Harken Derm

Charlie Dana: At the Center of the Action

Published on November 1st, 2016

As a yachting destination, it is hard to beat Newport, RI. The beautiful harbor, lively regatta circuit, charming town life make every sailing season an occasion. At the center of the action is Newport Shipyard. Sailing trade association Sail America checks in with managing partner Charlie Dana….


Charlie Dana

Few can argue that the Newport Shipyard is one of the best things to happen to Newport, but was it one of those decisions arrived at sailing during the graveyard shift while on watch?

Yes it was. I was coming back from Nassau to Newport on my boat Saint Roque when I received a call from my wife Rose. Among the news she shared was that the Shipyard was headed for auction, crippled by its fourth bankruptcy. The Cohen brothers who owned the Viking Hotel at that time were interested in bidding on the property allegedly for time shares.

We were passing Cape Hatteras and I was standing watch with little else to think about except Oreos and steering… listening to Jimmy Buffett. I had been one of the founders of an organization to preserve jobs on the waterfront and, as well, had been managing partner of the group that bought Harbour Court for the New York Yacht Club as an on-the-water club house, so it didn’t take long to figure out what an actual working facility could do for Newport’s waterfront.

Newport had prospered as a port for much of its four hundred year history… today still a tremendous source of pride for Newporters. The Shipyard was the last remaining shipyard. Yes, you can have jobs on the waterfront, and I was determined to make it happen. This was in May of 1998.

I should slip in that night I also got a call from David Ray of Bannister’s Wharf fame. David of course claims he gave me the idea! He’d just cleaned up in the classic series in Antigua with his boat, Nirvana, and was celebrating… massively in his cups, talking about the silver he won, and not talking about the Shipyard until I mentioned it!

But, he was sympathetic to the cause, David is very smart that way, he picked up on it immediately. David MacBain, owner of New England Boatworks and builder of my boat, was also with me and offered to lend the right amount of expertise to our bid package with the federal Bankruptcy court. The fourth partner became the late Don Glassie, a Newport waterfront entrepreneur.

As time went on, our family increased its percentage to a controlling stake from the original group. There was a time when we got up to 78% and I had to write 93 cents out of every dollar that we put in, which was painful to say the least! I bought Don Glassie and New England Boatworks out and I bought David down from 25% to 5%, which David still owns. He wouldn’t sell it all and when I asked why, he said, “just in case you make it!”

Since those early days, we’ve taken in two additional minority partners who were, in addition to becoming investors, also willing to participate in bringing our mortgage ‘in house’, so we’d only have to borrow for infrastructure… like big lifts and strong docks.

We’re happily through the struggling early years and beginning our 19th year. My son Eli is our very capable general manager and has been instrumental injecting his natural talents into what we do.

Recently I asked Eli how many people he thought were working on a particular busy day, not counting boat crews. He guessed 300, not that we employ that many people, we employ Shipyard workers, Belle’s restaurant help, and dock staff. But we also employ a lot of subcontractors.

Our customers’ yachts are so complex, there is no way we can hire all the experts needed. We are fortunate in Rhode Island to have qualified people nearby in Bristol and other neighboring towns who come in on a daily basis; we know who they are, we rate them, we consider them as part of our extended family.

Another impressive figure to consider is, in the mega-yacht industry, a dollar spent in a place like the Newport Shipyard turns over 7 times in the community. That means in restaurants, hotels, rental cars, grocery stores. Our sales are in the neighborhood of 12 million, so 12 million x 7 equals 84 million dollars pumped into Rhode Island economy from the Shipyard.

I don’t think many realize our contribution to the local economy. When I pick up my mail every day I don’t get a lot of thank you notes! We are also one of the Newport largest taxpayers, no freebie here, and we are probably in the top 12 taxpayers.

What were some of the challenges in those early days?

To oversimplify, when you dock a boat you make money. We also have tenants, a restaurant, a store which are different components, but the two major revenue streams are labor on boats and dockage. All major yachts have a work list; there is work going on every day on every boat. The dockage part we figured out easily, the more difficult part was to figure out how to make money actually fixing boats.

Of course if you own a boat, you think the shipyard is laughing all the way to the bank because, “oh my God they are charging x amount an hour, how could they not be making money” and all of that, but it’s tougher than you might imagine given the inherent inefficiencies in what we do. It took us several years to learn how to work profitably on both sides. We also faced the challenge of building the infrastructure to increase efficiency. It took us 5 years but we’ve made money ever since.

What helped it along in those formative years?

We got to be pretty good at it but we have been helped by external things, like being in Newport. It is a wonderful place and everyone wants to be here. We also have been helped by being in Rhode Island, the Ocean State. The first things we did day one was take the gate down and offer public access to our facility. People are fascinated to see the work going on, but it also means that your crane can’t be rusty, you have to pick up trash, keep the flower boxes blooming, all of it, and in doing that, we were kind of unique.

We threw it all together, the dockage with the working shipyard, the restaurant, and marine commercial tenants. It became a place that people wanted to be and we were welcoming. When you come into the shipyard you don’t see one negative sign, most shipyards, you must …sign in… do not park here… a half dozen negatives, yet we don’t have any of those restrictions.

You may ask how do we manage it, we still have the same problems that plague all shipyards, but I guess I’d answer that we manage it more subtly. We want people to feel good; we don’t care if they know why they feel good! We approach Belle’s Café much the same way. We’ve always been concerned that if someone has a bad meal it might introduce an element of doubt, making them question whether we would do a good job on the repairs of their boat!

Belle’s, named after our daughter Isabella, is a meeting spot more than just an income stream. Now on weekends, we often do 600 covers in a single day; it has become successful. We created Belle’s to put the crews together with yachties… fancy owners mixing with workmen… a melting pot of folks with a common bond, the love of boats, and as well the non-boat community who want to drop in on the waterfront.

What is your market, the shipyard seems to cater to the mega yachts, is that the case?

We have the biggest travel lift in New England, 500 metric tons. I think we get every good sailboat, maybe not every good power boat though we do get many of them. We also get a lot of off-season work with yacht refits. Last winter we had the 138ft J boat Hanuman in the shed all winter, a huge job with all sorts of modifications. In fact, we have three J boats in the yard right now.

Everybody looks at the big boats though and forgets there are smaller boats here too. My guess is we work on 250 boats a year, one way or another. That would include a good number of catamarans who love our beamy lifts. Last summer, during high season, we were working on five inside our shed, I never would have guessed this ten years ago.

I have to say that catamarans are becoming much more popular; trendy, hip, fast, stable, plus the shallow draft is great. Some people have a tough time because they have a certain view of what a boat should look like and a catamaran can be outside that mindset, though fewer people feel that way these days. I am a bit of a traditionalist myself, but my wife Rose goes nuts over them, loves them, so I won’t say never.

Now, 19 years later, what do you attribute to the Newport Shipyard’s success?

I think it comes from doing what we do well and paying attention to details. As a captain in the Med said to my wife, “you may not realize it, but your son Eli is very well respected in the Med, they all know who he is”. That shows the reach of the Newport Shipyard. Eli has a quiet demeanor and he is extremely competent, and I’ll tell you, our family dynamics work well. It is the greatest satisfaction I have had in life and extends to our Volvo Ocean Race star son Nick and to our daughter, Belle, who has worked in several aspects of our business. My wife Rose, too, is in on every discussion.

In Eli’s first year here 13 years ago, he came in as Dockmaster and he doubled the bottom line dockage in a year. So anybody who says he just got here because he is my son doesn’t know Eli and his strengths. He doesn’t toot his own horn so I’m doing it for him! He’s also what I’d call a lay engineer. When docking big boats, putting out anchors, he has it all in his head and he is very good. If I have to move my boat somewhere, and there is someone offered as an extra hand, I always first seek out Eli.

What boats impress you?

Very hard to have a favorite, I think we are very fortunate, we get to see the best sailboats, J boats from the 30’s, expedition boats, power yachts, and also ‘edgy’ boats like Comanche, the fastest monohull in the world right now. We have an embarrassment of riches.

One old favorite is the 139ft ketch, Rebecca. She is a spectacular boat, an opinion shared with my daughter. Belle had a wonderful experience fifteen years ago at the America’s Cup Jubilee in Cowes. The owner of Rebecca got wind that she was my daughter’s favorite boat in the world. He then kindly sent her an invitation (using his iconic felt tip pen) to go sailing for a day. She was 16 and sat on the fantail during the race, like a Queen Bee… to be able to ride on the Queen Bee seat on Rebecca was pretty spectacular.

There are some changes going on in Newport, for example how will the change in ownership of the Newport Yachting Center affect the Newport Shipyard?

The charter show was here at Newport Shipyard before going to the Yachting Center. When they changed course the show came up for sale and we bought it the end of last year. We feel events are good, but prefer to have no more than a half dozen a year, as they are somewhat disruptive to our core business, even though the buzz they create is fantastic.

At times when they occur, we’re usually already full so we are faced with the dreaded dilemma of how to ask customers to leave for a few days. I hate doing that, afraid they might never return! We also only do events that fit in with who we are, ie, we wouldn’t do a fishing tournament because it doesn’t represent our customer base.

We try to have what we call a ‘no bomb’ rule too, only do what we perceive to be block-busters. The Candy Store Cup is one; the Brokerage Show is another. Regarding the charter boat show, I think we did a good job this year; we probably upped it by 10 to 20 percent. We bought it because we felt we could develop it by 50% over time; we are going to ramp that up as we get more familiar with ways we can grow the event.

It sounds as if the Newport Shipyard could use some expansion, is that possible?

If we can dock 5,000 ft in a night, that’s great. It’s not about how many slips, we’re not laid out the way a small boat marina typically is, rather it’s done in creative ways including Med mooring at times. The adjoining state fishing pier was part of the Newport Shipyard historically, what we’d love to see in regards to the fishing pier is increasing our cooperation between the last two traditional maritime uses on the Newport waterfront.

For so many years the Newport Bucket has been part of the sailing landscape in this town, now with so many copycat races in the Med what is the future of this racing event, is it now, this year, called the Candy Store Cup, tell us about this new development.

I have been in almost every Bucket since Nantucket in 1986, I raced on Mandalay, Nelson Doubleday’s boat. Nelson, along with his captain Ian Craddock really controlled it along with Peter Goldstein. When they wanted to leave Nantucket, I spoke with Doubleday at that time and said we’d keep the same flavor, so I was involved to a degree in getting it here from Nantucket.

That went along fine and then the Bucket was bought a couple of years ago by the four main sponsors who were more interested in running the spin-off St Bart’s Bucket only. We talked to them about our doing the Newport event and agreed that it would from now on be run and owned by Newport Shipyard and Bannister’s Wharf. David Ray and I would be the Bon vivants like Doubleday had been I guess!

It’s going to be raced under the banner this year of the Candy Store Cup. We changed the name because they wanted to keep the name “Bucket”, and David did too. I argued that I didn’t think it mattered that much, everyone knew what it was. David had an existing trophy, the Candy Store Cup that had gone on since 1977 with people like Ted Turner racing in it and Dennis Conner raced from time to time in different classes. It had history plus a light hearted reputation!

David and I have raced in a lot of these regattas when we were younger and smarter and are both enthusiasts. It was initially a race that was more about having fun than winning. We plan to dial it back to a degree and have participants enjoy themselves as much as possible… more like the old days.

Size requirement has always been for bigger boats, the early Buckets were an invitational race, but this thing about 100ft is kind of where it shakes out but not a line in the sand. What we are trying to do is get boats that are compatible.

In early Nantucket days aboard Mandalay, if you had a drink in your hand and you were standing next to a winch, you took priority over that sail being trimmed! It was considered more of a cocktail party for boats that couldn’t race anywhere else because they were bigger, in general, and it was all very tongue in cheek.

Nelson used to stand up on a milk crate on the dock in Nantucket and pass out the awards, bet not worth more than $5 each. He owned back then, 21 Federal, a great restaurant in Nantucket and he’d host a sumptuous lobster bake the night before the race. The boats were grand, the food was good but the prizes were cheap, the whole regatta was kind of a counter culture.

All the greats of the industry laughed, but no longer…now they are all involved, you see them in St. Bart’s, the same people who laughed in the early days.

All your children have boats, different styles of lobster boats but your son Nick seems to have inherited the love of racing, what has he been up to these days?

Nick has been involved in three Volvo programs, Puma, Abu Dhabi, and Alvimedica. His positions have been shore team, bow man, and boat captain. He isn’t involved with the Volvo program currently, instead lately he has raced on Comanche.

Nick did the Sydney Hobart race, the Caribbean 600, and the record breaking Newport Bermuda run. He reports the Sydney Hobart race was thrilling; they lost the daggerboard which took out one rudder. They withdrew from the race on the radio but, since they had not done anything like restarting the engine, the rules allowed them to re-enter the race.

They were wallowing around out there for hours but managed to repair enough of their broken steering gear to limp on which they did and won the race! Casey Smith was the Comanche project manager, and a close friend of Nick’s, and really was responsible for the intricate repair that won the race. Ken Read commented that when he saw Casey come up from below with a tool bag in his hand that it signaled Casey had an idea. It had a true Hollywood ending.

I think high octane yacht owners are turning to racing yachts as in these Bucket type races, as opposed to cruising yachts because they miss the adrenaline rush, what are your thoughts?

I think you’re right. I know someone who went from a 92ft to a 144ft sailboat; he’s had the boat now for 5 years but at the beginning it was very tough for him. He was a successful sailor having won prestigious world sailing events and sailed across the Pacific and the Atlantic. He buys a boat, bigger than he has ever had by a long shot and all of a sudden he felt like, “I’m no longer a sailor, I’m an owner. All the crew wants me to do is go off somewhere and drink an ice tea.”

He felt like he was out of the game and was depressed about it. He called me, crying on my shoulder, I told him mistake number one is you are drinking ice tea, you should be drinking the strongest rum you can find! He did call me later the same day, the pea soup fog gone, going 14kts up Vineyard Sound and said he drank the rum and was feeling a whole lot better about everything.

A lot of people walk down a dock here, look at a boat and say this is a boat I’d like to own someday. When I listen to them I think you never will, because the person who will own a boat like that has kicked and scrapped and worked and done everything.

When I look at the owners of the boats that are here in the Shipyard right now, I am going to tell you, most of them did it themselves and are people who fought their way up. It’s who they are, they are scrappy, they are not prima donnas yet they are put in a prima donna setting because of the boat.

Generally speaking and in various degrees, they are wondering Okay, I’ve come through life, I’ve got the big yacht, what it’s all about?’ They might have a second boat that will get into racing. These are not people who arrived to where they are in life by sitting around, they don’t understand sitting around, they’re not particularly good at it.

What is the boating experience like for you?

I find there are different types of boaters, I know which type I fall into, I am an offshore sailor and I love to be on the water. If you look at racers, taking for example the Bermuda race, it was only a generation ago when people would sail down on that race and once arrived, live on their boat. Can’t do that now, with these racing boats, everything is about weight, you can barely carry a toothbrush.

I sail with people sometimes that are very good buoy racers but offshore are not as good! I raced for basically 15 years on my own, that’s not to say I wasn’t a guest on boats. When I was fleet captain (at NYYC) in 1987 to when I was finished being commodore in 2002, I raced in everything on my cruising boat, which is Saint Roque, a 70 ft ketch. Many commodores sell their boat when they no longer are commodore, but I love my boat and I love being on the water and cruising.

I’ve gotten into double-handing with my wife and I like it much more than racing. We got rid of the locker room, and it’s just the two of us. If we have a change in plans, it’s real easy, it’s not plane tickets and all of that, I use to spend so much time on logistics for crew. Going offshore with my wife is really our little way of getting away.

We still have to solve problems; weather, mechanical things, sails, and yet we have a lot of civilized moments. It’s a sunset that you cannot believe, its late afternoon when the wind comes up just right and fills your sails; there are a lot of very good moments.

If I was the master of the universe, I would say that sailing needs to encompass more of the life than it does, it is not just a macho thing for a guy to go off and sit on a rail on a race boat. It should include his wife, his children, it should be more a lifestyle. I sometimes say to people when they buy a boat late in life, don’t go to the cheapest marina you can find, you want to go where the culture is, because you have to play catch up, you have a lot to learn. You need to hang around the culture and go beyond it being a sport.

Our children are very close today and I think a lot of it is because they grew up on a boat, they only had each other, they didn’t have friends. We didn’t have iPods then and I didn’t let them watch videos. With a lot of these bigger boats, parents want to sit and have a drink and they give their kids amusements. I tell people when you are taking your kids off, you have to give them responsibilities and get them involved with running the boat.

I remember one time with Isabella at a very young age, maybe 10, I wanted to put her on night watch at 1AM off Nova Scotia, during a family trip. My wife baulked, I said, “well, look around, there’s not a lot of other people to ask.” I didn’t wake her up in deference to my wife, until dawn was starting to appear. Belle said immediately to me, “where were you at 1 o’clock?”

What I would do when one of the young children were on watch, I use to sleep with my head on their feet, so if anything happened, I would know it immediately. Off Nova Scotia once when this gravelly voiced captain radioed, maybe a Greek tanker captain, Belle panicked. I said just answer his questions, he’s probably going to ask you your speed, your heading…things you know. Kids are good at electronics, even with the old Loran we had at that time. I often wondered what he thought when he heard that little voice, I think that was a good exercise for her; all of a sudden she was the captain of our boat.

Harbour Court, the Newport outpost of the New York Yacht Club has proven to be a Godsend, coming as it did after the loss of the America’s Cup, how did it come about?

The idea came up among a group of sailing friends, all NYYC members, 12 of us were on the deed. It was called the “A Group Partnership” and I was the manager of the partnership. This was in July of 1987 and we opened Harbour Court for the NYYC in June 1988.

I think it is important for the NYYC and yacht clubs in general, to stay relevant. Losing the America’s Cup in 1983 gave us the idea for Harbour Court four years later, we thought, “we lost our main gig” what are we going to do now?

The incoming commodore, Frank Snyder who was one of the initial 12 people, was very pro Harbour Court, but the sitting commodore was not, I went to him and asked can’t you just act like Switzerland? He was a gentleman, and he honored that; one year later, he called me and said he wanted to become a ‘founder’ and gave us $100,000. He said he was wrong; it takes a big man to do that!

Will you admit, the NYYC is a tight knit group?

Well, you are talking to someone like me who knows where all the bodies are buried. I would say those early politics, certainly with Harbour Court, I knew them intimately, because I was on the firing line, raising money and that separates the interested from the disinterested real fast.

We were desperate to raise money and there were many funny stories. One night at Harbour Court there was a guy who’d enjoyed his evening at the bar way too much. He had no idea how to get back to his boat, it was late and the launch wasn’t running. I had only a very tippy Scandinavian dinghy and he was a big guy plus he was drunk, not a good combination.

I did get his name though and snuck a look at our list of Harbour Court donors, didn’t find him on the list. So I told him, tongue in cheek, that I didn’t see why I should help him if he hadn’t supported our newly acquired clubhouse. He asked how much I wanted. I had no idea how high to go, what he was worth, so I blurted out, “ten thousand dollars”. He said, “isn’t that a lot for a ride to my boat?” and I said, “well, you could swim”. I take him out… followed by a brandy and a cigar aboard his very nice boat.

The next morning over breakfast with Commodore Snyder, I told him the story, figuring my ‘passenger’ had forgotten everything from the previous night. Then, a properly uniformed crew member appears at our table and hands me a thank you note with a check for $10,000. He had totally honored it. Guess that’s tight knit!

I feel one of the reasons the NYYC is so prestigious is because there is this sense of honor, this old school sense of tradition, can it survive?

Yes the tradition is very strong, maybe the strongest of any club in the world. I think it can survive because I find that the younger millennials as they get older, are becoming more interested in the traditions, they realize that the NYYC is like the depository bank for the traditions. Even though they may say, oh, I don’t know, this is silly, but part of them… as my wife always says, even when you think your children are not listening, they are listening. When you tell them something, they may look totally bored but they are still listening.

I still can’t think about the NYYC without remembering the America’s Cup days, what is your opinion on the America’s Cup of today?

I have been involved in five America’s Cup in my life and I’m telling you, watching it when it was in Newport, but for the fact that I was with Brad Read and I was watching it on one of those big screen, I found it confusing and I kind of know the game.

I got introduced to the AC for the first time in 1977, I was 30 years old, I will tell you the subtleties of the racing that the greats could talk about, the Dennis Conner, the Ted Turner, even the syndicate heads that could explain it, that is what made it so fascinating. It was not a spectator sport. When you talk about who’s going to win, and by the way I think Ben Ainslie is the best sailor in the world right now, and who’s not, it’s a little tricky when you try to follow the money. You have Larry Ellison dominating it with money and subsidizing some of the other teams, so that they will come in and challenge.

One of the things with the AC is you have to kind of psych yourself up for it, almost like a F1 race, it’s very exciting. I watched young kids who would have been yawning in the old Cup but they are very excited about it in an F1 sense, they are geared to speed. I think going to Bermuda has proved that the king of this whole deal is TV.

Bermuda will not get the arena effect crowds like in St Francisco Bay. The biggest effect was with the televised event, it doesn’t work as a stadium event. As for the future of the America’s Cup, I think it depends on whether the billionaires keep shoveling money into it. I think if you had to color me one way or the other, I am probably a little negative but I have my positive moments.

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