Lake Effect

by Julia Lynam

From the moment a neighbor recruited him for a racing crew, Glen Findholt has pursued his sailing passion

Glen and Marie FindholtIn 2003, having, as a friend commented, “flunked retirement,” Glen Findholt and his wife, Marie, bought Whistling Man Schooner Co. and its 43-foot reproduction 1904 sloop, Friend Ship. Their 17-passenger boat is the only charter sailing opportunity for more than six people on Lake Champlain.

The sun sinks behind the Adirondacks and the dying light gilds the sails of a handsome sloop as it skims across Lake Champlain. Passengers cluster in the cockpit, exchanging muted whispers of appreciation. 

A dream come true? That’s exactly what it is for Glen Findholt, owner and skipper of  Friend Ship, a 43-foot reproduction 1904 sloop offering daily sailing jaunts from Burlington each summer.

This year marks the boat’s 10th season and Findholt’s sixth as skipper. He and his wife, Marie, bought Friend Ship and its operating company, Whistling Man Schooner Co., in 2003 from Mike LaVecchia, who had established the business in 1996. “Whistling Man” refers to an old wind-up toy owned by LaVecchia’s family. Sailors had a saying that whistling brought up the wind, thus the company’s name.

Born in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1948 while his father was on military duty, Findholt was raised in Danbury, Conn., and Spring Valley, N.Y. 

His senior year at high school was significant, he says, because that’s when a girl from the Bronx — Marie Moroni — arrived. They clicked, and although they enrolled in colleges in separate states — Marie at Oneonta State College in upstate New York and Findholt at the University of New Hampshire in Durham — they couldn’t stay apart, and in 1968, after two years of college, Marie moved to New Hampshire to marry Findholt.

“I always wanted to be a ski bum,” says Findholt, “so when a frat brother from UNH who was working for IBM said, ‘Come to Vermont, the skiing’s great,’ I decided to follow him.” Graduating in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and computer science, Findholt snagged a job as a programmer with IBM in Essex Junction. Marie enrolled at UVM and completed her degree in home economics education in 1973.

They rented for three years in Stowe before buying their first house, in Waterville. By 1984, they had purchased five acres of land below Mount Mansfield in Underhill, and with their two sons, Erik and Colin, moved into a house custom-built by Underhill builder Tom Moore. Findholt and Marie still live there with their two Maltese terriers, Pixel and Mia. 

IT runs in the family. Erik, 34, works for South Burlington–based medical software company Allscripts, and Colin, 26, is a computer technician.

From 1975 to 1980, Marie taught home economics at Mount Mansfield Union High School. Since college, she has run her own interior design business, and since 1983, has specialized in the design and redecoration of privately owned condominiums at Smugglers’ Notch Resort. 

Friend ShipFriend Ship is unique on Lake Champlain. Its modern construction and fiberglass hull have earned it Coast Guard certification to carry up to 17 passengers, although Findholt limits public trips to 12. (Photo © Whistling Man Schooner Co. Inc.)

During his 30 years at IBM, Findholt fulfilled some of his ski bum ambitions by teaching adult skiing at Smuggs every weekend. When he retired in 2000 as semiconductor business area manager for IBM’s Global Services Division, Marie claimed his weekends; nowadays, he teaches skiing at Smuggs only during the week. Summers are devoted to Friend Ship.

Sailing had been a passion for the Findholts since he was recruited as racing crew in the early ’80s by a Stowe neighbor. They bought their own first boat — a Morgan 27 — in 1986, replacing her in 1992 with a Cal 33 called Wind Spirit. “We still have her, but we don’t have time to sail her anymore,” he sighs. That’s because Friend Ship overtook them. 

In 2002, Findholt obtained his U.S. Coast Guard 100 gross ton master’s license, allowing him to sail large boats. “I had no particular ambition to use it, but Robin Jeffers of Winds of Ireland sailing charters asked me to do some charter work.”

His appetite was whetted, and when he learned that LaVecchia was looking to sell his Whistling Man business, Findholt asked to look at the books.

LaVecchia had founded the company in 1996, offering sailing charters from Burlington in a wooden 43-foot schooner, Northern Spy, which he replaced with Friend Ship in 1999. He had found it hard, though, to make the business pay, and he was enticed away to help build the reproduction sloop the Lois McClure for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

Whistling Man was struggling and Findholt was reluctant to make the low offer he thought appropriate; LaVecchia, he says, was anxious to see the boat remain on Lake Champlain, so they negotiated a price, and in December 2003, the Findholts bought the company and the sloop. Marie took on the administration and bookkeeping.

“It was easy to get a bank loan because the real value of the boat was greater than what we paid for the business,” Findholt says, “and we wouldn’t have done it if we hadn’t believed it could be a going concern. We changed the marketing approach from a black-and-white brochure to a glossy color one and began targeting Smugglers’ Notch and other ski areas.

Sherm White and Meg LesnikoskiSherm White, a former Morrisville attorney, is a ski school manager at Smugglers’ Notch Resort in the winter, and works part-time as a mate for Whistling Man in the summer. Meg Lesnikoski, a student at the University of Vermont studying athletic training, has been a mate for three years.

“It was a great time to be on the Burlington waterfront,,” he says. “So much was happening, with the boathouse; ECHO opening up; the Lois McClure being built. I knew I could persuade summer visitors at Smuggs that it was worth driving down to the lake.”

That color brochure has remained their primary marketing tool, supplemented by a very accessible website. “I’ve kept the website simple, because I’m sensitive to people’s capacity to download,” says Findholt, gazing around the mountains visible from his Underhill home. “Until very recently we had nothing but dial-up here, so I know what’s it’s like.” 

Sherm White was an attorney in private practice in Morrisville when he met Findholt in the early 1970s. “We were both working weekends in the ski school,” White recalls. “Then it morphed into full time for me, and I’ve been manager of the adult ski school for the past 15 years. My first thought when I heard that Glen was taking on Whistling Man was that he had flunked retirement. Now I work for him part time during the summer.”

Findholt laughs. “He’s my boss at Smuggs in the wintertime; I’m his boss in the summer.”

Findholt’s summer and winter jobs are essentially about teaching, White continues. “A lot of what we do is educating people about the lake. Everybody who works at Whistling Man is interested in the natural and cultural history of the lake, and Glen has put together a big resource book to help us answer questions.”

In their first season — 2004 — the Findholts broke even and hit the company’s revenue goal; they’ve seen steady growth since then.

“The business is very weather dependent,” says Findholt. “Last summer it rained all of June and most of July, but August was spectacular and September was good — so it evened out, although I think of 2007, when the weather was consistently good, as the best summer ever.” 

Adam Cate, waterfront manager for the Burlington Parks and Recreation Department, and Phelan Fretz, executive director of ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, say the sloop Friend Ship is a real asset to the waterfront, and that Findholt is the right man to captain it.

 “The wonderful thing about what Glen is doing,” says Fretz, “is giving access to a traditional sloop. There’s lots of “new” on the waterfront, but he represents the “old” — the ability to get on board a boat like that is really special. Glen is the perfect guy for that role, with clearly a lot of sailing knowledge. It’s a really important combination — meeting the comfort needs of the guests, with lots of stories to tell, and a feeling of safety.”

Cate is anticipating an exciting 2009 season, in which Friend Ship will play its part. “It’ll probably be one for the record,” he says, “with the quad [quadricentennial] coming up and July 3 [when Burlington stages waterfront fireworks] falling on a Friday.

Friend Ship offers the average person who may not have access to a boat the opportunity to go out on the lake at a reasonable price, in an intimate setting where they’re able to talk to the captain,” Cate continues. “It’s a unique boat that people really like, and Glen is the right type of personality — he has an easygoing nature that makes him perfect for it.”  

Friend Ship is indeed unique on Lake Champlain. Its modern construction and fiberglass hull have earned it Coast Guard certification to carry up to 17 passengers. “We’re the only charter sailing opportunity on the lake for more than six people,” Findholt says. They sail three times daily from the end of May until early October. Although they’ll take private groups of up to 17 people, Findholt limits the public trips to 12.

The Findholts know they are well placed to participate in the coming celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival and exploration of the lake, which will draw thousands of people this summer —many of them eager to sail out into that Adirondack sunset.•