By Stephen J. Kotz
Anyone who has crossed over the bridge from North Haven on a sunny summer morning and sees the Sag Harbor waterfront stretching out before them knows it’s a special place. With white sailboats moored on the azure water, powerboats plying the channel, and a handful of mega-yachts and ocean-going sailboats at rest outside the breakwater, it’s easy to recognize the draw of the place.
While there are other harbors on the East End — Greenport, Montauk, Three Mile Harbor, among them — Sag Harbor stands alone. Just ask the throngs of people making their way up and down Long Wharf on a hot summer’s night, ice cream cones in hand, to ogle the big boats tied up at the village-owned pier or the neighboring Waterfront Marina.
Besides serving as an attractive backdrop to summer comings and goings on Main Street, the Sag Harbor waterfront is also a village within a village, where scores of people ply their trades, doing everything from ferrying boaters to and from the mooring fields, teaching kids how to sail, running fishing charters, or troubleshooting malfunctioning diesel marine engines.
And although no formal economic impact study has ever been done, it’s clear the harbor is a major economic driver for the village. “The boats that come in to any of the local marinas are heavy spenders, at the restaurants, at the hardware stores, just about anywhere,” said Chuck Dempsey, who recently retired as secretary-treasurer of the Sag Harbor Yacht Club, which has been a fixture of the village’s waterfront since 1899.
The harbor is also a cash cow for the village, contributing more than $5 million to its coffers over the past decade through mooring and boat slip rentals, making it the village’s second largest source of revenue, behind property taxes. Over the past decade, revenues have increased by roughly 50 percent, and during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the village raked in more than $950,000 from harbor operations.
An Economic Engine
Revenue made from docking by Sag Harbor Village has increased dramatically in recent years.
Businesses on the waterfront include The Sag Harbor Yacht Yard — which is also home to Tight Lines Tackle and the Sag Harbor Ship Store — the Waterfront Marina, and Bruce Tait & Associates, a yacht brokerage and charter business. Under the bridge, along West Water Street, are the Sag Harbor Cove East and West Marinas, the Ferretti Group and San Lorenzo Yacht Sales, two yacht brokerage firms, and the Global Boarding water sports center. Around the bend, on Redwood, are the Ship Ashore and Redwood marinas.
Interspersed among the shore-based businesses are a number of floating operations, including the American Beauty tour boat, catamaran charter services, Surfmaster Charters, Sag Harbor Charters, and the Flying Point Fish Camp.
And that doesn’t include the restaurants hugging the shoreline from the Dockside on Bay Street to Baron’s Cove on West Water Street, or the not-for-profit clubs, like the yacht club and the Breakwater Yacht Club, the village’s sailing center, which also employ full staffs.
“There is more work than I can get done in the summer,” said Lou Grignon, who has owned the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard for more than two decades. He said his crews are kept busy from early in the year, setting moorings from Wooley’s Pond in Southampton to Montauk Harbor, and straight through the summer, with all manner of boat repairs. Mr. Grignon is also the East End’s sole John Deere engine dealer, and he and his crews are called upon to install the big motors in boats from Montauk to Brooklyn, he said.
Rick Pickering, the long-time owner of Ship Ashore Marina on Redwood Road, agrees there is more than enough work to go around, but Mr. Pickering said he has been trying to reduce the size of his business as he gets older and retirement beckons.
He said he has given up mooring work and is reducing the number of sailboats he’ll store on his property, in part, because getting them under the bridge requires that their masts be removed. “The people I take care of first are those who take care of me,” he said, explaining that he gives priority to customers who moor their boats in his marina and store them with him over the winter.
At Cove East Marina, manager Beau Campsey, his blond hair unruly under a baseball cap and his eyes hidden by sunglasses, is the face of Zen calm even as the two cellphones and walkie-talkie he keeps close at hand keep chirping and chattering at him.
There’s the guy who wants to know when his boat can be positioned so a repairman can fix the ding in the hull. Another customer, who wants to take his powerboat out for an afternoon spin, is having trouble keeping the four engines running, requiring Mr. Campsey to assist a dockhand. In between, he is trying to round up a licensed captain who is willing to take a party out on their yacht on Saturday afternoon. It’s a tough sell even though the money is good because everyone starts getting a little burned out come late July, he said.
Mr. Campsey, 42, who said he began working on the waterfront when he was a teenager, takes it all in stride. “We’re here to make sure they have a great summer and love boating,” he said of his clients. “We’re helping them with everything they need.”
“A lot of people don’t realize just how much of an impact the waterfront has on Sag Harbor,” he added. “It’s a huge asset.”
A Flow of Dollars
“Not everyone who has a boat is rich, but the rich people are the ones who travel from one harbor to the next, having a good time and spending a lot of money,” said Mr. Grignon. The boats visiting the harbor “provide the traction” that allows other businesses to prosper, he added.
That is evident with a visit to the neighboring Sag Harbor Yacht Club, where all day long, a steady stream of deliveries, from marine supplies to groceries, arrive on the dock, or a glance around Main Street, where yacht crew members, often dressed in khaki shorts and navy or white polo-shorts, roll carts down the street, laden with supplies, from ginger ale to gin.
“Sag Harbor is a marvelous harbor because it is right in town,” said Mr. Dempsey. “This is a great destination. People tie up their boats and can walk right across the street to a fine restaurant.”
Nancy Haynes, who ran Waterfront Marina for 29 years before retiring two years ago, and saw the rise of the village’s fortunes as a yachting port, said she always took special care to promote local businesses.
“Every spring, I would send an employee around to collect menus from every restaurant and collect business cards from every business,” she said, “and we would make them available for visitors.”
Ms. Haynes said they would also put together “visitor kits,” with suggested activities for children, teens, and adults. “We really tried to bring business into the community,” she said.
Mr. Dempsey pointed out that the yacht club itself, which has 155 members, many of them locals, also gives back to the community through scholarships and other endeavors. Many people, he said, don’t realize that it is the yacht club that hosts the village’s annual July 4th fireworks display. “I’d suspect the night of the fireworks was the biggest night of the year in the village,” he said.
An Asset, and Responsibility
A lone paddle boarder cruises through the harbor off Long Wharf in Sag Harbor.
“The waterfront is our crown jewel,” said village Trustee Ken O’Donnell, whose restaurant, La Superica, affords diners an expansive view over the harbor and Long Wharf. “We are fortunate to be an East End village right on the water. It’s been a huge part of Sag Harbor from the whaling days until now.”
As part of his duties on the village board, Mr. O’Donnell serves as the liaison between village government and its waterfront functions. While he recognizes the harbor’s value to the village and the need for constant maintenance, Mr. O’Donnell said village officials have been up to their ears in work recently. A revamping of the zoning code to limit the size of houses on undersized lots and trying to negotiate with the owners of the 1,3,5 Ferry Road properties to prevent that waterfront parcel from being developed into condos and instead be preserved as parkland has taken up most of the board’s time of late, he said.
Mr. O’Donnell said village officials are awaiting word from Suffolk County to find out if it will be able to dredge the shoaled area east of the main channel and west of Long Wharf this fall. The project has been on and off since the bridge was replaced in 1999. Once that project is done, the village will be able to install additional piers and increase the number of slips it is able to rent out and increase revenues, he said.
Mr. O’Donnell said the village is also keenly aware that B Dock, a village-owned facility off West Water Street with 50 slips, is in dire need of repair. The structure was shored up several years ago, but needs to be replaced sooner than later, he said.
On top of that, the village will have to bite the bullet and shore up Long Wharf itself and make other repairs to bulkheading and docks near Marine Park, he said.
“In a perfect world, we’d figure out what to do with Long Wharf and go out to bond on that while interest rates are so low,” he said.
Mayor Sandra Schroeder agreed that dredging, replacing B Dock and repairing Long Wharf are priorities. She said the village has a grant writer exploring funding options. She said she would like to see Long Wharf beautified “so it doesn’t look so much like a runway.”
But the mayor said she was not excited about borrowing money to pay for the work, noting that the village has a repair reserve fund with more than $1 million in it.
Nonetheless, with the waterfront growing ever busier and revenue continuing to climb, she said it was possible the board would consider earmarking a portion of that extra revenue to be used for waterfront repairs only.
Bruce Tait, a yacht broker who has lived in the village since the 1970s, and once rented windsurfers and Sunfish and Hobie Cat sailboats from the spot now occupied by Mr. O’Donnell’s restaurant, has long been involved with the village waterfront.
The former chairman of the village’s Harbor Committee has argued that the village should be focusing much more attention on undertaking a total revitalization of its waterfront, and not just putting Band-Aids on problems as they arise.
Mr. Tait said he believed a case could be made that the village is required by law to earmark all the money it takes in from dock and mooring fees to waterfront uses. “If you make a parking lot and charge fees, state law says you can’t use that money for anything else,” Mr. Tait said. “If you are making money off of a mooring field, there is not much difference.” He likened it to the situation in East Hampton, where the town is prohibited from comingling revenue from the town airport with its general fund.
Mayor Schroeder disagrees, and says the village is perfectly within its rights to use harbor revenues to help offset property taxes.
Mr. Tait’s pet project is his vision for a waterfront park and walkway that would wind its way all the way from West Water Street to the end of Marine Park. A key part of that vision would be the renovation of Long Wharf. Mr. Tait said former village planning consultant Richard Warren had submitted draft plans that would add a boardwalk around the exterior of the wharf, change the parking configuration, and add a turnaround area ending in a small park at the end of the pier, with benches and plantings.
“Long Wharf should be reconfigured at a minimum,” he said. As it stands now, it is hazardous, he said. “People could fall in the water and drown. And people are walking in the street. It’s not pedestrian friendly at all. I think it’s a huge liability for the village.”
Mr. Tait and Mr. Grignon have both grumbled that the village should concentrate on the area inside the breakwater and abandon plans to extend its jurisdiction 1,500 feet from shore to the edge of the channel.
Sag Harbor Village Harbormaster Bob Bori said the village wants to exercise control over that area not as a way to raise revenue — there are no plans to charge moorings fees, he said — but to make sure that moorings are up to standards and documentation is available in case a boat sinks or breaks free.
“I’m always reluctant to give more power to government,” Mr. Tait said. “The more you give, the more they will take.”
“The village is more concerned with moorings outside in state waters than worrying about a sewage treatment plant that dumps right out on the dinghy dock,” said Mr. Grignon.
Unfortunately, that sewage treatment plant, which can cast an odiferous pall over the waterfront when it is operating at peak capacity in the summer months, is not going anywhere anytime soon, so residents simply have to plug their noses and bear it.
Besides, said Ms. Schroeder. “It’s a beautiful harbor. I haven’t seen any pictures prettier than Sag Harbor.”
Eyes on the Water
Sag Harbor Harbormaster Bob Bori, a retired Southampton Town police officer, has been the village’s chief waterfront law enforcement officer for the past seven years.
Although Mr. Bori is responsible for enforcing navigational law, keeping an eye out for intoxicated boaters or the fisherman bringing in an undersized bass, and overseeing the occasional retrieval of a boat that breaks free from its mooring and runs up on the breakwater, he also has a major administrative role.
He supervises a staff of 10 seasonal assistant dockmasters, who are stationed in rotating shifts from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. seven days a week in the season and he oversees the village’s hundreds of dock slips and moorings, finding space for visiting boaters whenever there is an opening.
Mr. Bori, who grew up in Noyac and graduated from Pierson High School, also keeps an eye on the condition of the waterfront infrastructure. Long Wharf needs some serious work, and some of the bulkhead sheathing may need to be replaced along Marine Park, he said, but it’s B Dock, home to up to 50 boats, that has him most concerned right now. “It’s in dire need of work,” he said. “The dock itself is shot.”
When he is not on the water, Mr. Bori also serves as co-chair of a new Harbor Advisory Committee established by Mayor Sandra Schroeder.
Mr. Bori said the harbor has been running smoothly this year, with few major problems to report. When the boating season ends, Mr. Bori transitions to a part-time role, but his patrol boat remains in the water “from ice to ice,” he said, so it is always available in case of emergency.
Cat Heath, a native of New Zealand, has been running Global Boarding, which has locations at the Sag Harbor Cove West Marina as well as in Hidden Cove in Noyac and Harbor Marina in Three Mile Harbor, East Hampton, with her husband Robb Reid for nearly 15 years.
The company runs three to five boats from each location, each with a captain/instructor, who will take parties of up to six people out for wakeboarding, water skiing, tubing or the newest craze, wake surfing, for as little as an hour or all day.
In wake surfing, ballast tanks are filled with water, allowing the boat’s stern to drop and its engines to kick up a powerful wake. A rider with a tow rope follows on a surfboard and when he catches the wave simply lets go and surfs along behind the boat for as long as possible.
The company also rents kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, and you can book one of its boats for a sunset cruise or dinner cruise.
With so many options, the company’s 15 employees are kept on their toes. “Lots of our clients come from Manhattan, so they are accustomed to a certain level of service,” something the company strives to provide, Ms. Heath said.
“It’s a great way for a family to have fun,” she said of Global Boarding’s many offerings. “You get out on the water, with no cell phones, no technology. It’s a great way to get quality time in.”
Seeing the Sights
Most summer days you can find Don Heckman sitting on a patio chair under an umbrella next to the Sag Harbor Village dockhouse on Long Wharf, waiting for customers to sign up for one of three daily tours he has been offering on the American Beauty since 1992.
“The season really starts on weekends in June” he said. “After school gets out, we go seven days a week until Labor Day.”
It’s tough to gauge when he will be busy, he said. Sometimes on a perfect, sunny day when you’d expect people to be lining up for a cruise, his offer goes unanswered by all but a handful of customers. Other days when it’s overcast and you expect people to not be interested in a sight-seeing cruise, he said he sells out the 33 seats on his boat for all of his cruises.
Besides the 90-minute, narrated tours, which make a loop from Sag Harbor out past Barcelona Point and back along Shelter Island and North Haven, Captain Heckman offers two-hour long sunset cruises on Noyac or Gardiners Bay, depending on the prevailing winds, and makes his boat available for charters.
A native of New Jersey, Captain Heckman discovered Sag Harbor in the 1970s when he was attending Southampton College. He worked for a time as a commercial fisherman, but surgery to remove a brain tumor put an end to that career. It did not keep him off the water, though. After recovering, he obtained his captain’s license and bought his first tour boat, which he replaced with the current one about a decade ago.
Captain Heckman said he would probably keep at it “until I die or win the lottery. And if I win the lottery, I’ll probably do it another 10 years.” The reason? “I enjoy it. Really, I love it,” he said. “I meet a lot of nice people.”
Getting to and From
If your boat is on a mooring, either in or outside Sag Harbor, and you don’t have a dinghy at your disposal, Ken Deeg, who runs the village water taxi service, will be happy to give you a lift.
Mr. Deeg, a Ronkonkoma native who served in Montauk with the U.S. Coast Guard, has been operating the service since 2005. He or one of his part-time pilots are available from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on weekends) during the season.
The taxi, which pulls up alongside Long Wharf, costs $5 a head, for a run out to the village mooring field, over to the North Haven mooring field along the western side of the main channel or out beyond the breakwater, where dozens of boats, many with their own tenders, lie at anchor.
There is room for six passengers on board the Chris-Craft launch, plus Mr. Deeg’s constant work companions, Barrels, a Wheaton terrier, and Beans, a miniature schnauzer.
The boat is modified with a special ramp on the bow with sturdy railings and padded ends that allow Mr. Deeg to pull in snugly against other boats, making it easy for passengers, who are often laden down with baggage or groceries, to disembark.
When he’s not busy ferrying boaters to and from the mooring field, Mr. Deeg, through an arrangement with Sag Harbor Village, helps those who lease moorings sublet them to transient boats. In the spring and fall, he busies himself installing and removing moorings.
In his 11 years on the local waterfront, two things stand out. “Boats are getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “And there’s a lot more seaplanes.”
Kristen Conlin, who grew up outside Binghamton, was a college student upstate in 2003 when her sister urged her to pass on her normal summer lifeguarding job and join her as a dock hand at the Sag Harbor Yacht Club, even though she admittedly didn’t know her port side from her starboard side.
Ms. Conlin, who is now the club’s head dockmaster, never left. She returned summer after summer, spending her winters crewing on various private boats in Florida and the Caribbean until finally settling into a full-time job at the club.
“Every day, when I come down here I pinch myself,” she said. “We’ve got the best view, the best crew, and the nicest people here.”
Ms. Conlin described her job as an ever-changing logistical puzzle, as she tries to squeeze visiting boats into the limited number of available slips. “My job would be so much easier if all boats were the same size,” she said.
Besides helping boaters into their slips, the five-member dock crew is asked to do a fair amount of “concierge-type” work, helping visitors find everything from grocery stores to florists, Ms. Conlin said. And because the yacht club is the only place that sells gas and diesel outside the bridge, everyone knows how to handle a fuel hose.
Her experience crewing on private boats was a great experience but one she is happy to have put behind her. “I got to see some amazing places,” she said, ticking off the Panama Canal, ports throughout Central America, and the east coast of the United States. “But it’s a tough life. You are always on call. It’s like living at work.”
Learning to Sail
MAXINE DE HAVENON
Maxine de Havenon, one of two head instructors for the Breakwater Yacht Club’s summer sailing program, was introduced to the sport at the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett when she was no more than 4 or 5 years old.
“I never thought I’d take it so seriously,” said Ms. de Havenon, who just completed her freshman year at Brown University, where she is a member of the sailing team. “When it came time to go to college, I only looked at schools that had sailing programs.”
At Breakwater, a not-for-profit club that encourages newcomers to get out on the water as one of its key missions, approximately 500 children pass through its sailing camp every summer, many of them on scholarships handed out through local schools and organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Participants can attend camp for a week, a month, or the entire 10-week season.
It’s the job of Ms. de Havenon, and the other 20 instructors, to get the campers, who range in age from 7 years up, out on the water, learning to trim their sails and handle a tiller. Some kids are naturals, others take a little more tutoring, but they all seem to have fun, she said, adding, “and once you get into it, it’s hard to give it up.”
Besides its summer youth program, Breakwater sponsors the popular Wednesday night races and the Sag Harbor Cup. It also supports high school teams from Pierson, the Ross School, East Hampton, and Shelter Island.
“Sailing has a reputation as an elitist sport,” she said, “but at Breakwater, for about $200 a year, you can come down and use any boat here or jump on a boat for a Wednesday night race.”