ALTON — What’s huge, slow, costs the better part of a million dollars, and is the newest place to get a meal with a view? It’s The Dive, a floating, two-story bar and restaurant that opened late last month.
The Dive is the brainchild of Jamison Merriam, a native of Long Island, New York, who moved to Gilford when he was 11. When Merriam was a boy, his father drove for Patrick’s Cruise Lines, a side operation to Patrick’s Pub. When the business changed hands, the new ownership decided to eliminate the cruises and focus on the restaurant.
“They were just long Chris-Crafts,” Merriam said of the Patrick’s Cruise ships. But they could carry large groups and were often rented out for wedding parties or other celebrations. His father thought it was a shame that the new owners dropped the cruises.
“My dad said, ‘That was a moneymaker and it was the only thing like it on the lake.’” That seed, planted years ago, finally burst forth this summer with The Dive.
In the intervening years, Merriam amassed a disparate variety of experiences, many of which combine to make him uniquely qualified to launch such a venture. He is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and has worked as a commercial diver, boat captain and marine construction manager. He has also started many businesses, including a restaurant in Sydney.
Merriam returned to New Hampshire three and a half years ago after living in Australia. He spent last year driving a barge for a local contractor. That’s when he saw a specific opportunity on Winnipesaukee.
“People are always looking for something to do. There are all these houses, and all these boats, and nothing to do,” Merriam said. Specifically, he looked at specific parts of the lake, where people take their boats and spend hours – doing, what, exactly? What if he could bring something to them?
“I always had the idea of sandbars but I couldn’t figure it out.” The answer came to him when he was operating the barge, which uses posts – called “spuds” – on all four corners instead of an anchor. The spuds, when driven into the lake bottom, hold the barge in position, while an anchored boat gets tossed by waves and repositioned by wind. “I realized that spudding is the key,” he said.
Merriam shared his vision with his fiancee, Betsy Sullivan, and the two of them resolved to bring it to life.
But they needed one more partner – Lee Miller, who left the mining industry to start a career in construction. Miller started with barge, 62 feet long and 22 feet wide, which now has two bathrooms, a kitchen, a bar downstairs and a bar and lounge area upstairs, where guests enjoy some of the best views around.
The Dive, which cost about $600,000 to build, is 22 feet tall, with a 10-foot-tall, rotating, red, illuminated “DIVE” sign atop. The sign folds down so that the vessel can pass under bridges – including the Weirs bridge – and access all corners of Lake Winnipesaukee.
But it will take a while to get anywhere much further than its Smalls Cove headquarters. The Dive is motivated by a pair of 250-horsepower outboards, which propel the 96,000-pound vessel at a maximum speed of around 5 miles per hour.
The Dive can drop its staircases anywhere in the lake where there are customers who would like to swim or walk to it. It also has a gangplank that it can lower onto the end of a dock. So far, though, it has only operated in Smalls Cove in West Alton, while the crew works out the kinks.
And there are many kinks to be encountered while operating a floating restaurant and bar in the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee. A constant challenge is maintaining supplies.
“We’ve run out of food almost every day,” Merriam said. They also don’t have space to stock enough beer for a busy day.
To restock the kitchen and bar, a worker has to leave the business in a tender – a smaller boat – drive back to the mainland, grab the needed items and motor back.
“People don’t realize how much harder it is to be a floating restaurant,” said Sullivan. “Everything is three times harder than it seems.” The tender is also used to shuttle employees to and from their shifts.
But the biggest challenge – other than constructing the restaurant-barge – has already been cleared. It was a frustrating riddle to get permits.
Because The Dive operates only on the water, where it falls exclusively under the state’s jurisdiction, they didn’t have to get town permitting. They needed permits from Marine Patrol and from the Liquor Commission. And trying to get those proved easier said than done, because no official had every encountered such an applicant.
“Everyone said we’re doing the right thing, but no one would sign off on it,” Merriam said.
With their permits finally in hand, Merriam got his first taste of the fruits of their labor earlier this summer when he took it out on the lake for the first time, as part of his licensing with Marine Patrol. Every other boater they passed honked their horn in celebration.
“People were screaming, going nuts,” said Merriam. “I was getting chills. It was such a cool feeling.”
The Dive is not accessible via land. Merriam, Sullivan and Miller have plans to offer evening cocktail cruises or to make it available for private functions. Soon, they plan to open their boat-through service window, which will allow patrons to select and pay for take-out items via an app, then collect their order without ever leaving their boat.
To see where and when The Dive will be open, follow their Facebook page.