CASCO BAY — The UB85 Joseph S. Kennedy has been turning heads since it cruised into Maine waters about a month ago.

Capt. Gene Willard was piloting the decommissioned Navy utility boat north from its former berth in Boston to its new home in Portland Harbor. Its sleek, low profile cut a distinctive course through the waves. The large, white lettering on its stone-gray hull caught the eye of another boater heading south.

“The guy stood up and waved, and then he saluted,” Willard recalls, still astonished. “It was awesome. This boat doesn’t look like anything else on the harbor.”

The UB85 is the flagship of a new charter boat company, Portland Harbor Fleet, that’s launching this summer in Portland. It was christened Friday afternoon during a ceremony at Bell Buoy Park, 72 Commercial St., with Coast Guard officials and other dignitaries on hand.

An eighth-generation Mainer with seafaring DNA, Willard is the senior ferry captain at Casco Bay Lines and has operated his own harbor taxi service for years.

With Portland Harbor Fleet, Willard joins Bateman Partners, developers of the soon-to-open Inn at Diamond Cove on Great Diamond Island, to provide historical and recreational tours of the bay and charter service to the inn and other destinations.

Bateman Partners embraced Willard’s concept for the UB85, seeing potential brand recognition for their ongoing redevelopment of the 199-acre Fort McKinley on Great Diamond Island. Over the last 30 years, the early 1900s brick barracks of the former military base have been converted into a resort community of condominiums, single-family homes and the 44-room inn, set for a grand opening June 24.

“The Navy gray and the name of the boat are fitting to call attention to the history of Great Diamond Island and Casco Bay,” said Nathan Bateman, vice president of the family firm.

“When you step on the dock at Diamond Cove, you sense the history of the place,” Bateman said. “We hope to bring that feeling to people right from the moment they step on the boat in Portland.”

The venture includes Fred Forsley, owner of Shipyard Brewing Co., which is developing a commemorative light session ale, UB85, that will be served on tap at the new inn, Diamond’s Edge Restaurant at Diamond Cove and at the Inn on Peaks Island, owned by Forsley.

“It’s a great name for a beer and it’s cool that it’s tied to a Navy boat,” Forsley said. “We’re going to brew it in small batches and see if it takes off.”

As for the boat, Forsley said guests at the Inn on Peaks Island may want to charter it for special events or bay excursions.

“Anything that can increase traffic between the islands and get more people on the bay is great,” Forsley said.


The UB85 was built in 1985 and served for several years aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier commissioned in 1986 and currently supporting military operations in Iraq and Syria.

Willard and his partners purchased the 50-foot, fiberglass-hulled boat from Capt. Tim Gover, a Coast Guard veteran and retired Boston Harbor fire boat captain. When Gover bought the boat in 2012, its 671 Detroit Diesel engine had operated for fewer than 15 hours because it spent most of its time aboard the Theodore Roosevelt at the bottom of a stack of utility boats, Gover said.

For the last two years, Gover operated the UB85 from the Charlestown Navy Yard, offering shuttle service to area islands and chartered historical tours of Boston Harbor. Gover named the boat after his grandfather, Joseph S. Kennedy, who had a storied Navy career.

Gover said he decided to sell the UB85 because its operating costs were too high to turn a profit in the fiercely competitive Boston market. He sees a stronger potential for the vessel on Casco Bay, with backing from several business partners, including the Portland Harbor Hotel.

“I’m glad it has a new home in Maine,” Gover said.


Willard is jangling with energy these days, balancing multiple jobs and business opportunities that keep him on the water as long as there’s light on the horizon, and then some.

Standing at the helm of the UB85, he spouts a brief history of Casco Bay landmarks that he hopes to share with people who charter the boat. If the flagship boat does well, Portland Harbor Fleet plans to buy additional decommissioned Navy utility boats to expand the service and business opportunities on the bay and beyond.

“It’ll be registered with the Coast Guard to operate from here to the Canadian border,” Willard says, imagining the possibilities that await Down East.

Willard won’t say what he paid for the UB85 – only that Gover was asking $122,000 and the partnership got a deal on it. With 30 years as a ferry captain, he’d rather talk about the fun he’ll have taking people out in a former Navy boat and showing them lesser-known features of Casco Bay.

“What I like about this is it’s more personal,” he says. “You get to meet everybody and shake people’s hands and welcome them aboard.”


When Willard piloted the UB85 out of Boston Harbor, heading for its new home in Portland at Fisherman’s Wharf, 202 Commercial St., it had operated for about 400 hours, he says.

He expects to run the boat at least 10 hours a day during the summer months, so he plans to baby it with careful maintenance and safety precautions. While it was built to carry 135 troops and their gear, it’s Coast Guard-approved for 51 passengers and crew members.

Willard’s crew for part of the summer includes his daughter, Meredith, who enrolls in a few weeks at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, Long Island, New York. His sky-blue eyes brim with pride as the UB85 enters open water and Meredith takes the wheel.

“When she graduates, she’ll be able to pilot any boat in the world,” he says.

The top speed for the UB85 is 16 knots, but Willard keeps it steady on the bay at 10 knots – about 11 mph – to reach Great Diamond Island in less than a half-hour. On the approach to Diamond Cove, Willard is visibly excited. This is the boat’s first passenger run from Portland. With the dock in sight, he smiles and takes in the moment.

“I’ve got goose bumps,” he says.