Once Camden held the title, but now Rockland is the windjammer capital of the world. But Rockland could lose the title along with the historic sailing vessels that bestow it, if a group of historic schooners fails to find a permanent home in the harbor, soon.

The owners of four of the city’s eight schooners are frustrated because after a few years of trying to establish a permanent berthing spot in the protected harbor space at Lermond’s Cove, their plans are still in limbo and their current berths are temporary and uncertain.

“They literally need an act of Congress,” said Rockland City Manager Tom Hall. “Congress has to approve the decommissioning of a small portion of the channel in Lermond’s Cove for dredging to accommodate four or five schooners.” The 138-foot section in question lies at the southern end of the federal channel.

Dredging, which may only be done from November through April, would have to start next fall, or the vessels will need something besides an act of Congress. They will need an alternative.

“We have no lengthy lease with any of these places,” said Anne Mahle, who, with her husband, Jon Finger, is a captain-owner of the J & E Riggin, currently berthed at the former MBNA pier. “It’s uncomfortable at the least and a poor business practice at the most.”

The MBNA property recently changed hands and is slated for development. The Stephen Taber is moored at the former Outward Bound school in the South End, and that property is for sale. Some have moored at Journey’s End off Tillson Ave., but the marina is expected to raise its rates to a level more suited to megayachts, which will place dockage out of the price range of the windjammers.

“We’ve been waiting three years,” said Mahle. The bill had previously made it through the House but not the Senate. “It’s been 50 years since that part of the harbor has been dredged and the Army Corps of Engineers has not been maintaining it.”

However, on May 17, Dick Spear, head of the Rockland’s Port Authority, a quasi-municipal city organization, received word from Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office that the bill had passed the Senate and was headed for a joint committee and back to the House.

“We’re frustrated, too. This is the most encouraging news we’ve had in a long time,” said Spear. He’s been a member of the Port Authority for 50 years and strongly supports the plan to put the schooners in Lermond’s Cove. The authority was set up in the 1950s to assist the working waterfront.

The city received money when the state took the ferry terminal land by eminent domain. Some of this money would be used to finance building the dock for the schooners, Spear explained.

“Snowe’s office said it might go through by June, but I won’t hold my breath,” said Spear. “Then we have to put it out to contract. We’ve been pushing to get this done. It’s up to the Port Authority to get the bill through, then we’ll do the dredging and some of the financing. We hope it can be all done by next year.”

Two other schooners, the Nathaniel Bowditch and the Victory Chimes, also have uncertain dockage and would join the Taber and the Riggin in Lermond’s Cove, if Congress approves the dredging. But the vessels must also reach agreement with the city on a plan to create an attractive walkway and parking area at the approach to Lermond’s Cove.

“We would build a wharf that would be home for four schooners between the sewage treatment plant and FMC,” said Noah Barnes, captain and co- owner of the 68-foot, 136-year-old Stephen Taber, the oldest documented sailing vessel in continuous service in the U.S., recently designated as a National Historic Landmark. Barnes owns the Taber with his wife, Jane. “We are offering to rent the land and built at our own expense a driveway and parking lot with green space and an ocean walkway for the public.”

A sticking point for schooner owners is the length of the lease they’ve been offered. The schooners want a 10-year lease to guarantee them a decade of stability and a return on their investment. Rockland offered a 5-year lease last July, but the vessel owners wouldn’t sign it. The plan has dragged on for so long, many of the original city council members who supported it have left office.

“At the time of the last vote, I advised them (schooner owners) to take what was offered and we’ll go from there,” said Hall, adding that since Rockland is becoming more of a tourist destination and the city is trying to encourage that, the schooners are important in many ways.

“They are a vitally important piece of history, and important for the local economy,” said Hall. “Selfishly, they fit into our overall plan for the renaissance of Lermond’s Cove. This group does a great job of collaborating. They have a website, they do joint marketing, and I appreciate that they’re not making a huge amount of profit.”

An informal survey of the spending habits of the 500 annual customers of each of the four windjammers involved in the Lermond’s Cove plan shows they directly spend $1.1 million in Rockland, said Jane Barnes. That includes a night in a motel on each end of their trip, dinner at least once, usually twice in local restaurants, and shopping for clothes and gifts.

Overall, “the economic impact in the state is $3.8 million,” said Mahle. “We figure 74 percent of our gross is spent in the city of Rockland — all our expenses for food and boat supplies. And our crew members spend their money here on weekends.”

The slender profit margins are something the schooner owners emphasize. Their old wooden vessels require a lot of expensive maintenance. The captains say they mostly sail windjammers because they love it, not because they ever expect to get rich.

“We’re all mom and pop operations, doing something in the for-profit world that most people have to be non-profit to do,” said Barnes. “We’re keeping historic working vessels working, honestly.”

“It was these boats that brought me here from the Midwest, and there’s nowhere else in Maine you get this. These old vessels are what started this country,” said Finger, captain and co-owner of the Riggin, built in 1937. He and Anne have operated the Riggin for 10 years, but they met when they were both crewmembers of the Taber, she as a cook, back when Noah Barnes’s parents owned it. “This lifestyle isn’t making any of us rich.”

“So many people look at working waterfronts as just fishing boats, but we’re working vessels, too. We haul people, not fish,” said Finger. “We don’t get handouts or tax breaks or funding either. We’re busting our humps to keep these boats and their traditions alive, and we can’t afford yacht prices.”

“The state Department of Transportation has been unhelpful,” Barnes said. “We’ve battled with the DOT over our right to have a wharf there. They said if they let us build it, they’ll need a clause saying the state ferries have the right of way and precedence over the schooners.”

Barnes points out that the ferries have a regular schedule, which schooners recognize and would certainly work around, but that the worldwide rules of the road for navigation always give sailing vessels precedence.

“The town is sitting on the most protected cove in Rockland harbor and we’re offering to make it navigable, turn it into a wharf and something that looks good,” said Barnes. He attended several meetings on the topic of future development of Rockland, and said there was general agreement that “it is important to Rockland to expand Tillson Ave.”

Protection and visibility are two of the key reasons the schooners wish to be in Lermond’s Cove. The Taber had its plastic winter cover “unzipped” at the Outward Bound dock by the northeaster in April (WWF May 07). The Riggin rode out the same storm behind a protective wall at the fairly new former MBNA dock, but “just barely,” said Finger. He had several extra lines on the vessel, and attached some to tires on the pier for flexibility in the wind. The vessel suffered little damage but the force of the storm ripped up one of the dock’s posts.

“We’re looking for a decent, safe place to operate this unique business,” said Barnes. “The wharfage problem is getting more and more difficult to solve everywhere. Our needs are not huge and what we offer to the community is considerable.”

Nearly all the windjammers in Rockland, Camden, Rockport and Belfast are historic vessels. Only a few were built strictly for the trade and they are copies of old vessels.

The 132- foot Victory Chimes, the last three-masted schooner on the East coast, was built in 1900 to carry lumber in the Chesapeake and is the largest passenger sailing vessel under the U.S. flag. The 82-foot Nathaniel Bowditch was built as a racing yacht in East Boothbay in 1922 and served in the Coast Guard during World War II.

“We run on six gallons of diesel a week,” said Barnes. “It’s eco-tourism at its best and least sanctimonious. We’re also interested in keeping Rockland at its best, and we know what that is.”