The Schooner Bum Temps
It is a cold, rainy October morning at North End Shipyard in Rockland. The Heritage crew has just emerged from their bunks to continue downrigging their vessel for the winter; the Mercantile—the first schooner to board passengers this season—is blocked up on the railway for end-of-season maintenance. The sailing season is over for many of the vessels in the Maine windjammer association, but, today, the American Eagle will depart for one more trip: a 4-day cruise in Penobscot Bay.
Rain falls heavily on the American Eagle’s deck while passengers gather under the awning for morning coffee. As deep pools of rainwater collect in the awning, Bridget Rolfe, the fill-in messmate on this trip, pushes against the canvas with a boathook and water cascades onto the deck.
On this trip, half the crew is comprised of substitutes. It’s a time of year when many of the fleet’s schooner bums have returned to college or, due to fatigue, have simply moved on.
Bridget Rolfe, 53, is a frequent passenger aboard the American Eagle. She first sailed as a passenger in the Maine windjammer in 1980. (She’d done a few Barefoot Windjammer Cruises in the Caribbean prior to that, but the excessive partying of her shipmates was off-putting.) In 1992, Bridget began sailing with Captain John Foss aboard his American Eagle; she’s racked up a respectable 10 trips since then.
Earlier this season, Bridget was a guest aboard the American Eagle during Schooner Gam. When it was over, she mentioned to Captain John she’d like to fill in at the end of the season if there were any openings. Two weeks later, Shary Fellows — he reservationist for schooners American Eagle and Heritage—e-mailed Bridget with the good news.
Bridget, a software support desk coordinator for Delta Airlines in Georgia, often volunteers to help with the end-of-season preparations. As she says, “It's my way of helping keep a bit of history afloat and being used as it was meant to be, not sitting moldering at some dock.” On this trip, however, Bridget is not volunteering; she’s a paid member of the crew.
Another fill-in crewmember is Philip Richardson. Philip is a somewhat green sailor from Camden. He’d filled in at the end of the season last year, and he’s filling in at the end of this season for a college-bound deckhand. Ironically, Philip is also a college student, but his classes at the Culinary Institute of America don’t begin until the middle of the October.
The third and final fill-in crewmember is Carob Arnold. Carob had served as a mate aboard the American Eagle for several seasons in the recent past, but nowadays he serves as Waterfront Director at the Chewonki Foundation—an outdoor-education facility in Wiscasset, Maine.
Carob is a licensed captain. In order to keep his license, however, he must log a certain amount of sea time each year. Sailing aboard the American Eagle for two weeks at the end of each season fulfils this requirement — an arrangement that works well for both Captain John and the Chewonki Foundation. (It’s beneficial for Chewonki to have a licensed captain as their Waterfront Director, so the foundation has made allowances for Carob’s yearly absences. Sailing aboard the American Eagle is written into Carob’s employment contract. [Pretty sweet, eh?])
Captain John Foss.
At 11:00 a.m. the rain tapers off, patches of blue sky appear over Rockland Harbor, and the makeshift crew appears on deck to cast off the docklines. These sailors might be unaccustomed to working together, but that fact is belied by the graceful ease of our departure.
The weather today is variable, to say the least. After leaving the dock, the calm skies over the harbor necessitate motoring—the American Eagle’s diesel inboard pushes us past the dull autumn shades along Owls Head and into the Bay. Once there, we rise and fall to the slow march of an offshore swell. The wind picks up, and Captain John kills the engine. The wind increases and a light rain falls as we enter the Fox Islands Thorofare. Then, in East Penobscot Bay, the clouds blow away and warm sunshine dries the deck.
In late afternoon, as we navigate through the labyrinthine waterways of Merchant Row, a cold front blows in and rakes us with a 25-knot wind and pelting rain.
Captain John turns the American Eagle to windward and sails for an anchorage in nearby Stonington Harbor; meanwhile, the deck crew scurries to rein in the violence of flogging headsails.
When we drop the hook, we’re still battered by high winds, but Captain John studies the sky and makes a prediction.
“The cold front is blowing in from the northwest. It’ll pass soon and, when it does, dry air and blue skies will fill in behind it.”
Philip Richardson on the bowsprit.
He is correct. Within a few minutes, the wind and rain subsides, and the sun shines brightly from a cold, clear sky.
The deckhands Kelly King and Philip Richardson row groups of passengers to the public landing in sleepy Stonington.
A few weeks ago, Stonington was bustling with daytime activity: diesel pickups and imported sedans shared the narrow streets while fishing boots and flip-flops commingled on the winding sidewalks. Today, however, the atmosphere is subdued. The Deer Isle Granite Museum is closed for the season and most of the restaurants are closed. Apart from the American Eagle’s guests, the town of Stonington has once again been ceded to its small community of year-round residents. The harbor, too, is emptier. Gone now are the pleasure craft that choked this waterway; lobsterboats are now the sole inhabitants of the mooring field.
Back aboard the American Eagle, the sun drops below Deer Isle’s spruce-covered hills a few minutes past 6:00 p.m., and the guests descend the companionway stairs for dinner in the galley. Thirty minutes later, when we emerge to eat dessert on the deck, the chilly autumn sky is dark.
As the evening wears on, the stars burn brighter. The Milky Way hangs directly above us like a lone, blurry contrail, and it divides the sky into two halves—each full of vibrant stars contrasting starkly against the black.
To the north, the hilly Stonington skyline is dimmer than usual. Summer homes that shone brightly a few weeks ago are now shuttered. In the darkness, all that remains of them are the roof peaks that jut skyward amid inky silhouettes of spruce.
So many people have left this place: tourists who’ve returned home, and schooner bums who’ve returned to shore. We aboard the American Eagle are among the last to see this—the summer sky’s slow surrender to winter’s long night.
Moody skies over Merchant Row.