In New Bedford, one hull of a change
The gritty city’s harbor is increasingly becoming a port of call for yachts
By Sam Allis, Globe Staff
Laurie Bullard recalls traveling four years ago from her native New Bedford to the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I., to sell a radical concept. She was spearheading an effort, supported by the city, to persuade cruising yachts to visit New Bedford Harbor. That day, she was trying to persuade IYRS to send some of its classic wooden yachts into the harbor on one of its cruises.
A man standing in the lobby overheard her talking about her mission and said to no one in particular, “New Bedford. Jesus, no one goes to New Bedford.’’
In fact, IYRS did visit, as did others, and slowly the harbor has become a destination for elite yacht clubs as they plan their summer cruises. The Riverside Yacht Club of Greenwich, Conn., was in earlier this summer. Bullard has gotten inquiries about a possible rendezvous of more than 60 Catalina class sailboats next year. Just yesterday, a flotilla of 40 yachts began arriving in New Bedford for a big event this evening. The prestigious Cruising Club of America arrives today.
Several years ago, they surely would have steered clear.
Beautiful yachts, sail and motor, routinely choose posh ports like Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Padanaram in nearby South Dartmouth. These are spots where cruisers have drinks at the end of the day with old friends on dry land, linked perhaps by connections that go back to the final clubs of Harvard and the eating clubs of Princeton. They are ports, in short, where most everybody knows your name.
New Bedford Harbor, in contrast, is a blue-collar port full of more than 370 working fishermen, their skin deeply lined from years in the sun and salt spray. The city and its harbor have never enjoyed a warm and fuzzy reputation. According to city figures, unemployment now hovers at about 13 percent, and last year, violent crime reached its highest level in five years. In 1983, the harbor was designated — and remains — a Superfund site, its sediment laced with PCBs and other pollutants. The last thing one might expect there is a gam of haut-WASPs on pricey yachts. And yet, elegant boats are appearing in the harbor in increasing numbers. Why?
Because New Bedford wants these boats in the worst way, and is doing everything in its power to make visitors happy while they have them.
The backbone of New Bedford Harbor, of course, remains fishing. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration named it the country’s number one port in revenue from fish landings — $249 million worth last year. (Gloucester is a distant second in New England with $50 million.) But fishing revenues, increasingly, can be hard to bank on, with declining fish stocks and environmental regulations to contend with. Thus the need to find new ways to profit from the huge deep-water port.
New Bedford is doing what it can to lure the curious. The Harbor Development Commission pumps out all recreational boats for free and provides coupons for restaurants and other destinations, among a litany of services. About 900 slips and 500 moorings are available. (Edgartown, in contrast, has 75 moorings and two slips for transient boats.)
Then there’s the customer service. For this weekend’s event, e-mails have been sent to every boat that has reserved a mooring, including a picture of the mooring with the boat’s name on it, plus its latitude and longitude. In addition, fresh coffee and the daily papers will be delivered to the boats each morning. That tradition began in 2007 when the IYRS cruise arrived. Jeff Pontiff, owner of Whaling City Harbor Tours, sent people out to each boat with both, including the Irish Times for a boat from Ireland.
Still, Bullard says, yacht owners ask, “ ‘What do we do when we get to your harbor?’ ’’
They get answers galore in bulging information packets, including contacts for moorings and slips and the harbor’s nine marinas. “We try to catch them before they tie up to a mooring,’’ says Kristin Decas, New Bedford’s port director.
James Russell, a former IYRS executive and now president of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, says he was caught off-guard when he was first approached about yachting in New Bedford.
“I remember being initially baffled by the idea,’’ he said. “But New Bedford is unique. It’s a working port. People responded very well to this.’’
But what about the fishermen? Do they watch the growing invasion of the expensive boats with concern? Not as long as there’s room for everyone in the port. The yachts help the city economy and bring more focus to the harbor, the engine of the city’s livelihood from its beginning.
“It’s not a problem,’’ says Ron Avila, a retired fourth-generation fisherman. “It’s not as if they’re going to be tied up to the same berth. There’s plenty of room in the harbor. As long as nobody tries to push anyone else out, we’re fine. It’s also a boost for the vendors around the harbor.’’
No other port in New England can match New Bedford Harbor for its growing blend of yachts and fishing boats. Newport, once a working port, is almost completely recreational now. Nantucket and Edgartown used to be busy fishing ports but their fleets are shadows of what they used to be. Gloucester has a fishing fleet but not the infrastructure to provide what New Bedford offers.
Gail Isaksen, co-owner of Fairhaven Shipyard and Marina, across the harbor from New Bedford, is bullish on the influx of yachts.
“It’s good for the economy,’’ says Isaksen, daughter and granddaughter of celebrated New Bedford fishermen. “The more yachts we have, the cleaner the harbor will be. Besides, they all go together. I have a great love of boats no matter what they look like.’’
If yachters first tiptoed into the harbor, they now arrive with higher expectations.
“It’s an easy draw,’’ says Bill Cook, rear commodore of the Boston station of the Cruising Club that covers most of New England, who will be in New Bedford this weekend. “The reaction has been very, very positive. It’s a great idea. It’s something different.’’
Yachting is not the only elite activity in the harbor. Sculling, once a signature piece of prep school and Ivy League athletics, has arrived there, too.
New Bedford Community Rowing was formed earlier this month, with help from the Community Rowing Club in Brighton, to teach New Bedford High School students how to row and instill the discipline the sport requires. It’s already raising money to build a boat house.
Coach Carolyn McGonagle began training about 30 students this summer and last week picked team members to race this fall against other high schools. Early next month, the club will hold its first race, open to all ages, on a 5,000-meter course in the harbor. The long-term goal is to create a venue for collegiate racing on the Acushnet River, which feeds into the harbor.
Everyone involved agrees this new mix in New Bedford Harbor is a boon for the body of water and the city around it. Fishing still puts food on the table. But the steady flow of visiting sail and motor yachts, along with the scallopers, draggers, and rowing shells already there, is creating a rich cultural mix.
“The similarities in some ways are greater than the differences,’’ says Cook, of the variety of vessels now sharing the harbor. “The people are all bound to the water.’’
Sam Allis can be reached at email@example.com
September 25, 2010