Formerly the engineer on the Sunbeam, Mike Johnson has been the captain for the past 11 years. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY DICK BROOM

Seacoast Mission’s Sunbeam needs $1.5 million refit

MOUNT DESERT — Rust is starting to eat away at the inside of the steel hull of the Sunbeam, the Maine Seacoast Mission vessel that delivers health care and other services to island communities.

The furnace and two generators need to be replaced and the crew’s rather Spartan living quarters need sprucing up.

To address those and other needs, the Mission is conducting a special gift campaign to raise $1.5 million.

“We started it in April and hope to finish it up next month,” said Ellen Pope, the organization’s director of development.

The Seacoast Mission’s Sunbeam shown in its former berth at the old pier of the Northeast Harbor marina.

Mike Johnson, captain of the Sunbeam, said that taking care of the rust problem is the top priority.

“All steel boats rust from the inside and it’s hard to access it because it’s all below deck,” he said. “Rust gets in the corners, the ribs in the hull and starts to kind of cauliflower. It’s just starting to do that.”

He said it likely would be several years before the rust would make the vessel unsafe.

“But once it gets a foothold, you’ve got to get on it,” he said.

Doing that is a lot more complicated than just spraying it with Rust-Oleum.

“We need to have complete access to the interior of the hull so it can be sandblasted and then get two coats of marine primer.” Johnson said. “That means the staterooms and everything else below the water line has to be torn out.

“And if the boat is going to be torn apart, there’s a bunch of other things we want to get done.”

He said the two generators are old, noisy and not fuel efficient. The furnace and air compressor also will be replaced.

“The galley needs new appliances and the floor in the salon area is having rust trouble underneath; it keep bubbling up,” he said. “So, that needs to be ripped up and dealt with.”

The crew’s accommodations will be redesigned to provide a little more space and comfort.

“The interior needs to be a little nicer, a little more ship shape,” Johnson said.

John Gilbert, who heads a naval architecture firm in Braintree, Mass., designed the 74-foot Sunbeam for the Mission; it was launched in 1995. The firm is now drawing up the specifications for the refit.

Johnson said the exact cost won’t be known until the bids come in, but it has been estimated at $1.5 million. A new vessel would cost about twice that much.

“We’re hoping to put it out to bid in late fall or early winter and to haul her [in for the work] next April or early May,” Johnson said.

He expects the work to take up to six months.

While the Sunbeam is out of commission, Johnson said the Mission likely will charter a boat to provide its more essential services, but it may curtail others.

“We do three things: We take the nurse around, we take the chaplain around and we are also like a floating coffee house,” he said. “When we show up on Isle au Haut, for example, people come aboard to get coffee and play cribbage and mingle with their neighbors.

“We’re going to lose most of that hospitality part for six months but that will be the six months when it’s not needed as much. It’s in the winter when that is really important, to get people out of their houses.”

Sharon Daley, the registered nurse on the Sunbeam, sees patients on board and makes house calls on the islands. She can arrange for patients to be “seen” by a physician or mental health professional in real time via a telemedicine system on board.

Johnson said the Sunbeam’s role as a community gathering place is more important than it might appear.

“It gets people on board in a comfortable, friendly environment,” he said. “And then it sometimes unfolds organically that they tell the nurse about something that has been bothering them or they talk to the chaplain about some personal issue.”

The chaplain on the Sunbeam is Douglas Cornman.

Northeast Harbor is the vessel’s home port. From there it serves the islands off the Maine coast from the Cranberry Isles to Monhegan. Visited most frequently are Frenchboro, Isle au Haut and Matinicus.

The Sunbeam will be in Rockland on Friday, Aug. 10, as part of the annual Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Show. It will be one of three “icon ships” there.

“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Pope said. “We will be putting our best foot forward for the [fundraising] campaign.”

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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