March 16, 2010

NEGLECTED BOATS GET NEW LIFE

TOM BELL

— By

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, June 13, 2008...Michael Chase, of Freeport, scavenges for old sailing boats that have little or no value, cleans and fixes them up and sells them at affordable prices. Chase attaches the rigging to a refurbished sailboat that he is readying for delivery to it's new owner.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, June 13, 2008...Michael Chase, of Freeport, scavenges for old sailing boats that have little or no value, cleans and fixes them up and sells them at affordable prices. His business, Northeast Sailboat Rescue, currently has about 20 boats on his property.

Staff Writer

FREEPORT — Much of Maine's boating industry revolves around wealth. The state's top boat builders produce custom yachts that can cost more than $1 million, and scores of businesses generate profits by fixing, maintaining, storing, fueling, moving and selling boats that belong to people at the top of the economic scale.

Then there's Michael Chasse, who makes a living catering to people at the bottom of the market.

He scavenges the eastern half of the United States for old sailboats that have little or no value, cleans and fixes them up and sells them for a price that is affordable for working families.

The business is called Northeast Sailboat Rescue. He started it two years ago, and so far he's been able to pay his bills and have enough left over to expand.

He now has 20 sailboats and five motor boats parked next to his house in a rural section of Freeport.

One 18-foot sailboat, which he bought in New Hampshire, had been sitting under a tree in someone's yard for five years when he found it. Its deck is smashed, courtesy of a fallen tree limb. He bought it for $400 and figures he'll sell it for $3,000 after he's finished with repairs.

There's also a 23-footer, covered in moss, that sat in a back yard in Kittery for six years and was filled with water when Chasse found it. The owner gave it to him just for hauling it away. So far, all he has done is drill a hole in the bottom to let the water escape.

''I think it's a gem,'' Chasse said. ''That boat will sail again.''

Some boat dealers dismiss Chasse, saying he just sells junk, but Chasse said he provides a useful service by finding homes for boats that otherwise would rot away.

Unlike a junkyard, he doesn't cannibalize boats for parts. He operates with an evangelistic zeal that seems to violate good business sense. He'll keep investing time and money into a boat until he finds someone who will buy it.

''I just have a passion for rescuing these unwanted boats,'' he said.

Chasse is a fortunate man; he's found a way to transfer passion into a revenue stream, said John Doughty, a Freeport resident who bought a 24-year-old sailboat from Chasse two years ago.

''I don't think I know anybody who is so excited about sailing and getting other people involved in it,'' he said. ''It's the ultimate example of turning what you love into a business.''

The business is focused on day sailers -- boats small enough to be hauled on a car trailer and parked in a yard during winter. He finds the boats listed in online classified sites, such as Craigslist, or boat club Web sites, or in Uncle Henry's. He travels as far as the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay to buy boats and haul them back to Maine.

He sometimes knocks on doors if he sees a neglected boat in someone's back yard. Customers also ask him to search for specific models. He typically pays between $600 to $4,000 for a boat.

In some cases, people pay him. He has charged some boat owners a disposal fee of 7 cents a pound, which typically works out to around $500.

He doesn't fix the boats himself. He contracts out the work to various businesses, including New England Fiberglass in Portland, Tidy Boat in Topsham and Brewer Boat Yard in South Freeport.

He advertises the boats on online classified sites and also his own company Web site, www.northeastsailboatrescue.com.

He also sells accessories a new sailboat owner would need: new and used trailers, dinghies and outboard motors.

An interesting feature of the business is how Chasse markets it. He initially thought of naming it ''Junk Boats,'' but then he had an epiphany: that his business is similar to those animal rescue programs focused on finding homes for unwanted animals.

Indeed, when describing his business, he inserts the word ''rescue'' into almost every sentence.

His business card features a drawing of a sailboat and this simple sentence: ''Rescuing unwanted sailboats, cleaning them up, and finding good homes for them.''

Even his dog plays a role in the branding campaign. Whether Chasse is delivering a boat or sailing with a prospective buyer on Casco Bay, his Labrador retriever, ''Remy the Boat Rescue Dog,'' is at his side. The dog is also featured on the company's Web site.

Most boats in Maine are sold by brokers, who take a 10 percent commission. They typically aren't interested in selling cheap boats because the commission is so low and the amount of work involved can be the same, said John Brewer, general manager of Brewer's Boat Yard. Chasse leases a slip at the yard.

What Chasse has done, Brewer said, is develop a new market for older-model day sailers, also known as pocket cruisers, that otherwise could be listed for sale for a year and a half in a classified ad without getting a nibble.

Because Chasse is knowledgeable about boats, he knows what kind to buy and also can give buyers confidence they are getting a boat that will work for them, Brewer said. As a result, he's creating a marketplace that benefits both the seller and buyer.

Chasse operates like a used-car dealer, said Adrian Cole, of Freeport, who recently sold a 19-foot O'Day to Chasse for $1,800.

Like a car lot, Chasse's boat lot on Pleasant Hill Road gives buyers the convenience of looking at different models in one place, Cole said. For the seller, there is also the convenience of getting rid of a boat without the hassle of selling it yourself.

''I guess I could have put my boat on Craigslist and Uncle Henry's and waited, haggling and scheduling time,'' Cole said. ''But for a few hundred dollars less, Michael took it away there and then.''

Cole said he enjoys visiting Chasse's lot because many of the boats are ''classic plastics'' from the 1960s and 1970s.

Built during an era when designers were first learning how to make boats using fiberglass, these boats tend to be overbuilt and feature large, heavy keels. Chasse is now selling several boats designed by Carl Alberg, a Massachusetts wooden boat designer who in the 1960s was a pioneer in the design of fiberglass sailboats.

Although not as fast and nimble as modern, lightweight sailboats, the classic models are stable enough to be sailed on the open ocean, Cole said. Yet, they are small enough to be hauled on a trailer, which makes them affordable because they can be stored at home rather than in a boat yard over winter.

Chasse is well-suited for this line of work. In the late 1990s, the 52-year-old Brunswick native lived for three years on a sailboat, wintering in the Florida Keys and summering in Freeport. He spent most of that time sailing, using money he had saved up working in restaurants.

A free spirit, Chasse lived for six years in Colorado in the 1980s, holding various jobs so he could pursue his love for extreme telemark skiing.

Ten years ago, he settled down after marrying a woman he met in church in Portland, Michelle Fay, who teaches first grade in SAD 75. The couple have a 5-year-old daughter.

Chasse said he's optimistic that the business will grow to the point were he can draw a good salary.

''I'm calling Northeast Sailboat Rescue my retirement job,'' he said. ''With a 5-year-old daughter, I will be doing it quite awhile, don't you think?''

Staff writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at

tbell@pressherald.com

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