In this file photo from 2005, Harold Arndt stands in front of the 113-foot-long steel schooner he has been building on land he owns in Freeport. Arndt is now 80, and the project, which began in 1992, is almost finished. Press Herald photo by John Patriquin

It’s been 31 years since Harold Arndt set out to design and build the Island Rover, a 113-foot schooner made of recycled steel – and which he dreamed would one day help educate generations of Maine students.

For most of those three decades, the 80-ton ship has been the subject of litigation and animosity among Arndt, the town of Freeport and the residents of Lower Flying Point Road, where the land-locked Island Rover is still sitting, waiting to hit the water.

Finally, six years after it was deemed seaworthy, there may be just a few more months before the vessel sets sail. But Arndt, now 80, has had to accept that he may not live long enough to see it fulfill the mission he’s always envisioned.

Arndt’s story – and the story of the Island Rover – have captured the attention of Philadelphia-based filmmaker Jordan Meeder. He’s spent almost three years exploring the lives, opinions, emotions and controversy swirling around Arndt and his dream ship.

From the outside, the story of a self-described eccentric who built a massive ship in the Maine woods is ridiculous, even funny, Meeder said. But as he learned about the project and spent time with Arndt, Meeder’s perception began to shift.

“There was something about it that was sort of tragic,” he said.


The 113-foot Island Rover, made from recycled steel and designed by Harold Arndt, sits off Bucknam Road in Freeport on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But this wasn’t a conventional David vs. Goliath story.

“It’s easy to portray Harold as a folk hero against some faceless enemy,” Meeder said, “(but) nobody is a complete jerk.”

“The Island Rover (Harold’s Boat Problem)” premiered early this year at several movie-making meccas, including the Santa Monica International Film Festival. The almost-two-hour documentary will make its Maine debut Sunday at the Portland Public Library branch on Peaks Island, and is expected to be available online later this summer.


The story starts back in 1992, when Arndt began building the vessel in his backyard, using steel that was recycled from Navy ships. His own ship was a passion project. Arndt planned for the Island Rover to become a platform supporting educational programs that would teach children about the ocean and the importance of waste recycling.

A marine biologist by profession, he had worked at Bowdoin College, Bath Iron Works and eventually as a waste minimization consultant. The ship was supposed to be “a demonstration of what can be built out of what other people have thrown away,” he said. He even had plans, and was in the early stages of permitting, for a school on his property in Freeport.


To help fund his venture, Arndt launched the Island Rover Foundation as a nonprofit in 2000. But that changed the Rover’s legal status. The ship was no longer a backyard project, but a commercial entity. According to the town, Arndt’s “shipyard” was considered industrial manufacturing and an unsanctioned junkyard. All those changes meant the project violated Freeport land use rules.

The zoning problem first came before the Town Council in 2004. Arndt ended up signing a consent agreement, which he maintains he did not understand. It acknowledged the junkyard status, required the ship to be moved and forfeited his rights to build the school. The situation spiraled from there, and for almost 20 years, the Island Rover Foundation and the town of Freeport have been mired in consent agreements, litigation and animosity.

A shot from Jordan Meeder’s film about the Island Rover depicts the 113-foot vessel under construction in Freeport. Courtesy of Jordan Meeder

In 2014, Arndt agreed to the terms of a court order stipulating that the ship had to be removed from the site by the fall of 2016, and if it were not, he would give the ship’s title and the foundation’s land over to the town of Freeport. The Island Rover was moved a short distance down Bucknam Road, a private right of way that the town contends is still not a conforming location.

Carter Becker, owner of a waterfront construction company in Freeport, Falls Point Marine, was recruited to help finish the boat and get it into the water. As payment for his services, he was given majority ownership of the Island Rover. Freeport has argued that the transfer of the Island Rover to Becker violates the original 2014 order.

Meanwhile, neighbors have complained about Arndt’s property.


Over the years, it has accumulated shipbuilding materials and debris, and the unsanctioned junkyard presents a sharp contrast to the scenic seaside homes along Shore Drive and Lower Flying Point Road. The construction work has been noisy, and residents have said the project is a knock against their property values. Some neighbors worry the ship is simply too big to move.

One Shore Drive neighbor, named in the film merely as Allen, said he was supportive of the project and the philosophy behind it – but that the quiet, residential street where his children play is not the place to launch the Island Rover.

Allen said he was concerned that the area could become more congested, or even dangerous.

“The flavor of the neighborhood could change pretty dramatically,” he said.

Over the years, resentment and frustration have continued to build. Meeder said he interviewed dozens of neighbors, but the majority were unwilling to be filmed.

“People had good juicy stuff to say,” he said. “There’s so many big feelings.” But on more than one occasion, Meeder had the door closed in his face.


“I would expect some of that stuff with something involving a murder,” he said. “It was so strange.”


Everybody wants to see the Island Rover gone.

Becker, especially, is ready to move on. Failure isn’t an option, he says in the documentary.

“Financially, this is the worst nightmare I could have,” Becker says. He’s now the 75% owner of a ship he never intended to own, and the one on the hook for getting the craft in the water. It has cost him considerably, he said, in dollars and cents, in other projects that have been delayed, and in time and stress.

“If I don’t succeed, I lose huge. So it’s an all-chips-are-in situation,” he said.


According to Ed Bradley, a Freeport town councilor and the only local official in the film, launching the Island Rover is also in Freeport’s best interest.

Bradley estimated that the litigation has already cost taxpayers about $100,000, and the case only has two possible outcomes.

“One is that we win and own a boat we don’t want, or we lose and we spend $100,000 we don’t have,” he says in the documentary. The best solution is simply to launch the Island Rover.

“It’s a formidable challenge, both technically and politically,” he says.

Harold Arndt, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, is shown in this still from the documentary about the Island Rover. Courtesy of Jordan Meeder

The Island Rover has been ready to go since 2017. The inside needs to be fitted out and furnished, but all the necessary components are there. The ship will float. 

Arndt believes it would already be out to sea were it not for the town’s intervention, which he sees as unjustified. Freeport denied an overweight moving permit, needed to get the vessel off the property, because of concerns about the feasibility and logistics of the launch. At the same time, the use of other potential sites, including the Wolfe’s Neck farm and the L.L. Bean Flying Point Paddling Center, have also been nixed. 


“I’m not going to live long enough to be able to turn that thing around and accomplish what could have been, would have been, should have been accomplished had the town not done what it had done in ’04,” Arndt said.

This, according to Twain Braden, the Island Rover’s attorney, is the real tragedy.

“Who knows what could have happened had the boat been finished and he was able to sail it?” he asks in the movie. “He only would have been in his late 50s, early 60s then, and he would have had a lot of good years to build (the educational component). And so I think it’s heartbreaking to him to think about what could have been.”

Arndt and Becker have already moved the ship once, so they know they can do it again. But the Island Rover remains landlocked, less than half a mile from the sea.

If or when the Island Rover reaches its destination, Becker is confident he would be able to sell the vessel, perhaps to an organization with deeper pockets and the motivation to do the educational programming that Arndt always intended. 

But for now, things are quiet. After a 2021 agreement with the town, Arndt has cleaned up the property and removed tons of scrap metal and trash. The documentary has wrapped. And still, the Island Rover remains on dry land.


According to Braden, however, that might soon change. Arndt and Becker have been working with the town and now plan to launch the Island Rover as soon as September or October. They have applied for an over-limit permit for the brief drive over the public road, plus a permit to build the temporary launch ramp through Becker’s property on Shore Drive.

“It’s been such a saga that everyone’s trying to hold their breath to see if we can get through this latest chapter,” Braden said. “We want to see this story end in a positive place. … Let’s get this done, let’s let the legacy of this thing be that it’s floating and sailing with kids, not that it’s a neighborhood dispute that ruined people’s lives and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and (tons of) waste.” 


Although Meeder’s film is about the Island Rover and its journey to the sea, Harold Arndt is at the film’s heart.

After Meeder drove from Pennsylvania to Maine in January 2020 for his first in-person interview with Arndt, the intended one-hour conversation stretched to four. Arndt talked about everything from the Island Rover and politics to his personal relationships and marijuana.

A 2012 file photo shows Harold Arndt under the deck of the Island Rover, which was then under construction and is now nearly finished in Freeport. Press Herald photo by John Ewing

What he had intended to be a six-month film project turned into three years, partly because of pandemic-related delays and partly because of the unexpected intricacies and layers to the story. Meeder drove back and forth between Maine and Pennsylvania for weeklong stays packed with days of filming.


Meeder interviewed dozens of people – Becker, Braden, Arndt’s girlfriend, his friends, his neighbors, former town staff, craftsmen, a town councilor. Except for Bradley, current Freeport town officials declined to speak with Meeder.

Whether for or against, everyone had strong opinions, both about the boat or about Arndt. Some were willing to talk.

“The personalities involved are what got me in on it,” Meeder said.

Arndt’s personality, especially.

In the film, he is described in a million different terms: a character, creative genius, iconoclast, accumulator, Trumper, eccentric, environmentalist, magnet.

“Either you love him or you hate him,” his girlfriend, Denise Lord, says in the film.


Arndt is not an easy man to classify, Meeder said.

“He’s ferociously independent,” he said. “It’s admirable but also really annoying. That ‘I’m going to do this thing no matter what’ attitude.”

Arndt recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and despite all the frustration and heartache over the last few years, he was still laughing and dancing.

“I think that also says something about the effervescent, indomitable spirit he has to get something like this done,” Braden said.

For his part, Arndt is thrilled with the documentary, which he thinks is the best thing anyone could have done for the Island Rover.

“‘My lifestyle is what my lifestyle is. My personality is what it is. All of that put together is how and why the Rover was built,” he said. “Nobody in their right mind would have taken on the project that I did. But it’s finished.”

And even with the roadblocks and the controversy still swirling around, he’s not giving up.

“I’m tenacious enough to not accept that,” Arndt said. “I’ve spent 30 years fighting it, and I will win, even if I am 80 years old.”

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