Rags to riches: The transformation of Dutch Harbor Boat Yard
With the America’s Cup World Series coming to Narragansett Bay in June, Governor Lincoln Chafee established a committee that would help with event logistics and marketing for the nine-day event that could pump as much as $70 million into Rhode Island’s economy. Among those named to the ACWS Host Committee was Alison Eichler, who said she believes her appointment might have something to do with the resurrection of Dutch Harbor Boat Yard.
When Eichler and her husband Larry – who sits on the Harbor Management Commission – bought the Dutch Harbor Boat Yard four years ago, it wasn’t in good shape. After 50 years in operation, the boat yard was in need of some tender loving care to restore it to prime condition. It has taken those four years and a lot of hard work, but the boat yard has resumed its role as one of Jamestown’s finest boating facilities.
Eichler said that she is “very excited” to be included on the ACWS panel and is thrilled that Narragansett Bay is getting to showcase itself this summer.
Eichler grew up in Providence and graduated from New York University. After college she got married and lived in New Jersey for a number of years. The couple moved back to Rhode Island seven years ago because their son is an avid sailor and they felt that he would have the best opportunity to sail year-round in this area. He is now on the Georgetown University sailing team.
When the Eichlers moved back to the area they saw an opportunity when they noticed that the Dutch Harbor Boat Yard was in receivership and about to go under. When they bought the business, Alison thought that she would be passively managing the facility and hiring people to run the business for her. That didn’t prove to be the case however.
“Once I got more familiar with Dutch Harbor, I realized that the way to make it work was for me to put myself here full time,” she said. “I have spent the last four years lovingly restoring every aspect of the business and rebuilding the reputation and the facilities.”
When Eichler arrived on the scene, she noticed that a lot of the boat yard’s infrastructure was falling apart. The property had begun to resemble a junkyard due to the presence of a great deal of debris. That first season was spent on a general clean-up of the area, which led to a rediscovery of the boat yard’s beachfront.
Next the yard’s moorings were upgraded. All of the floating docks were rebuilt and a new old port launch was purchased to carry customers to and from their boats. Launch service is now available to transient boaters as well as private mooring holders in Dutch Harbor on a seasonal basis. The railway system that is used to take boats to and from the bay was also rebuilt.
Three of Jamestown’s four boat yards have railway systems as opposed to the travel lift systems that are more commonly used today.
“The railway system can be more labor intensive and more expensive, but it’s what we have,” Eichler said. “It had collapsed into the bay. So we had to re-engineer and rebuild the marine railway, and we purchased a new hydraulic trailer so that we could safely transport our customers’ boats in and out of the bay at the beginning and end of the season or for emergency hauls.”
There are presently 100 commercial moorings operated by Dutch Harbor. The boat yard also services a number of private moorings outside of its field. Eichler caps the number of fullseason rentals that she takes, and always holds a small number of moorings for transient customers. The business has come back to the point that Eichler now has to turn people away. When her seasonal customers go cruising she is able to rent their moorings to visiting boaters until the seasonal customer returns.
In addition to the launch and hauling services, Eichler offers the use of the boat yard facilities to seasonal, private and transient customers. The facilities include well-maintained heads and showers, a laundry facility, outdoor showers, water and electric at the dock. They also have free Wi-Fi that reaches out to the moorings. Customers are welcome to enjoy the beachfront area as well.
Another attraction at Dutch Harbor is a small restaurant called The Shack that is a favorite among boaters and local residents as well. The one-time battery shed has been transformed into a popular restaurant that is famous for its lobster roll and its views of the bay. Eichler owns the building but leases it out to restaurant professionals to operate.
According to Eichler, Jamestown Harbormaster Sam Paterson has been appreciative of her efforts at Dutch Harbor. “He has been incredibly supportive and kind about the work we’ve done here,” she said.
Eichler added that the other boat yard proprietors were just as supportive. “One of the most incredible aspects of going into a business without any previous experience or knowledge has been the incredible outpouring of support from my fellow boat yard owners on the island,” Eichler said. “Bill Munger at Conanicut reached out to us immediately, and he and his wife May have been a source of incredible support, guidance and help. They have a lifetime of experience and they wanted us to succeed. They wanted me to bring this place to the level that would make everyone in Jamestown proud of it, and it would increase all of our reputations.”
She said the same is true of Jamestown Boat Yard and Clark Boat Yard. “Everyone has been very kind and helpful.”
Now that Dutch Harbor is operating smoothly again, a number of yacht club groups are making the area a destination for their summer cruises. The boat yard will start launching boats in April and May.
Along with all of her hard work at the boat yard, Eichler believes she was chosen to sit on the host committee because of her tireless Rhode Island “boosterism.” She added that her seasonal mooring reservations are ahead of schedule and she believes that the America’s Cup World Series and the Ocean State Tall Ships festival has a lot to do with it. “There is just a lot of energy around tourism on Narragansett Bay,” she said.