Up a lazy river

It’s all about the oysters
Posted:  Thursday, August 31, 2017 - 8:15am

If you’ve ever had a drink, a meal, or both at Schooner Landing in Damariscotta, no doubt you’ve seen the big, bright, red-hulled boat tied up at a dock beside the restaurant.

The boat is the Teciani, or River Tripper, a 50-foot cruising boat that takes up to 49 passengers up the Damariscotta River on two-hour excursions. Owners-operators Chip Holmes from Boothbay Harbor and Olga Oros from Hungary have been running the operation for almost four years.

If the site of the big red boat doesn't pique your interest enough to sign up for a cruise, the agenda the couple offers should. The trip is all about oysters.

But you don’t have to like, or even care about oysters, to enjoy it. During the cruise, while piloting the boat, Holmes gives a talk, not just about the oysters and the eight oyster farms that have made the Damariscotta River famous, but a history of the river and its environs.

He talked about the oyster middens, huge piles of shells left from locals eating oysters for 4,000 or 5,000 years, and about how if you were standing there 200 or 300 years ago, you’d see six or eight boatyards turning out wooden boats, from private yachts to multi-masted clipper ships. He tells passengers about how trees on the hills along the shores were clear-cut to feed fireplaces and build houses and boats, and that the resulting sawdust from the sawmills smothered the oyster beds. “And that was it for the oysters in the river.”

Then, 40 years ago, two men started farming European oysters in the river. “They were just getting that figured out when a good old Maine winter set in, and they all froze to death,” Holmes said. “The oysters, not the farmers.” The captain-historian is funny as well as knowledgeable.

Thirty years ago, a handful of students graduated from the Darling Marine Center and started some oyster companies on the river. Now those companies have blossomed into eight oyster farms, producing 80 percent of Maine’s oysters.

Holmes goes on to explain how oysters are grown and farmed, from the time they’re tiny seeds to two or three years later when they’re full-grown and being enjoyed in restaurants and raw bars all over the globe.

Holmes and Oros found the boat online through a yacht brokerage. A UV-50 Navy boat, it was listed at $75,000. They went to Eastport to check it out. “There was a foot and a half of ice in the bilge and there was a full-length house on it that was rotten, with rotted decks and rotted engine,” Holmes said. The hull was beautiful but for lack of paint. Everything else was decrepit.

Holmes called the seller the next day and asked what offers he had already turned down. “He said they had turned down $26,000. I told him I was sorry to waste his time, as any offer I’d make would be an insult.”

Holmes said he was looking around at other possibilities, when the seller called him. “He said, ‘I’m ready to be insulted.’ So we offered him$7,500, and he asked how close we could get to 10 grand. I said $7,500.” Sold.

They started restoration, essentially building everything from the hull up, in 2013.

Along with the history lesson and the oyster farms, the trip offers oyster tastings and wines, sake and locally brewed beers. The two are big fans of the pairing of a dry sake with oysters. “There’s a Japanese proverb that says that sake doesn’t fight with oysters,” Oros said.

Oros said the story of the oysters and the river is full of hope. The oyster farmers, along with the predecessors of the Damariscotta River Association, have helped bring back a river that wasn’t clean enough to swim in the ’50s. “Now it’s one of the cleanest, if not the cleanest, rivers on the eastern seaboard.”

Between Oros and Holmes, pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about oysters and the Damariscotta River will be covered during the cruise. If there’s a question they don’t feel qualified to answer, they go to the farmers.

“We know all the oyster farmers,” Oros said. “If we have a question we can’t answer, we just go to one of the farmers working on the dock, most who happen to have Ph.D.s or are university professors.”

“Depending on the question, we go to the farmer most versed in the particular field, and get ready for a 20-minute seminar,” Holmes said.

And Holmes sometimes gets a standing ovation after he docks the 50-foot boat, with a 210 hp Caterpillar motor. “It’s whitewater coming through here at low tide,” he said. “We had quite an ovation here two days ago.”

The couple owns two other boats, the Mazu and the Nebi (with a backwards ‘e’), both tied up to docks at Schooner Landing. They call them B&Bs, Bed and Boats. Both are used as floating hotels and can be rented for a night or a week, or longer.

When not cruising the Damariscotta River, Oros is a documentary filmmaker in New York City.

The River Tripper also offers seal watching tours, happy hour and sunset cruises, and is available for private parties and functions.

Visit the Damariscotta River Cruises website or call 207-315-5544 for more information and reservations.