At 25 years, Points East has beaten the odds

Participants of the 2006 Fundy Flotilla pose at Robinhood Marine Center. Points East file photo

Editor’s Note: As we celebrate our 25th year of publishing, Points East is taking a look back at our first year in business. This month, we hear from Bernie Wideman, a cofounder of the magazine.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 20 percent of small businesses fail within the first year. By the end of the second year, 30 percent of businesses will have failed. By the end of the fifth year, about half will have failed. And by the end of a decade, only 30 percent of businesses will remain: a 70-percent failure rate.

I had told a good friend of mine – a lawyer who specializes in bankruptcies – that I was tired of working in newspapers and wanted to start a boating magazine. He then told me about the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ cautionary statistics.

I’m delighted to be able to report that Points East Magazine bucked the tide (so to speak) and is now in its 25th year and going strong. My partner, Sandy Marsters, and I started the venture in 1998, publishing our first issue in April of that year. We sold the magazine in its 10th year.

And it’s now stronger than ever under the direction of Joe Burke and a talented and hard-working staff… three of whom had joined Sandy and me at the outset. One was advertising representative Lynn Emerson Whitney; another was ad designer Holly St. Onge; and the third was art director John Gold. (John, after a while, had become a partial owner.)

At the beginning – not surprisingly – Sandy and I weren’t taking home much in the way of salaries. (And occasionally weren’t taking home any salary.) But we always managed to pay the crew. And we liked the idea of having our own company. We were meeting and working with people that were like us. The people we met at boat shows throughout New England wanted to talk about boats and boating. Same as we did. “What kind of boat do you have?” “What are some of the boats you’ll be looking at here at the show?” “What’re some of your favorite ports?”

In addition to chatting with boat-show visitors and boat-show exhibitors, we – including wives and staff – needed to make sure that each person who walked past our booth walked away from our display table with a Points East Magazine underneath his or her arm.

When we weren’t getting to know our readers (and potential readers), we were getting to know the people who make the boats, sell the boats, repair the boats, store the boats, make the sails and sell all manner of equipment for boats (and boaters). These were the people we had to turn into our customers. We had to do our best to show them that this start-up magazine was becoming popular with boaters.

In our first issue of Points East we had only 66 advertisers. Our numbers got better as summer arrived, but then slacked off as winter set in. As you know, we print monthly during the boating season, but only three issues during the non-boating season. So, that was a problem that had to be addressed: How could we produce more revenue in our slack season?

We tried several methods, starting with keg parties. These would be held in the Spring, and would take place at Handy Boat, where boatyard owner Merle Hallett was kind enough to give us plenty of indoor space for an after-work party. And Gritty’s was kind enough to provide all the beer we needed. We publicized the affairs pretty well, and they became quite popular. (They still are.)

We also set up seminars covering such topics as “Weather Forecasting” and “Taking Care of Your Diesel Engine.” The engine seminar was conducted at Brewer South Freeport Marine. It was our most popular. The yard’s chief mechanic – Bob Gerwig – was a natural teacher. We limited the number of students and charged $195 for a five-hour session (which included excellent sandwiches and drinks).

We also held evening seminars at the West Marine store in Portland. These sessions were free and dealt with caring for our boats and using our boats. The most popular seminar we put together was a talk by a Canadian marina owner who kindly came down to speak with our readers about cruising on the St. John River. His marina was quite a way up the river.

What we had noticed was that lots of our readers wanted to someday head for Canada… either under power or sail. However, they had heard so much about the very high tides at Saint John and the dangerous tidal currents they were unwilling to try it. So that’s where Points East came in: We organized two-week cruises to various ports in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Sandy and I reconnoitered coastal Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. We contacted harbormasters, yacht club commodores, marina owners, restaurant owners, Canada Coast Guard and Canadian Customs. Also, museum managers, tour bus operators, church ladies and school parents.

It’s true: In the lovely fishing village of Cutler, Maine – which we often used as a jumping-off point – the church ladies would put on fantastic lobster suppers for us.

Likewise, if we were preparing to jump off the next day from the town of Lubec, Maine, a group of school parents were happy to put on a great lobster dinner at the school.

One of our most helpful resources when organizing cruises to Nova Scotia was the author of “A Cruising Guide to Nova Scotia.” Dr. Peter Loveridge and his wife always joined our suppers when we were in Yarmouth with a flotilla, and he was always happy to speak after dinner… and sell copies of his book.

One of our most helpful resources when organizing cruises to New Brunswick and the dreaded St. John River entrance was the same gentleman who had come down from his home on the river to give a talk for Points East at West Marine. (When the flotilla boats had gotten safely to his marina, which was a-ways up the river – in Gagetown – the marina would put on a fine barbecue for the flotilla members.)

A typical Fundy Flotilla cruise might look something like this:

Day 1: Boats are gathered at Northeast Harbor; crews meet at local church for introductions and discussion

Day 2: Cruise to Cutler; supper at the church

Day 3: Cruise to Grand Manan; supper at the local restaurant

Day 4: Cruise to Pt. Lepreau …. Anchor for the night or continue to Saint John (depending on tides)

Day 5: Enter the St. John River; head for the Royal Kennebecasis Yacht Club

Day 6: Visit the Fundy Traffic HQ; see the city

Day 7: First class dinner at the Royal Kennebecasis Y.C.

Day 8: Head upriver to Gagetown marina; cookout in the afternoon

Day 9: Enjoy the river; Points East party on the largest boats in the p.m.

Day 10: Head down the river; get to Pt. Lepreau

Day 11: Get to Eastport to clear customs

Day 12: Return to Northeast Harbor

Although we only offered one “Fundy Flotilla” each summer, the popularity of the cruises – which cost $400 per boat with two people (plus meals) – went a long way toward keeping the still-relatively-new magazine in good financial shape.

Over the seven years that we planned, conducted, and led cruises to Canada, we had more than 400 people who had joined a Flotilla. Many joined us for two or three cruises. And some diehards were on all the cruises. We tried to make each somewhat different. We would change some of the ports of call, or the routes, or use busses to take us to various interesting sites.

We discontinued the Fundy Flotillas when The Great Recession of 2007-2009 set in and lots of boaters stopped using their boats.

But the biggest boost for the economic health of Points East was the fact that it was – and is still – a great read. The magazine is known for its personal, homespun stories, its section for sailboat racing, as well as its reliable information from boaters, for boaters, etc.

Another asset we had was Dodge Morgan. Editor Marsters had invited Dodge to write a column for each issue of PE; and Dodge was happy to oblige. Of course, every boater in New England knew who Dodge Morgan was, and his columns were one-of-a-kind: irreverent as well as informational. (Dodge would also give Points East’s financials a check-up once a year.)

After about 10 years, and with the magazine on a firm footing, Sandy and I decided that it was time to move on. Sandy wanted to have more time for teaching journalism at UNH, and I wanted to have more time to spend with my grandkids.

However, Sandy and I still enjoy being part of the Points East family, as you can see from our contributions to this 25th edition.

Bernie Wideman is a Navy veteran, life-long boater and cruiser and journalist. He is the former owner of the Bethel Citizen, and worked as an editor at the Journal Tribune in Biddeford, Maine before co-founding Points East with Journal Tribune editor Sandy Marsters. Both men love to get out onto the water with their friends and families.