North

SALEM

Rutstein finds the sea is his calling

24norutstein - Capt. Michael Rutstein aboard the Schooner "Fame." (Handout?)
Captain Michael Rutstein aboard the Schooner "Fame."

Melissa Rutstein understood early on that her husband had an incurable entrepreneurial spirit. But when Mike decided to have a 72-foot schooner built, learn how to navigate it, and make a living by taking people out on the waters off Salem, she cringed at the financial investment.

So how much of the Rutsteins’ life savings was this venture going to eat up? “All of it!” said Melissa. But, “I believed he could do anything he put his mind to.”

Mike Rutstein showed that 27 years ago, when he brashly stood outside Fenway Park hawking his own brand of program — much to the dismay of the Red Sox. What started as Boston Underground — currently in its 28th year — is now called Boston Baseball.

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The restless Rutstein then heard another calling. “I’d always loved stories about the sea,” said Rutstein, 53. “I didn’t come from a sailing family or know anyone who owned a boat.”

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Originally from Sudbury, Rutstein has lived in several places north of Boston, including Medford, Somerville, Essex, and Boxford. After moving to Salem, Rutstein began reading up on the city’s sailing history. A privateer called “Fame” sailed out of Salem during the War of 1812. Rutstein thought someone should build a replica.

He met Harold Burnham, whose Essex family had been building boats for centuries. In 2003, Burnham built a schooner for Rutstein, who followed the craftsman’s every step, soaking up all he could. When the replica “Fame” was finished — at a cost of about $500,000 — “it was like being there for the birth of your child,” said Rutstein.

“He was there every day. He really cared. He was quite inspiring,” said Burnham, who put Rutstein to work on the crew. “He did many jobs that had to be done.”

“Harold made Michael do all the grunt work,” said Melissa. “I had nightmares that the boat would be all bolts and duct tape.”

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The next step was to get into the sailing business. “Salem’s the place to do it,” said Rutstein. “It has the waterfront and the tourists. Everyone in town knows about the boat now.”

Rutstein learned how to handle “Fame” on the water. After a slow start, business picked up. “I had to learn the tourist business,” he said. “But it was a dream of mine and Melissa’s to do this. This is our 15th year.”

"Fame" hits the open water off Salem Harbor.

Melissa estimated about 2,000 people watched Fame’s maiden voyage on June 14, 2003. The boat now takes on passengers three or four times a day from May to October, launching from Pickering Wharf.

“Any money we make goes back into the boat,” said Rutstein. Rides cost $35 for adults, $25 for seniors and military personnel, and $15 for kids under 13. It also hosts private charters.

Rutstein got his captain’s license and proudly commands the vessel. Got any questions landlubbers? Just queue up to Captain Rutstein and ask.

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That Rutstein would follow the beat of his own drum first showed at Lincoln-Sudbury High School when he edited the school paper. He leaned toward putting out a provocative, out-of-the-box publication that was met with disdain by school officials. It may have been a tumultuous editorship, but it also got Rutstein to thinking that “producing my own publication was a doable thing.”

His post-high school plans were murky, although he knew “I didn’t want to wind up working at a gas station.” He went to the University of Pennsylvania, where writing took a more prominent role. By his senior year, he said, “I had no idea” what road to take. A teacher suggested the highly regarded Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Rutstein spent two years there, got a master’s of fine arts, and discovered “that’s what I wanted to do.”

He wound up teaching writing and English as a second language at Merrimack College, Bentley University, and UMass Dartmouth.

Bill Chapman
Hawking programs outside Fenway Park in 1992.

Then there was that thing with the Red Sox.

On Opening Day 1990, Rutstein had the nerve – he would call it foresight – to launch a publication — Boston Underground — that competed with the Red Sox official program. The first edition was free. “We gave away about 2,400 copies,” said Rutstein. The Underground’s popularity grew steadily. The Red Sox brass wasn’t thrilled.

“The first year, the Red Sox ignored us,” said Rutstein. “After that it was ‘What can we do to get this kid off the street?’ They tried to scare us off. It got contentious.”

Legal procedures loomed, but were ultimately avoided. “They didn’t know my mother was a lawyer,” said Rutstein.

From selling outside of Fenway Park to captaining “Fame” out of Salem, Rutstein can reflect on his life and not dwell on regrets.

“I’ve been really lucky,” he said. “I’ve done the two things in life I’ve been really interested in.”

The written word and the sea. Hemingway would understand.

Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.