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Charles A. Robertson, 1947 - 2020

Charles A. Robertson founded two cruise brands, owned a thriving shipyard and championed small-ship cruising and the US flag.

In a 2007 interview, Robertson said he built small to provide a very personal level of service. ‘One of the things people want and are willing to pay for is smallness,’ he asserted.

Robertson, who led Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines and Pearl Seas Cruises and owned Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Maryland, died Sunday in New York.

14 vessels and counting

This year, with the inauguration of American Jazz, American Cruise Lines will field 13 vessels, and more are in the pipeline. Add to that Pearl Seas Cruises’ Pearl Mist. Destinations span the Mississippi River, New England, Canada, the Great Lakes, the Pacific Northwest including the Columbia and Snake Rivers and Alaska, the Mid-Atlantic, US Southeast and the Panama Canal.

Robertson also worked hard for cruise ship access to Cuba and was very proud that Pearl Mist became one of the first to visit.  

His small vessels are having a big impact on river and coastal towns and cities.

‘He was a giant to me,’ said Amy Powers, founder of MaineCruisePro, an industry consultancy. ‘We all thought the world of him in Maine.’

Passion and hands-on approach

Robertson was known for his passion and hands-on approach. His style was working diligently in the background, not seeking the limelight.

‘Everything he did, he was so into. He totally immersed himself,’ Powers said.

He was a captain, a pilot, a champion sailor, chairman emeritus of Operation Sail and a trustee of the New York Yacht Club, where he was a force behind two America’s Cup syndicates.

Active in Cruise Lines International Association, he advocated for the rapidly expanding small-ship sector and provided valued insights into legislative issues. He served as an expert witness on maritime issues before congressional committees and the National Transportation Safety Board and was involved in drafting maritime legislation.

‘Our thoughts go out to the Robertson family,’ CLIA President and CEO Kelly Craighead said. ‘Charles dedicated his career to propelling the cruise industry forward, leaving behind a legacy that shaped the experiences of countless lives, both on and offshore.’

Michael Crye, former CLIA EVP and past president, International Council of Cruise Lines, said it was an honor and privilege to get to know Robertson at a time of significant growth for his businesses.

‘He was not afraid to compete with the major cruise lines and he provided unrivaled guest satisfaction on small ships that he built at his own yard,’ Crye said. ‘I am sure that he trained his sons well. He has left an excellent legacy for them. He will be missed by many.’

Continuing his vision

Robertson’s sons, in fact, were his proudest accomplishment. All three followed him into the business.

The eldest, Charles B. Robertson, has been appointed new CEO of American Cruise Lines, effective immediately. Middle son Clark is involved in finance at the company and the youngest, Carter, is a director of sales and particularly active in the shipyard.

‘Our goal is to continue driving ahead with his vision,’ Charles said. ‘We want to keep building ships as fast as we can and increase innovation with each one.’

Many of the smaller ports and destinations benefit from significant economic impact thanks to the American and Pearl Seas operations.

Friend of Maine and beyond

From 2002, when Powers became the founding director of the CruiseMaineUSA coalition, she and Robertson supported each other, sharing a common vision. He was instrumental in advancing Maine’s ports as tourism products and intimately involved in their development, operations and political environment.

Sen. Susan Collins, a friend of Robertson’s, christened American Cruise Lines’ Independence during its 2010 naming festivities in Rockland — fittingly, the senator noted, on Independence Day, July 4.

According to Powers, ‘Maine was a very easy product for him to believe in and build around because he knew Maine and loved it from his childhood visits.’

Robertson was also a sponsor and supporter of the Cruise Canada/New England Alliance and its annual symposia. When he created international brand Pearl Seas Cruises, he got involved with Canadian ports.

‘He supported the entire region,’ Powers said.

Born in New Jersey, Robertson grew up sailing. He loved hanging around the shipyard where his father kept a small boat. He pitched in on tasks like pumping lead into the keel of sailboats and working on boilers.

Pilot, captain and competitor

‘He dreamed of being a pilot and a captain and couldn’t decide which so he ended up doing both,’ son Charles said. He started as a pilot for Shenandoah Airlines and Eastern Airlines. He also worked as a captain on ferries and small passenger boats offering birdwatching and sightseeing on the Connecticut River.

In the 1960s, Robertson and his wife Carol drove their red Firebird to Maine to buy his first commercial vessel, River Queen. They used the car as collateral, leaving it and sailing the boat back to the Connecticut River. There Robertson set up a tour boat business in Old Saybrook. Carol manned the ticket booth and Robertson drove the boat.

Business went well and, recalling his childhood shipyard experience, Robertson began to think about building his own vessels.

He owned Chesapeake Shipbuilding since 1980, and in the 1980s he operated Williams & Manchester Yacht Builders in Newport, Rhode Island, which produced four America’s Cup contenders.

In Newport Robertson raced everything from dingies to maxis. Sailing superstar Gary Jobson deemed him a fierce competitor. In the 1990s, he owned and successfully raced the 12-meter New Zealand KZ5.

Another endeavor was chairing Operation Sail, world’s largest tall ships event, serving under two US presidents.

Though Robertson downplayed it, he was well-connected in Washington. Former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd was a close friend going back years. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland is a strong supporter of Chesapeake Shipbuilding.

Happiest when ...

While running a rapidly growing business, Robertson managed to keep up with his outside interests. In recent years he bought a T-34, an old Navy trainer aircraft, and had fun flying it out of Easton, near Chesapeake Shipbuilding, with friends.

‘He was happiest working with his hands,’ son Charles said. ‘He loved being out in the shipyard, handling steel … He wanted to be hands-on out there, working with everyone else.

‘That is so ingrained in our company, how we define ourselves.’

Services are planned in Connecticut.

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