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May 2, 2020, 11:20 a.m. EDT

It was fair winds and following seas for small-business owners like these ship captains. Then came coronavirus

‘We are falling through the cracks’

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By Andrea Riquier


Anne Almoney for DI Tall Ship
Schooner Huron Jewel at sunset, Fourth of July 2019

When the tall, bearded sailing ship captain danced into her life late in 2009, Julie McKay was ready to be swept off her feet. McKay, a massage therapist, was living near Baltimore when she flirted with Hugh Covert at a contra dance at an old stone church one evening.

Over the sound of Celtic fiddle music, Julie learned just enough about Hugh to “almost say ‘yes, I’ll marry you’” within a few minutes of meeting him, she recalled, a decade later.

Over the next few years she quit her job to follow Hugh to Drummond Island, one of the remotest corners of upper Michigan, and opened — then closed — a massage practice there after Hugh decided to finally make good on a longstanding dream: building a tall ship from scratch and launching a business to take tourists on trips as short as two hours and as long as two weeks.

As for so many small-business owners, their journey has been a seven-day-a-week labor of love. And as for so many who chase dreams, the payoff was uncertain. Despite that, Julie — now Julie Covert, aged 51 — and Hugh, 59, had just hit their stride.

Open barely a year and a half, they were hoping for a profitable 2020. Then the coronavirus crisis exploded. Now, like so many Americans, they’re in an unfamiliar place: scrambling for scarce resources in the aftermath of a global trauma.

“We are falling through the cracks,” Julie said.


DI Tall Ship
2016: Julie and Hugh take a break after planking the schooner hull

When the couple set out to build the schooner in 2014, they assumed it would take Hugh, working full-time, one year to complete the project. Instead it took three. Julie closed her massage practice and joined him full-time at the year-and-a-half mark, and the couple also had a rotating cast of volunteers.

“We christened her in June 2018, put the mast in at the beginning of August and sailed through September that year,” Julie said. The ship’s name is Schooner Huron Jewel — H for Hugh, J for Julie.

A reality of life in a northern town is the short season: Memorial Day through September. But the company got off to a solid start, and in 2019 were already seeing repeat customers. In December, people bought gift certificates for the year ahead, and through the winter Julie had bookings. She even made plans to bring aboard three summer deckhands, the company’s first employees.

“We were really looking forward to an even better year ahead,” she said.

Until early March, that is.

The phone stopped ringing. And by April, the first cancellations were rolling in. “I’m thinking, okay, where am I going to come up with that refund money?” Julie said.

Related: These small-business owners made their dreams come true — and then the coronavirus hit

The couple’s big expenses are insurance for about $5,500, dockage fees at about $1200 each month, fuel and licensing fees, such as for the food they serve on the boat. But they also took out a business loan to build the boat.

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