Aboard the Grace Bailey Day 4: Carvers Harbor, Vinalhaven to Gilkey Harbor, Islesboro
Captain J.R. wakes to the sound of the breakfast bell at 8:00 a.m. He crawls out of his pullman berth in the aft cabin, climbs the companionway ladder onto the deck, and listens to the NOAA weather report. When everyone else finishes eating, he grabs a muffin for breakfast and spreads a new chart across the aft cabintop. When the sails are set and the anchor is raised, Captain J.R. makes an announcement.
“Today we’re sailing into the Gulf of Maine.”
We leave Carvers Harbor, ghost through the heavy rain off Heron Neck Light, then, as the wind picks up, we head toward the vast expanse of open ocean.
The sky lightens as we leave land and we soon feel the heavy blast of hot summer sun. The crew and passengers strip off their foul-weather gear and, for the first time in four days, we’re comfortably warm and dry.
As we sail along, Captain J.R. points out each of the outlying islands: Seal Island; Wooden Ball Island; Matinicus and Ragged islands; Little Green and Big Green islands; and Metinic Island. Captain J.R. tells us that Seal Island is still visibly pockmarked from artillery practice during World War II. He tells us about the night he anchored off Matinicus; how local children placed empty beer bottles in a gut current and fired handguns, rifles, and M-16s at the bottles as they drifted from shore; how he and his passengers were so unnerved by the whizzing sounds of bullets flying overhead that Captain J.R. rowed to shore and politely asked the kids to stop shooting. (A tall tale in most parts of the world, but not Matinicus.) He tells us about the night he anchored off Metinic: in the morning a member of the island’s Post family rowed out to the schooner, invited Captain J.R.’s passengers to a tour of the island, and told them the story of the Post family ancestors sitting on their Metinic rooftops to watch as a naval battle raged during the War of 1812.
Captain J.R. is a long-form storyteller. Like the oil painter he is, J.R. approaches his subjects with great care and patience. If he senses a sentence isn’t getting the impact he’d hoped, he’ll revise it—right there in front of you—with a new brushstroke of adjectives and verbs.
At anchor in Carvers Harbor.
During the evening of our first trip—after the musicians at the gam had housed their instruments and gone to bed—Captain J.R. began telling me about the Grace Bailey’s past, why she looks the way she does, and what makes her so special. When it got too late, he excused himself and promised to pick up the story the next day. Each night since then, he’s added a new chapter to the story—like a serial program on the radio. Over the course of the trip, Captain J.R. told me that the Grace Bailey began her career hauling timber and granite, but when those industries dried up, she proved fast enough to deliver fruits from the West Indies to U.S. markets before they had a chance to spoil. He told me that the Mercantile and Grace Bailey were eventually converted into passenger ships, but fell into disrepair at the Camden docks and were essentially condemned. Then Captain Ray Williamson — who’d crewed on the schooners — rustled up the money to buy them from his employer, and rebuilt them with his own sweat. Captain Ray, preferring the original look of a working coasting schooner, opted to keep the cabintops flush to the bulwarks rather than raise them for more headroom or to build above-deck marine heads. Captain Ray also prefers traditional sailcloth and manila lines to modern, UV-resistant fibers, and he eschews radar antennae.
The coarse manila lines on the Grace Bailey.
When I asked Captain J.R. what design elements make a schooner a coaster, he drew a chapter break in his story and asked me to wait for the next installment.
In the meantime, there’s sailing to do. When the wind turned southerly, Captain J.R. changed course to take us into West Penobscot Bay, and suddenly the Grace Bailey’s rumored speed is evident. We’re doing seven and a half knots without breaking a sweat. This is the bright, sunny, cloudless day that all vacationers hope for, and it’s made sweeter by the long dues we’ve paid in rain. In this sudden spate of fair weather, Captain J.R. works his way down the bill of passengers and makes sure that everyone who’s interested gets a turn at the helm.
Off our starboard quarter, Captain J.R. spots the M/V Sunbeam motoring into the Bay from Matinicus. The Sunbeam is the flagship for the Maine Seacoast Mission, and it serves as a floating church, providing worship services, weddings, and funerals to the outlying islands. The Sunbeam—also known as the Holy Roller (due to its tendency to rock in a beam sea)—has a rotating staff of lay workers and ten ministers.
As we sail past Rockland, the Sunbeam passes astern of us and enters the harbor. Shortly thereafter, the wind dies again, clouds roll in, and we drift placidly in the middle of the Bay.
“Mr. McCanna,” Captain J.R. says. “Let’s talk about coasting schooners.”
And thus begins the final installment.
Captain J.R. begins by describing fishing schooners. Fishing schooners, like the American Eagle, were built to weather rough offshore waters: they have deep keels to provide righting stability in high winds. More importantly, however, fishing schooners were built for speed. If your cargo is as perishable as seafood, it’s important that you get to port as quickly as possible. Also, the first ship back to shore gets a better price for its catch. So, if you’re the last boat in the fleet to return from the Grand Banks, there will be a glut of fish in the market and your price will suffer; a powerful incentive to design a faster boat.
Santi works on the yawlboat.
In that sense, fishermen were essentially racers, and the evolution of long, slender hull designs for fishing schooners eventually bred racing yachts. The Nathaniel Bowditch, for instance, is a racing yacht. When you see her hauled out of the water, its deep draft, spoon bow, and narrow beam are all direct descendents of the fishing fleet.
Next are oyster dredgers like the Isaac H. Evans. Dredgers sailed the shoal waters of the Chesapeake and Delaware bays scooping up the oysters that—before they were harvested to near extinction — grew in tall reefs. The dredgers merely sailed over the reefs, scooped them up in their dredging nets, and hauled them onto the deck. Dredgers needed to be shoal draft, beamy, with low topsides and little sheer. Cargo space was less of an issue because the cruising grounds were relatively small, so dredgers tended to be smaller.
Last are the coasting schooners like the Grace Bailey. Coasting schooners were essentially the turn-of-the-century equivalents of 18-wheelers. They hauled heavy loads of timber, granite, lime, boxboards, and coal from port to port or over long distances. Coasters were shoal draft and had centerboards instead of keels. With the centerboard up, a coaster could drive onto a beach during a falling tide, load or offload its cargo, then sail off the beach when the tide returned. The shoal draft, however, meant a coaster didn’t fare well in rough seas, so they sailed close to shore, hence the term coaster. Coasters were built big to carry heavy loads, and they were beamy to provide stability.
Leaving the Bay.
Late in the afternoon, the wind picks up again and we make for Gilkey Harbor and drop the hook.
Before he grills up steak, ribs, and barbeque chicken for tonight’s so-called Festival of Meat, Captain J.R. clears a wide spot on the aft cabintop and spreads out five nautical charts that cover all the fog-blanketed waterways we’ve sailed over during the past four days. Captain J.R. gathers everyone on the quarterdeck, and—with a pointer in hand — offers a brief play-by-play of our travels to an appreciative audience.
In the morning, it will be foggy again. The galley crew will prepare a breakfast, the deck crew will rinse the decks, and Captain J.R. will give the order to raise anchor. (And I’ll draw a final shift on bow watch.) We’ll be dressed in our foulies again as we motor alongside the mist-shrouded hills above Camden.
In the meantime, however, the passengers are festive. A conga line breaks out on the deck, Captain J.R. plays guitar, and people converse with the ease that comes from a shared experience. Over the past four days the fog and rain may have soaked our clothing, but it hasn’t dampened much else.
Laura cleans the slop bucket.