First published in Landings, January, 2020
You often hear of a man passing on his skills and ultimately his business to his son, but it’s not that frequently we hear of a woman doing the same, and to her daughter. Yet that is exactly what Susy Ellis of Spruce Head did with her daughter Lexy this year.
With her partner Nancy Payne, Ellis started Coastal Documentation, a vessel documentation services company, 36 years ago. Payne sold her portion of the company in 1985. The business provides recreational and commercial boat owners assistance in registering their boat with the Coast Guard’s National Vessel Documentation Center, as well as obtaining federal fishery permits and FCC radio licenses. After more than three decades helping others thread their way through a wilderness of forms and paperwork, Susy decided to retire. And youngest daughter Lexy, 26, was there to take over.
“I have watched her [Susy] practically since I was born. I helped Mom afterschool to file paperwork and other things. I would listen to her on the phone and I picked things up,” Ellis said. She worked with her mother throughout 2018 learning the finer points of the documentation and permit application processes and when January, 2019 came around, Lexy was ready.
“This is a great job. You couldn’t find it anywhere else in the country,” she said. “It’s a local business, you get to meet Maine boat owners and help fishermen.”
Commercial vessels of 5 net tons or greater must have Coast Guard documentation; pleasure vessels of the same displacement may be documented but are not required to be. Coast Guard documentation provides a history and record of the builder for the vessel owner. Specifically, if one travels into foreign waters, the Coast Guard Certificate of Documentation makes it easier to clear customs and gives some legal protection. Documentation also makes it easier to get a loan to finance the vessel’s purchase; Coastal Documentation also can help with that process.
It’s not impossible to apply for documentation on your own but, as Ellis notes, it is a complicated process. “You have to find out what you need to provide, then get the forms, fill them out. The Coast Guard will look at the application but if anything is missing, it’s sent back to the bottom of the pile. It can take a long time,” she explained. Once a vessel is documented, however, it’s a relatively easy process to renew the certificate each year.
Ellis also handles federal fishing permit applications and transfers, an equally complicated arena. “It’s hard to move a permit around. As you know, there are no more federal lobster permits. But my mother found some loopholes to allow moving a permit [among boat owners],” she said.
Making sure that all the information and support materials are included in an application calls for an attention to detail that many of us would admit to lacking. But not Ellis. “Sometimes I have to be on the phone a lot. It feels especially good when it all works out,” she said. For some lobstermen who are uneasy dealing with computers and online services, Ellis will even schedule a date to remind them to renew their lobster license and documentation, then help them through the process.
Both Ellis and her mother are long-term supporters of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. For Lexy, that support makes perfect sense. “You guys support our local lobstermen. If lobstermen don’t fish then I am out of job. Keeping them on the water is the best thing for all of us,” she said.