An Island Helmsman

Islesboro’s Gabe Pendleton gets to work—for his neighbors and planet

Story and Photos by Jack Sullivan

While roaming from one end of the labyrinth-like yacht yard that bears his name to the other, Gabe Pendleton checks in with employees as they work. He’s soft spoken, but Pendleton’s voice carries over the power tools—even while wearing a mask.

Whether it’s boat yard logistics or a simple hello, it’s clear he cares about these people. 

“When I was young, I watched my father run this business, and how he treated people—how he cared for his employees. It’s something I try to emulate,” he says. “No one wants to be treated like a cog in a wheel who is just here to get a particular thing done.”

That respect has earned the business a loyal crew. The average employment tenure for the yard’s 22 employees is about 15 years.

“A lot of people who I knew growing up are still around. Some of the employees who now work for me used to pick me up after school when I was a kid,” he recalls.

Pendleton, 37, took over day-to-day operations when he returned to the island in 2013, becoming the fourth consecutive Pendleton to run the business, which began as a livery stable. Under the second generation, Pendleton’s grandfather, the shop fixed cars, and when Gabe’s father took over, it became the yacht yard that it is today.

Pendleton Yacht Yard launches its boats into Ames Cove, an inlet near the southwest tip of Islesboro.
Photo: Benjamin Smith

Pendleton explains that while his father taught him how to be a responsible business owner, taking over the family business wasn’t something he planned. 

Growing up on the island, Pendleton absorbed the key values it instilled, such as the importance of community, but he also learned environmentalism, as taught by his teachers at the Islesboro Central School.

When he graduated high school in 2001, he decided to pursue his interests on the mainland. He studied at the University of Maine in Orono and in Spain, taught English in Costa Rica, worked at a ski resort in Colorado, and then applied for law school. He studied law at the University of Pittsburgh for three years where he helped draft the stormwater ordinance for the city.

He also got to spend a summer interning with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and after passing the bar, landed a job clerking for a court in Vermont. An opening at a law firm in Brunswick brought him back to Maine, and soon after his father asked if he wanted to come home and manage the yacht yard.

That’s when Pendleton and his soon-to-be wife, Chloe Joule, packed up and moved to Islesboro.

The demanding nature of managing the yacht yard meant he couldn’t continue practicing law, but his preparation for that career was not wasted. The analytical, problem-solving skills, and ability to effectively communicate on paper proved invaluable to the life he took on as a born-again islander. He won a position on the select board and started applying his skills to guide not only the family business, but also his community.

The good news is that he enjoys complex projects.

“I love it. The organizational side of running things is a fun challenge for me,” he confesses. “Pendleton Yacht Yard has lots of moving parts—marine construction, working on engines, paint and varnish, hauling and launching boats, and everything has to line up just right.”

On top of that, Pendleton prioritizes running an environmentally sustainable operation. In 2017, he addressed the yacht yard’s carbon footprint in earnest by investing in a 40-kilowatt solar array and battery storage system which drastically reduces emissions and energy costs for the business. 

His commitment to environmentally sound approaches goes beyond the family business. In part due to Pendleton’s advocacy, photovoltaic arrays have appeared on the island’s school, community building, and transfer station.

Though he has strong feelings about such things, he says he has learned the value of building community support for projects, rather than proceeding fueled only by his own passion. He works to have the community understand the benefits of the projects the select board works on.

Pendleton helped advocate for the 46-kilowatt array that sits on top of Islesboro’s municipal building. It is composed of 155 solar panels, and annually, they reduce the town’s CO2 emissions by about 63,000 pounds.

“Having 51 percent of the island’s support is never our goal,” he says, and instead hopes for something closer to consensus.

Residents will stop by the yacht yard or flag him down in the store to talk about municipal projects. He passes those concerns to the others on the select board.

“One of the good things about local government is that you’re close to the issues,” he notes. “If the town’s taxes go up, that includes the select board’s taxes.”

Arch Gillies and Sandy Oliver served on the board with Pendleton, and both praise his contributions.

“Gabe is highly intelligent and listens carefully to all viewpoints,” Gillies said. “He is forward-looking and has leadership skills that qualify him for governmental responsibility at all levels.” Pendleton serves on the state Ferry Service Advisory Board, and “on behalf of Islesboro, Gabe organized and successfully led our town’s legal challenge to fare increases.”

Gillies adds: “And best of all, he is a friend to all—and always cheerful.”

Oliver highlights his legal training.

“He spotted stuff that the others and myself either never noticed or understood differently. Nothing like having a ‘not the town attorney’ right on the select board,” she said.

Oliver also notes the importance of Pendleton returning to the island and bringing his new family.

“It’s wonderful to have our young back in town and making a contribution. When Gabe returned to the island, he brought a fabulous contributor to our island life. Chloe’s work with Islesboro Island Trust has proved a great asset.”

She relates how when Pendleton had to bring his child to a board meeting, some asked if he were babysitting. “He corrected them and said, “No, it’s called parenting.’”

Pendleton credits the town’s effective management of COVID to a mutual trust among residents, year-round and seasonal. One innovation was organizing a network to consolidate errands and minimize trips to the mainland. Neighbors brought groceries to seasonal residents who were quarantining upon arrival.

Though some shy away from straddling the elected official and entrepreneur worlds, where a decision in one role can hurt the other, Pendleton believes this level of engagement suits him.

“By running a business and being involved in the town, I have an opportunity to do more about the issues I care about,” he says.

Pendleton believes that effective leaders bring everyone along. Sustaining his island community and the planet are driving forces, and it shows through his efforts, which include advocating for affordable island transportation, supporting the local preschool (which his two-and-a-half-year-old attends), and planning for affordable healthcare.

Jack Sullivan is a multi-media storyteller with the Island Institute. He lives in Rockland.