Dale Crafts sitting on a dock in Grenada 25 years ago during a failed business venture. Submitted photo

A quarter century ago, Dale Crafts took a vacation on the pretty Caribbean island of Grenada.

Crafts, who enjoyed talking with everybody he met, noticed the many fishermen went after tuna and swordfish using only “little tiny skiffs with motors” that he knew couldn’t compete with the modern boats he’d seen in Maine.

He returned home to Lisbon and began putting together a business plan relying on a longline fishing boat instead, quickly recognizing the move could prove lucrative, not just for him but also, if widely adopted, for the island country as well.

Crafts, a Lisbon native whose experience was limited mostly to construction and a self-storage company, didn’t know much of anything about fishing. But he worked with others who did to polish a proposal that covered everything from what to build to what kind of background checks and licenses he would need.

It looked like a solid business venture, he said, because “the fishing down there was really good.”

Little did he know.

Crafts’ foray into fishing ultimately proved, as every fisherman discovers, that landing the big one isn’t easy.

These days, Crafts is the Republican candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, taking aim in the Nov. 3 election at first-term Democrat Jared Golden of Lewiston in a closely watched race.

Craft’s business background shows that he’s willing to gamble, ready to work hard and, if he comes up short, move on to something else. In Grenada, after all, the 61-year-old nearly lost everything.

Grenada is a small country in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela. Google Maps

Michael Baptiste, who served as the government’s fishing minister in Grenada, said he doesn’t remember Crafts specifically.

“The name doesn’t ring a bell,” Baptiste said. “There have been so many fishing speculators” over the years.

He said they typically failed to recognize that laws were in place to protect Grenada’s native fishing and that visitors “do not have any jurisdiction” to compete in the regulated waters surrounding the island.

“People don’t forget a guy in a wheelchair,” Crafts said in response, but he’s not surprised Baptiste didn’t want to discuss him.

Crafts, after all, tells quite a story about what transpired.

With his plan in hand, Crafts said he approached the government in 1994 and convinced the country’s parliament to grant him a 30-year tax exemption on the project and provide him an 18-month window to fish in Grenada as a demonstration project.

Dale Crafts’ former wife, Susan, christened the new Wilbur Dowden after a Southwest Harbor builder finished the 38-foot vessel. Provided

With the approval in hand, Crafts commissioned a Southwest Harbor yacht maker to build a 38-foot longline fishing boat with a hold large enough to keep a week’s worth of fish fresh. It could lay out a 27-mile line with hooks dangling at intervals all along and flotation devices to keep it all from sinking into the sea.

Crafts trucked the finished vessel, which cost $238,000, to Pompano Beach, Florida, and then got a couple of Grenadian sailors to bring it to the island, a monthlong journey.

Crafts recognizes the foolhardy nature of his endeavor.

“This was crazy,” he said.

The Wilbur Dowden tied up to a dock in St. George’s, Grenada. Provided

He convinced a major bank to offer him a $500,000 loan to get everything up and running, contingent on securing a required license and registering the boat in Grenada.

Crafts said he got the license without too much trouble, but Baptiste’s fisheries office proved a harder sell when it came to registering the vessel, named the Wilbur Dowden.

“You’re not fishing these waters,” Crafts recalled Baptiste telling him despite the government’s promise.

Before long, he said, the politician’s friends in the local press were denouncing Crafts as “this rich American come down to steal all our fish.”

Diplomats got involved. Political pressures grew. And Crafts kept pushing.

Grenada CIA World Factbook

But no matter what he did, he said, his request for a license “sat on the desk of Michael Baptiste,” untouched.

Crafts said he started running out of money. “I’m bleeding bad,” he remembered thinking, and began wondering if “the crazy American in the wheelchair” was on a fool’s errand.

As the situation grew ever bleaker, somebody told Crafts the license could be had if he just paid off Baptiste.

“I wouldn’t give him $5,” Crafts said.

Baptiste, who remains active in Grenada’s politics, snorted at the notion he would have accepted money anyway.

Crafts sent his family back to Maine and kept trying.

But his fishing dreams had become “the biggest political mess on the island” and too many of those involved, he said, were making hay with the notion he’d come “to take everybody’s fish.”

The reality, Crafts said, is that he wanted to show the fishing community a better way to catch fish and then sell them the boats they would need for it. That’s where he hoped to make real money, he said.

Finally, Crafts gave up, and agreed to sell the Wilbur Dowden.

With two flat tires on his wheelchair and wearing a hat made of palm leaves, he returned home to Maine, defeated.

Even then, he wasn’t quite done with Grenada.

It turned out that the man who got the boat wouldn’t pay him so he had to go to court in Grenada to repossess the vessel.

Difficult as that was, he said, he had an even bigger issue. “I didn’t know where my boat was,” he said.

The Wilbur Dowden in Grenada with Dale Crafts’ former wife, Susan, standing alongside it. Provided

Driving around the island, he eventually spotted it hauled out of the water on the property of an Englishman, who proved somewhat sympathetic to his plight.

In the end, after securing some replacement parts in Venezuela, Crafts sold the boat for $68,000.

He barely got to use it.

The bid to make money with the Wilbur Dowden in Grenada may have gone astray, but it taught him something valuable, Crafts said: That America, while imperfect, offers “more opportunity” than people generally realize to bring their dreams to fruition.

“You don’t really get how great it is until you go somewhere else,” he said. “Anywhere else, there’s only crooks and politics.”

In the United States, there’s no need to “bribe your way to the top,” Crafts said. There is freedom simply to compete.

When he was all done in Grenada, Crafts said, if he hadn’t been in his wheelchair, he “would have gotten down on the ground” and kissed American soil in recognition of how good it is to live in such a place.

That memory is part of what spurred him to run for office, Crafts said.

“I want to make sure we don’t get away from the ideas on which this country was founded,” he said.


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