An Eastern Shore tradition is undergoing a major renovation thanks to enthusiastic new owners dedicated to a boat and a town.
While John and Robin Marrah have called St. Michaels home only since last year, they have been visiting family in the area for almost three decades. During that time, they became avid fans of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museumand the town of St. Michaels.
When they made the commitment to settle in St. Michaels in 2009, they were also looking for a business opportunity that would benefit the community they had come to love. What they found was the Patriot.
There has been a Patriot cruising the Miles River since 1969, when the original wooden-hulled boat was brought up from Florida. When that Patriot retired to South Carolina in 1990, then-owners Dave and Norma Etzel had a new steel-hulled vessel built to take her place. The new Patriot was designed along the lines of the steamboats that used to haul passengers, produce and other commodities on the Chesapeake Bay from the late 1800s to the 1930s.
Two decades took their toll on even the new Patriot. By the time she was put up for sale last year, she was ready for an overhaul. Concerned that this icon of the Miles River might be sold out of the area, the Marrahs saw possibilities in taking on the vessel and using her to support the local community.
“We spent the first week stopping the fuel leaks, the second stopping the water leaks and the third stopping the oil leaks,” laughed John Marrah, describing his new ownership. While structurally sound, the boat needed both systems work and upgrading of her amenities. When the refurbished Patriot starts cruising again this spring, Marrah says they will have invested well over one hundred thousand dollars in her renovations.
From the basics, such as paint and engine work, to the customer details, including décor, air conditioning and sound systems, Marrah is determined to have the Patriot be “a great, shining example of how beautiful St. Michaels is.” He is passionate in sharing his plans for the boat and excited about her future.
This former software entrepreneur has changed the scale of his focus from global retail markets to the local tourist trade.
The Marrahs are working closely with the St. Michaels business community to integrate the Patriot into the town’s overall effort to attract visitors.
Her 2010 cruising schedule begins April 10 for weekends and seven days a week starting mid-May. Patriot will offer four regularly scheduled trips each day, with evenings available for charters.
Packages are planned with local hotels and inns to offer mid-week business travelers cocktail cruises. The goal is to provide guests with an enjoyable hour on the water and get them back in time to have dinner at local restaurants—“a win for everybody,” Marrah said.
With a 149-passenger capacity, handicap accessibility, full bar and enclosed seating for inclement weather, thePatriot is in a position to attract a wide range of charter business, including weddings. When Robin, the Patriot’soperations manager, started getting inquiries about having weddings on board, she researched how John could become an officially ordained minister, allowing them to accommodate couples who wish to have the captain perform the ceremony.
As committed as the Marrahs are to making the Patriot a business success, they are equally committed to making her a success as a member of the community. Concerned about the environment, the Marrahs are working with the Choptank River Eastern Bay Conservancy to offer environmental tours. Their St. Michaels dock hosts oyster spat cages and signage describing Chesapeake ecology.
They are also dedicated to working with area nonprofit organizations to promote the Patriot as a unique venue for fundraising events. “We want to integrate the boat more closely into the community and support the organizations that do so much for its residents and the environment,” said Marrah.
Impressed with the progress that the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum has made since they began coming to the area, he hopes that the Patriot will also help draw visitors to that institution.
The Marrahs are determined that area residents should enjoy the boat as much as visitors do and will offer a Talbot Resident Pass this year. County residents will be able to purchase a pass and enjoy free cruises all season long for about the price of two trips on the boat.
Using the audio-visual capability on board, Marrah is hoping to focus one or two trips each day on specialized topics, such as ecology or local history along the river. Repeat passengers would be able to have a different experience each trip.
Evidenced by Marrah’s infectious enthusiasm, John and Robin’s own experience in the area is overwhelmingly positive. “We’re having a blast,” he said. “We pinch ourselves every day now and think, wow, we got lucky. We feel fortunate to be able to build on the great tradition established by Dave Etzel and Cliff Meredith.”
They intend to share that luck and enthusiasm with their adopted home. “The Patriot is a community asset,” emphasized Marrah. “We want people to remember not only their trip on the boat, but their whole experience in St. Michaels.”
For more information, to make reservations, or to arrange a charter, call Patriot Cruises at 410-745-3100 or visit www.patriotcruises.com.