Banking on repeat of Mosquito fleet

business: Olympia man seeks to revive sail-powered commerce

jdodge@theolympian.comJuly 9, 2012 

Olympia resident Hoyle Hodges and his 59-foot wooden schooner are a throwback to the days when Puget Sound was the main transportation corridor for people, produce and cargo from Bellingham to Olympia.

Before the advent of freeways, freight trucks and airplane shipments, just about everything in transit moved on Puget Sound aboard a slew of steamships, tall ships and other vessels known as the Mosquito Fleet.

Hodges, a 50-year-old retired Army paratrooper and Evergreen State College student, has a dream – and a detailed business plan – for reviving sail-powered commerce in South Sound.

His company is called Olympia Schooner Co., an enterprise that involves three partners and also offers South Sound-chartered cruises aboard Pleiades. But Hodges’ real passion is being part of a Mosquito Fleet-like revival, a network of Puget Sound sustainable shipping efforts built on the premise that a day will come where fuel prices are so high, and the freeways are so congested, that it will make economic and environmental sense to ship with sailboats.

“I may never make any money at it, but I’m doing it for the joy of sailing and the desire to deliver produce to customers in a more sustainable manner,” Hodges said.

The business grew out of a yearlong business-sustainability class Hodges enrolled in at Evergreen this year.

The one tangible asset Hodges has is Pleiades, a handsome, functional wooden schooner built in 1990 at a Sauvie Island boat works near Portland. It’s a replica of an 1830s Eastport Pinky Schooner used as a fishing vessel in the Atlantic Ocean long before pioneers reached the West Coast of North America.

Moored at the breakwater dock at the Port of Olympia’s Swantown Marina, Pleiades made its first delivery of produce from the Olympia Farmers Market to a customer at the Boston Harbor Marina on May 20. A produce delivery to three customers on the Longbranch Peninsula followed July 1, with a return to Longbranch set for Aug. 5.

Adding to the sustainability theme of the business, customers who pick up their produce by bicycle, cart or some other method that doesn’t burn fossil fuels will receive a 10 percent discount.

Hodges likes to think of the enterprise as a floating grocery store, ready, willing and able to deliver food and other cargo to customers who live at South Sound marinas or on islands with limited access to fresh produce.

One of Hodges’ next assignments is to develop a working relationship with one or more South Sound farmers so he isn’t buying the produce at the market and packaging the deliveries himself.

These are baby steps toward a viable, sustainable shipping business. Hodges estimates he needs at least 20 customers at each of 10 locations in the summer season for the business venture to pencil out, assuming the company supplements its income with continued charter service for half-day and full-day sailing trips around South Sound throughout the year.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Boston Harbor Marina co-owner Don McHugh. “But I’m skeptical.”

Hodges, married and the father of a 5-year-old girl, Heidi, has personal reasons that draw him to the life of a sustainable sailor.

“One of the reasons I’m doing this is that I want my daughter to experience the joy of sailing and being in the great outdoors,” he said.

After 24 years in the Army, retiring as a command sergeant major, Hodges still has strong ties to the military, working as a military contractor and serving as an unofficial advocate for veterans who may be struggling in their return to civilian life.

“I’m trying to get soldiers involved in traditional maritime skills and traditional sailing,” he said.

While he continues to dream of a bright sailing future, he is not just a dreamer.

“This is a startup company with a chance to become economically viable,” he said. “I’ll give it a year. By the end of next summer, we’ll know if we’re viable or not.”

jdodge@theolympian.com 360-754-5444

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