Making Waves

Alison Nolan of Boston Harbor Cruises on Family Business, Harbor Advocacy, and Quality Food Service

Both raised in Boston, they have an overwhelming love for the city and a shared excitement for the recent direction of the city’s harbor and waterfront. Perhaps it was just a matter of time before Alison Nolan, a fourth-generation owner of Boston Harbor Cruises, and James Beard Award–winning Chef Barbara Lynch connected.

Now, a little over two years later, their collaborative operation—Salt Water Events, a gourmet caterer for private events on charter vessels and the Boston Harbor Islands—addresses a combined commitment to bringing quality food service to special events and outings on Boston Harbor.

“Although we are incredible mariners, we are terrible cooks,” Alison Nolan confides. She is the face of Boston Harbor Cruises (BHC), a 92-year-old family business that has grown rapidly over the past decade. Alison is credited with much of their recent success, although running the family business was not always on her radar. “When I was growing up, I saw firsthand the annual struggle my family went through to keep a seasonal business afloat in the off-season. Having felt that so personally as a child, joining the business was not something I ever planned to do.”

Alison was the first in her family to finish college. While contemplating what to do with her new biology degree, she returned home that summer to the family business and soon realized that her skills could move the company forward. “When your role models are the generations before you, it’s easy to feel you need to have their same talents to succeed. Once I realized where I fit on my own merit, I was actually excited about being there and saw that our differences in skills were indeed strengths to the family business.”

Alison has also embraced where BHC fits in the evolution of the harbor itself. She is a business owner as well as board member for advocacy groups and nonprofits whose concerns center on public access, education, and conservation. Throughout the early years of BHC, Boston Harbor was a working waterfront, dangerous after dark and focused on fish processing and shipping. As the waterfront and its uses continue to evolve, there is increased value in developing these waterfront parcels. “What is happening here is like that in New York, San Francisco, and many other places around the world. The challenge is to continue to protect public access, open space, and affordable access for those who still depend on the water, not to mention preservation of our working port heritage.”

Over the past decade, BHC has grown tremendously, doubling its fleet and nearly doubling its ridership. Alison spends as much time on the details as she does on the big picture. She notes that while passenger vehicles must adhere to plenty of environmental regulations, BHC is happy to go above and beyond. “We are dedicated to ‘blue’ practices—preserving and defending the ocean that gives our business purpose and possibility. From comprehensive recycling programs, to using 100 percent wool carpeting throughout our fleet to lessen reliance on synthetics, to installing our own pump-out facilities at our docks, to cleaning product selection, we take a serious look annually at all the changes great and small that can make a difference.”

The development of a partnership between Alison and Barbara Lynch felt natural. Chef Barbara actually started out cooking on cruise ships, and this full-circle moment is not lost on either of them. “We both have a commitment to quality. In the end, that is what I really feel sets both BHC and Barbara Lynch apart. It’s what we want our riders to experience and remember.”


working days a year

8 BHC ports

of departure and entry, with 648 departures on a typical summer day


in the water at any given time


the fleet since 2006



2.5 million

people ferried annually


people fed daily