MOUNT DESERT — Mega yachts owned by some of the wealthiest people in the country are discovering the waters around Mount Desert Island this year as the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on owners’ travel to the Mediterranean, the Bahamas and other popular cruising grounds.
“Maine offers a pretty dramatic chunk of scenery to look at,” said Skip Strong, a harbor pilot who lives in Southwest Harbor. “You take one of these yachts into Somes Sound, the next thing you know the owners, the guests are taking pictures” of the spectacular views and posting them on social media.
“You can almost guarantee that six to eight hours later there’s a bunch of yachts leaving Sag Harbor, Martha’s Vineyard and Provincetown” headed this way, too, he said. “It’s really been wild to watch.”
The big boats are a boost to the local economy in some ways. Private yachts longer than 253 feet are required to take a harbor pilot, which has helped the pilots make up a fraction of the lost revenue from canceled cruise ship visits. The yachts also take on fuel, sometimes from a barge because most fuel docks are not in deep enough water, and they provision with wine and oysters.
“They’re certainly looking for fresh seafood,” Strong said. “Some of them are flying guests in and out of Bangor or even Bar Harbor.”
But some property owners on Somes Sound are not pleased about having the floating mansions disturbing the serenity they normally enjoy.
“The noise they make is so annoying,” said Larry Goldfarb, who has a summer residence on Sargeant Point. “They throw parties at night and the music is blaring and lights are blinking.”
One of the yachts that has been in Somes Sound much of the summer has a helicopter that, Goldfarb said, apparently ferries guests to and from airports on the mainland.
“What’s so annoying is that people with that kind of money just assume that they come first and nobody else matters,” he said. “There’s no sensitivity to the fact that they are in somebody’s neighborhood.
“I can’t believe the town of Mount Desert can’t do something to control the noise.”
The town doesn’t have a noise ordinance, and even if it did, Town Manager Durlin Lunt said he doesn’t know whether it would apply to sound emanating from yachts in the middle of Somes Sound, which is federal water.
“That’s a legal question I would have to ask if we ever got to that point,” Lunt said.
According to Goldfarb, as many as five mega yachts have been anchored in Somes Sound at the same time this summer. He said this is the first year the yachts have been there.
“Assuming the [COVID-19] virus backs off, maybe this will be a one-year aggravation,” he said.
This year, Strong said, the Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association has piloted five private yachts, more than in any other single year.
The largest of the yachts, measuring 453 feet, is Rising Sun, owned by film and music industry mogul David Geffen. Last year, Geffen was listed by Forbes magazine as the 60th richest American, with a net worth of $7.9 billion.
The yacht Infinity, which has a below-deck helicopter hanger, and its support vessel, the yacht Intrepid, are owned by Eric Smidt, the head of a company that operates more than 1,000 hardware stores around the country.
Others whose yachts have been in Somes Sound this summer are Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan.
The Northeast Harbor marina has had a strong year with business from yachts that are small enough to reach it, according to Harbormaster John Lemoine. “At low-low water I have about 12 feet,” he said. For boats longer than about 180 feet, that becomes a problem.
Lemoine said slip rentals have been strong, but mooring rentals have been down a bit. Because of uncertainty about the coronavirus, he said some boat owners decided early not to come this year. And most years, a significant portion of the cruising boats that stop and stay here are Canadian. None of those are here this year due to Canadian restrictions during the pandemic.
Liz Graves also contributed to this story.