BY DYKE HENDRICKSON STAFF WRITER
Newburyport Daily News
---- — NEWBURYPORT — The Prince of Whales, the popular whale-watching boat that has brought almost 10,000 tourists to the waterfront each summer, has been sold and has motored out of port.
George Hilton, veteran waterfront businessman who was a part-owner of the 100-foot craft used for Newburyport Whale Watch tours, said the Prince of Whales was purchased by a company in Fort Myers, Fla.
He said he and his co-owners are interested in obtaining another vessel that could be ready to cruise by summer.
“We still own the (whale watch) business and we have a lease with a year to go,” said Hilton, who launched the enterprise in 1982. “We’re talking to people now to see about a replacement.”
The Prince of Whales’ final departure came less than a week after the craft tied up to a small, portable float adjacent to the municipal boardwalk to ride out Hurricane Sandy.
The boat banged up against the light wooden pier, owned by the company, and sustained minor damage to the exterior paint job. The municipal boardwalk was not damaged, according to city officials.
The decision to tie up the Prince of Whales there was criticized by some city officials and boating veterans. But Hilton said there was no connection between the rough night at sea and the sale.
“The boat already had been sold,” said Hilton, who declined to provide the sale price.
Neither does it appear Newburyport Whale Watch’s business activity played a role in the decision. Hilton said that the past season was the most successful since 2005 and the business annually makes a profit.
Hilton is a part-owner in the Newburyport Whale Watch business, which is also owned by Newburyport Development, part of New England Development owned by businessman Stephen Karp; and Bill Neelon, who serves as captain. Neither party could be reached for comment.
Hilton also is a manager and part-owner of the Key West Boat Shuttle in Florida. It operates round trips from Fort Myers and Marco Island to Key West.
One reason for selling was the cost of updating the ship’s engine so that it adheres to state fuel-exhaust emission standards, Hilton said.
“This is an older boat (1986) and it’s very costly to keep upgrading,” said Hilton, who served as the captain on whale-watching outings for close to three decades. “We applied for (government) grants, but didn’t get them.
“It was on the market for about four months until we found appropriate buyers.”
The disappearance of the riverfront’s whale-watching craft caused consternation among members of the city’s Waterfront Trust, who heard sketchy reports at its regular monthly meeting earlier this week.
No official communication has apparently passed between the owners of the craft and members of the trust, which serves as the leasing authority for many boat owners along the riverfront.
“If the boat is gone, we’ve got to find out more about the situation,” Joseph Brown, the trust’s treasurer, said at the meeting. “They have a lease.”
Trust members said whale watches are among the most popular activities in the community.
The Prince of Whales carried 149 passengers and took visitors out to sea on most summer days when the weather cooperated. On weekends, it sometimes made two excursions a day.
Hilton estimated that the whale watch took out 9,000 to 10,000 visitors on tours last summer. The company employs about four full-time and about a half-dozen part-time employees.
Waterfront Trust co-chairman Doug Locy Monday night suggested that the committee contact the owners of the craft so that members can assess the situation. Members stated that the whale watch is important to the economy of the community because it brings in so many visitors.
Harbormaster Paul Hogg, who was at the Waterfront Trust meeting, said, “It would be helpful if we knew what was happening, and what plans we might have to make in terms of docking space next summer.
“The whale watch trip is a very popular feature of the waterfront and it would be useful to start planning now because time can go fast over the winter months.”