Phin Sprague Jr. is part contrarian, part libertarian, part Yankee. The veteran offshore sailor also is the founder of the Maine Boatbuilders Show, which finished up Sunday, and the owner of Portland Yacht Service, a full-service yard in Portland, Maine.
I enjoy this show, and I always enjoy talking with the Harvard-educated circumnavigator on a variety of topics, from seamanship to teaching kids to become marine techs to the foibles of relying too heavily on technology at sea.
He’s smart and independent and likes folks who set their own course and aren’t easily swayed from it. In the course of our conversation yesterday about how the show did this year, he informed me, “I’m going to start the Unreasonable Persons Club.”
Most of his exhibitors are charter members. “These guys all have a vision,” said Sprague, who is 63. “And they’re trying to get the world to conform to their vision. They’re all members of the Unreasonable Persons Club. They won’t conform to what other people think is possible.”
They have what you or I might call “stick-to-itiveness.” Others might say stubbornness, but Sprague says the doubters just don’t understand them.
“They have this vision and dream,” Sprague continued. “And people come to them and say, ‘It’s not possible.’ They’re the reasonable people. Ignore the naysayers,” Sprague advised. “If you listened to the naysayers, you’d never do anything, and they’d be happy because you’d be just like them.”
Sprague said it’s OK to fail. “It’s just not OK not to try.”
The exhibitors are his friends, and he admires their skill, tenacity and resourcefulness. Business is improving, Sprague agreed, but business is still tough. “But we’re all looking at each other and saying we made it,” he said. “It’s learning how to do it with less. Learning how to do it more efficiently. Learning how to use our time more effectively. And you don’t take the customer for granted at all.”
From my conversations with exhibitors, I would say the mood at this year’s show was more upbeat than last year. Sprague agreed. “We were up in exhibitors and people who came to the show,” he said. “Not a lot, but up.”
He says he had an epiphany talking with a first-time exhibitor from Sea Hawk Paints, who compared the boating know-how of the people at the show to the baseball knowledge of those attending a Red Sox game in Boston. “He said this is like going to Fenway Park,” Sprague said. “Everybody in the audience knew boats.”
This year he took representatives from an Icelandic shipping company that recently began working out of Portland through the show to meet boatbuilders who might benefit from having a more direct means of shipping boats overseas. “Pretty cool,” he said. “Pretty cool.”
Sprague doesn’t want to let the show drift too far from its workboat roots. “I want more lobster boats,” Sprague told me. “A lobster boat that is a real lobster boat. The heritage of what Maine is, is a working boat. I’d like to see more of them here to remind us of where we came from.”
I suspect you’ll see a working lobster boat at the show next year.
“I’m unreasonable, like we all are,” Sprague said. “There’s a difference between being unreasonable and being a curmudgeon. I’m unreasonable because I’m trying to accomplish something.”
He had plenty of skeptics when he held the first boatbuilders show 26 years ago with a scant dozen exhibitors, but he didn’t let that deter him. This year the show attracted 202 independent small-business folks.
“They’re bucking the tide and being thoroughly unreasonable, and we love them to death,” Sprague said. “They struggle hard to make their vision reality.”
Sprague attributes his unreasonableness — having a vision and dreams, you might say — to the experience of being a skipper, for being responsible for the safety of a boat and crew and getting her from one place to another in some far-flung places of the world.
“I think the experience of being on the water and having discrete goals works that into you,” he said. Some get it through other means, but, he noted, “That’s where I got it. The water taught me to be unreasonable.”
Back to the show. Sprague said there was a suggestion after last year’s show to move regular exhibitors into new spots to mix things up a bit. He didn’t care much for the idea. In one of his newsletters, he wrote that a number of exhibitors are comfortable in their own spaces.
“[They] know exactly how long the extension cord has to be and are intimate with the holes in the floor and the nail for their banners. They like their neighbors and watched their kids grow up and really don’t need or want the excitement or stress of a fabricated adventure.”
He told me that when he walks the old railroad foundry and looks at some of the new exhibits, he still sees old friends who have died, standing where they did for so many years. Sprague recited their names: Tom Morris, Bill Sweetman, David Stainton, Bill Harding, Ralph Stevens, David Corcoran.
“All these men are standing there,” he said, “still in their places.”