberry Cove line has grown significantly. This year he’ll begin winter service on a contract with the town of Cranberry Isles. The Bar Harbor Ferry has been a tougher road—the commuter business he and others hoped for hasn’t materialized.
“We believe in the service over there,” Pagels says, “but it’s taken a long time getting that up and going so it’s carrying itself.”
For the last three summers, Downeast Windjammer ran Bangor Harbor Cruises from the city’s redeveloped waterfront. The Patience won’t run this year. While Pagels praises the city and his catering partner, Sea Dog Brewing Company, the business was heavily reliant on charters and took a hit when businesses pulled back on spending. “The time is coming when a boat will really make it in Bangor,” he says. “Our walk-on traffic was good. But that’s the one place the economy hurt us, on the charters.”
On Mount Desert Island, 2009’s wet, cold summer was a bigger issue than economic woes. Anybody he’s talked to in the boating business, all the way down to Cape Cod, had a tough first half last year, Pagels says, adding that his numbers were strong in August and September.
“We’re being a little more conservative this year, concentrating on the businesses that have been the most successful and seem to fit what’s going on now,” he says. “We have other vessels we can add if the summer picks up. We think it will, if the weather’s with us.”