Lady of the Lake

A can-do approach grew this business

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

chipman0415 In 1993 when Pat Ullom and her late husband, Dick, bought Chipman Point Marina in Orwell, its customers were down to 11 boaters. Business has swelled along with the marina’s reputation.

Pat Ullom might argue that the reason her marina is thriving is at least partly because of her late husband, Dick’s, style of doing business. She offers an example. “Most places now have contracts and rules and regulations,” she says, “and people would come and ask Dick, ‘Do you have rules and regulations? What can we do or not do?’ and Dick would say, ‘Well, do you know how to behave?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then you’ll be all right.’

“I think it’s because we were boaters to begin with,” says Ullom, who owns Chipman Point Marina in Orwell, the only marina on the southern end of Lake Champlain that accepts transient traffic. It might also be because of a family entrepreneurial bent toward creating or recognizing opportunity and acting on it — a habit that goes back years.

Ullom grew up in Southport, Conn., and earned her LPN from Bridgeport Hospital. “I was married and then unmarried,” she says. “My second marriage was to Dick in 1971. I was working for the Norwalk Visiting Nurses at the time. We were married for 38 years.”

Dick had a machine shop where he made items such as violin and cello tools, teleprompters, and photographic equipment, she says, “but we were always boaters on Long Island Sound in Norwalk. In 1978, we decided we needed to move, because Norwalk was getting so crowded, and we wanted to be on the water. Lake Champlain was just perfect.”

After a weekend visit to Fort Ticonderoga, they decided this was the place and bought a house in Orwell. They moved north with Ullom’s sons, 10-year-old Michael, 7-year-old Erle “Chip,” and 6-year-old Ed. Dick set up his machine shop in the basement and continued with his work. Pat found work at Porter Nursing Home and Porter Hospital, and helped Dick in the shop when she could. At Porter Nursing Home, with a state grant for horticultural therapy, she created a program growing plants with the residents, who then sold them. “Then we’d go out to lunch,” she says.

“You probably don’t remember the big blue health bus that I drove all over Addison County,” she says. “That was a lot of fun.” I worked with physicians assistants and nurse practitioners on the bus. We had over 300 clients throughout the county.” The bus was sold and became the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury, she says.

In 1993, when Chipman Point Marina came up for sale, the Ulloms decided to buy it for Chip. “The name has nothing to do with the marina,” says Ullom with a laugh. “The plan was to get Chip started, and we would head off for the Chesapeake, but that didn’t happen and we’re still here.”

Thomas Eddy, vice president in charge of lending at the First National Bank of Orwell and the marina’s banker, has known the family since they moved to Vermont. He’s a former sailor and occasionally uses one of Chip’s boats — “his personal yacht,” Eddy says with a chuckle.

“They’re very generous and, I think, have done a good job down there — improved the business, brought things up to code and safety standards. You can tell by the number of boats out there: It is full, full, full.”

Chip had gone to college briefly, but unsure what he really wanted to do, had earned his commercial driver’s license and gone to work for Fyles Brothers, a local gas company.

When the Ulloms bought the marina, Chip was commuting to a job at Point Bay Marina in Charlotte and working on an idea to buy a houseboat so he didn’t need to commute every day. Instead, he decided to launch a houseboat rental business that could be run from Chipman Point.

“The two boats are 38-foot River Queen houseboats,” says Chip. “My stepdad and I redesigned them, put new cabins on them, repowered them, and turned them into Champlain Houseboat Charters.” Most clients, he says, come from the Northeast, but a few fly in from other locations.

Chip’s wife, Michele Wheeler, whom he married in 2005, does the books, scheduling, and turnarounds for the houseboat business and helps out at the marina on weekends. Her day job is with the Fucci Co. in Rutland.

The marina property has four acres and two buildings: the north one, built in 1812, which now houses a seasonal rental apartment, and the south one, built in 1824, where Ullom lives.

When the Ulloms bought the marina, there were 11 boaters docking there. “We had to put in, almost immediately, all new electric on the dock,” says Ullom. “Many people had left, and when we came, those 11 people are the ones who were able to go with the flow.”

The dockage has grown over the years to service 90 slips and 25 moorings, “and that’s as many as we want,” Ullom says. She, Dick, and Chip ran the marina together for more than 16 years, until 2010 when Dick died.

Loyal customers like Andy Pezzulo of Middlebury, who bought a damaged sailboat from the marina in 1999, have helped that growth. “I repaired it and have had it there ever since,” he says. “It’s a great place. Sometimes I go there to work on the boat. There’s always something to do; it’s always relaxing and laid-back.”

Help for this kind of work is hard to find, says Ullom, who suspects all marinas have this difficulty. “We have subcontractors, because we need a person who has a variety of talents and can go from putting up a mast to driving a tractor. We have a hill where we have to pull the boats up and down.” She handles the bookwork and Chip does the yard work (organizing and hauling the boats and docks in and out) and the mechanical work. “Fortunately he does all of that with what help we can get,” she says.

Ullom helps on the gas dock, deals with transients, and runs the store — “We sell ice and candy and books and charts and T-shirts,” she says — and takes care of any planting in the spring. “Mostly I’ve got buckets of flowers. We have various shade areas and a picnic area that needs attention at times.” Her day starts about 7 with coffee and pastries for everyone.

Chip arrives about 7:30 and brings the employee up to date on what’s happening with mechanical and repairs, “but the day always spills over to running the gas dock, and both of us have a phone in the ear most of the day. A lot of times the Coast Guard will call us from Burlington to help with boats in trouble,” says Chip. This can save time (and lives) when the Coast Guard station is so many miles away.

“They’re really good people,” says Cliff Smith of Smith Auto in Castleton, which sells Chipman Point auto parts for repairs to older boats and is the main source of antifreeze. “They’ve been doing business with us probably 16 years, maybe 20,” he says.

“At one point we were a fish-buying business,” says Ullom, whose other son, Ed, was buying fish from local fishermen and selling them to Ray’s Seafood. “Ed has worked since he was 16 years old for the Aquatic Control Technology folks who harvest the water chestnuts and milfoil. He’s in charge of the Lake Champlain project, so he doesn’t have a lot of time to put in at the marina.”

After the attacks on 9/11, she says, things changed a bit. “The first change was that the locks used to close Dec. 1. After 9/11, they started closing the beginning of November, so that decreased the traffic on the lake and we didn’t get as many people from New York City.

“The canal system for New York isn’t always profitable, and they may have just been doing cutbacks that coincided with 9/11, but that was the first noticeable change in traffic. Then Irene took out a lot of marinas on the Hudson.” Chipman Point is the last place in the area that can remove a mast from a sailboat before encountering the bridge 19 miles to the south where the first canal starts.

In recent years, the marina is seeing an increase in boats whose owners are doing all or part of the “Great Loop,” circumnavigating eastern North America by water. “They’re fun to have,” she says, “because we find out what’s going on everywhere.”

Ullom lives on the property and Chip lives in the Orwell house the Ulloms bought when they moved to Vermont. She enjoys travel and has been to San Juan a couple of times, has taken the Canadian Railway trip from Vancouver through the Canadian Rockies, and went to Nome, Alaska, with Ed and his son to deliver a barge built at the marina for mining gold on the Bering Sea. She travels to Florida every year to visit friends.

“I do a lot of snowmobiling — a lot,” says Chip, who has traveled almost 4,000 miles on the VAST trail system, and this year went to Maine from Orwell. “And I like to work out and stay in shape,” he adds.

Last year when Andy Pezzulo had some leaking hoses, Chip helped him put things back together “while he was helping three or four other people at the same time,” Pezzulo says. “I think it should be renamed “Where’s Chip Point” because everybody who comes there says, ‘Where’s Chip?’” •