Shipbuilder, fleet owner Charles Robertson mourned

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan talks with Charles A. Robertson, right, during a 2018 tour of a ship under construction at Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury.

Charles A. Robertson, who established Chesapeake Shipbuilding — a major employer and manufacturer in Salisbury — died last week in New York City after a battle with cancer.

The 72-year-old New Englander was the founder, Chairman and CEO of American Cruise Lines, Pearl Seas Cruises, Chesapeake Shipbuilding and several affiliated companies.

A business participant in the U.S. maritime industry since 1973, he pioneered the small ship cruise industry with his founding of American Cruise Lines, now the largest cruise company in the country.

He was a recognized expert on cruise ship regulations and held an unlimited U.S. Coast Guard Master’s License and a First Class Pilot’s License.

He was proud of his roots in shipbuilding and was known for building the cruise ships that his companies operated. He would often be found “hanging steel” at Chesapeake Shipbuilding’s shipyard on the Wicomico River next to the Port of Salisbury.

Robertson was known as a serious “all business” figure — head down, working in the trenches, no time for small talk. Friends and employees often referred to him as a “quintessential New Englander.”

His passion for the water extended beyond his professional pursuits. An avid sailor, he won national and international events, including the Newport Bermuda Race, the Queen’s Cup and the National Championship in the Atlantic Class on a series of sailboats named Cannonball.

He worked to make sailing and the maritime industry more accessible to all, serving as Chairman of Operation Sail 2000 and as a trustee of Mystic Seaport since 1989, in addition to his support of other maritime museums and non-profits.

He was also a former trustee of the New York Yacht Club and most recently the owner of the 12-meter yacht Freedom, which he restored and skippered.

An aviator and commercial pilot early in life, he returned to this favorite pastime in his later years. He regularly flew modified ex-military aircraft and would participate in shows and demonstrations around the country. In recent years, he purchased a T-34, an old U.S. Navy trainer aircraft, and had fun flying it out of the Easton airport.

“He was happiest working with his hands,” his eldest son, Charles B. Robertson, 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.”

His son has been appointed new CEO of American Cruise Lines, effective immediately.

Middle son, Clark Robertson, is involved in finance at the company; the youngest, Carter, is a Director of Sales and particularly active in the Salisbury shipyard.

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

In a 2007 interview, the senior 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 said.

This year, with the inauguration of American Jazz, American Cruise Lines will feature a fleet of 13 vessels, and more from the Salisbury shipyard are in the pipeline.

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, the Southeast and the Panama Canal.

In the 1960s, Robertson and his wife, Carol Ann Robertson, drove their red Pontiac 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.

Charles A. Robertson at the Salisbury shipyard.

There Robertson set up a tour boat business in Old Saybrook, Conn. 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, R.I., which produced four America’s Cup contenders.

Born in Hackensack, N.J., he was the son of Charles Bennett Robertson and Mary Spangler Robertson.

He died Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, and is survived by his wife of 35 years, Carol; their three sons, Charles, Clark and Carter; a granddaughter; and two sisters, Jean Anne Robertson and Lois Gorman.

A memorial service will be held at The First Church of Christ in Saybrook, Conn., on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, at 11 a.m., with a reception to follow at Saybrook Point Inn.

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