The Turnaround
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At sea, but far from adrift
Running a windjammer schooner is not all clear sailing for John Finger and Anne Mahle.
July 1, 2005: 1:32 PM EDT
By Les Christie, CNN/Money staff writer
Anne Mahle, Jon Finger, and crew
Anne Mahle, Jon Finger, and crew

NEW YORK(CNN/Money) - Making money sailing a two-masted wooden schooner through the sublime waters of Maine's Penobscot Bay sounds like anything but work, and Jon Finger and Anne Mahle, owners of the J&E Riggin, do love it.

Turning a love of sailing into a living can be tough, though.

Some of the challenges include:

  • High overhead: "We didn't expect there to be so much maintenance," says Mahle. The cost of keeping a 90-foot, wooden-hulled sailboat in trim rises every year, usually faster than inflation. Insurance costs have spiked and many other expenses -- hiring a crew, advertising, and promotion -- are up.
  • Spotty bookings: Changes in the economy, politics, and the price of gas can have a major impact on how many people sign up for a voyage.
  • Expansion: The windjammer business is nearly unscalable. You can't add rooms like you can to hotels; every bit of space aboard is already carefully parceled out. The Riggin will never carry many more than 24 passengers. You can't expand by buying another boat, either. Owners skipper all 14 boats in the Maine windjammer fleet. "It's the only way it really works," says Finger. Even if you could hire an experienced, licensed captain, motivated and able to run the operation at peak efficiency, the cost would squeeze profits thin.
  • Price resistance: With few luxuries, the Riggin is a far cry from the Queen Mary. Cabins are tiny, berths narrow, and the two phone-booth-sized heads are on the deck, a climb up from the cabins. The lack of amenities does affect how much you can charge. A typical sail costs between $140 and $170 per person per day, depending on length. It's difficult to squeeze much more out of passengers.

Meeting the challenges

Finger and Mahle make it work. He has 30 years of experience -- including four years in the Coast Guard -- in piloting yachts, sloops, schooners, and small boats.

Mahle, who also has her skipper's license, keeps guests happy by plying her advanced cooking skills on the galley's big, wood-burning range. She trained in restaurants, at home, and at the Culinary Institute of America.

Their talents keep clients coming back: 60 percent of their bookings are returns or referrals, according to Mahle.

Finger is low-key while Mahle is enthusiastic and bubbly. Her personality recently played out on national TV with a spot on "The Today Show," in which she cooked up one of the main dishes she features aboard the Riggin.

Evenings, they often entertain guests with songs and stories. Finger plays guitar and Mahle sings well.

They have also experimented with theme cruises. This year, they'll have a knitting trip, where participants can learn new techniques from an expert.

Ship's log

They bought the Riggin in 1997 -- paying 20 percent down and financing about $320,00. At first, business was ship-shape; they had five consecutive years of increasing bookings of 10 percent annually. But the stock market meltdown, followed by 9/11, took some of the wind out of their sales (sorry), and business has been a bit spotty since.

The couple coped by extending the season. "It used to run from late June through shortly after Labor Day," says Finger. Now, they schedule trips from before Memorial Day until early October.

Mahle practices minor kitchen economies. She doesn't skimp on ingredients, buying prime meats and excellent fruits and veggies, all in larger quantities than usually get eaten. She reworks the leftovers into what she calls "resurrection food." Lobster becomes a lobster dip appetizer or bisque. Corned beef becomes part of a breakfast hash.

She also says she has been "slowly figuring out how to buy things wholesale, not so much the food, but the other supplies."

Other contributions to the business income come from selling Riggin-logoed clothing items, caps, and pitchers. Mahle also wrote a cookbook. She markets it on the company Web site and eBay and 85 percent of its sales come from non-passengers.

Expansion plan

Eventually, the couple would like to expand their income from these sources, so they don't have to work quite as hard on the boat. To that end, Mahle has started writing a cooking/food column for the Portland Press Herald.

They don't expect to sail forever. "The limit for most people seems to be about 20 years," says Finger.

The Riggin, fortunately, has gone up in value, Finger believes, although by how much is hard to say. A bigger boat, the Victory Chimes, is on the market for $1.5 million.

One of the best things about the windjammer business is that it can involve the whole family. Finger and Mahle not only spend most of their professional lives together, they take their two daughters, Chloe, who's eight and Ella, four, on the job as well.

Some day the couple would like to cut back on their sailing schedule, which consists, basically, of up to 16-hour days, seven days a week. "I'd like to have the boat income for fun," says Mahle, "and the family income from writing books and columns."

While they may never make a killing in the business, the couple should be able to make a good living, and they feel they have made a good life.

John and Karen Lewis took a similar road to business success, opening an ecolodge in Costa Rica. For more, click here.

Jacquelyn Tran also integrated her professional and family lives. Click here for her story.  Top of page


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