A Life on the Water
Captain Jim Sharp recalls the beginning of a season in Camden Harbor more than forty years ago.
Photograph by Benjamin Mendlowitz
Spring of 1966 finally came, and the pressure of our cruising schedule was looming large before us. Wayfarer Marine then dropped a bomb on our docking arrangements when they emphatically hinted we should find a different place from which to run that summer. Although we would still be welcome in the winter, they wished to reserve the entire wharf to their expanding seasonal yachting business.
We arranged to meet with the Camden selectmen, and they immediately turned down our request for summer dockage. They unanimously framed their opinion: “The schooners do nothing for Camden. They take the people away from the town so the tourist dollars are not spent here.” What craziness! I couldn’t believe their attitude since the schooners are the major part of a driving force of what puts this town on the map and gives it its character. Captain Hawkins, Captain Orvil Young, and I had to petition the townspeople to arrange to berth us at the public landing.
I was elected to stand up at the town meeting, before the entire assembly of town folk, in the beautiful, Victorian Camden Opera House. There I described the dockage scheme we had cooked up.
If the town would furnish wharf, floats, and dredging, we would compensate the town with docking fees. That revenue would pay back the cost of the project in eight years. The money we would pay, plus what excess the municipality could collect by charging visiting yachts mooring fees, could go far to stuff the town coffers. What’s more, in the future, revenues would be available to fund harbor projects. Most importantly, the plan would allow the schooners to continue to sail from Camden Harbor and enable the town to retain its title as “The Home of the Windjammers.”
As we suspected, our petition was approved with an overwhelming majority. The townspeople were very much in favor. The dredging was done and the moorings arranged. Adventure moved to the center position, Stephen Taber rafted along inside, and the Mary Day on the outside. What a spectacular sight for the little village of Camden. These three big schooners were majestically gracing the most prominent position of our pretty little harbor, right there at the foot of Library Park! The new arrangement was not only functional, but also photographically perfect.
Adventure was the first to grace the new mooring arrangement. She looked like a white swan! I had taken the time to grind off the old, horrible, gooey, rough, and scaly black color she had in thick layers on her planking. Then I gave her a couple of coats of fresh, smooth white. It made her look even longer and far sleeker. She looked positively regal dressed in white. It definitely accented the high noble bow and long sweeping sheer.
Elmer Collemer, one of the last master boatbuilders in Camden, had worked most of the winter and had almost completed a new sixteen-foot yawlboat for me. She was some handsome! The old yawl boat that had come with the Adventure had a Chevrolet engine that had been underwater too many times, and the boat was too big and heavy to conveniently haul out on my newly designed stern davits. I needed something more powerful, lighter, and with diesel dependability. I chose a design developed by Captain Bob Douglas, a beautiful model with a plumb stem and traditional wineglass stern, one that would hopefully skip along the water while the schooner was making seven knots and that we could haul out without dumping. Now, that was a real trick in design.
The yawl boat, even with her modest sixty-eight horsepower, was a very necessary, integral part of the schooner’s equipment, equally as important as the mainsail or masts. She would help to get us out of trouble, provide power in a calm, and carry passengers ashore for necessaries and/or emergencies. The yawl boat’s wiring, painting, finishing, and tuning were still on the “to do” list, but she was close to ready.
I was hard at the other “to-do” list, stretching the new rigging, hanging spars, and doing a multitude of final outfitting chores, when my summer crew arrived. Mark would be my mate and brothers Pete and Mike, my crew. One fine spring day, they climbed over the rail with duffel bags and a spring-loaded enthusiasm to go to it. Fine boys, each and every one of them. I was so overwhelmed with a literal boatload of things to do that I hardly gave them time to stow their gear before putting them to work at a thousand different projects.
We worked like dogs until the passengers arrived at the gangway. I remember that just four days before our first sailing, I was in the old shed sawing out the jaws for the main boom from a ten-foot-long piece of three-inch oak, and, as I was wrestling this enormously heavy piece of timber by myself, shoving it through the big ship’s bandsaw, Freeman Brewer, one of the yard crew, came through the door, asking me what on earth I was doing at this late hour. I tried to explain in as few words as possible and he, knowing my sailing date, just walked away shaking his head and saying, “Jim, you’ll never make it!”
I said, “Freem, you might be right.”
We made it! But our sails were lying in a pile on deck. Monday morning, after a big breakfast, I announced to the passengers, “Hey, how many of you good people have ever had the chance to bend sail on a bona fide Gloucester fishing schooner?” They knew there was no choice if they wanted to go sailing. But they were good sports and when I kidded them, prodded them, egged them on, all turned to and they followed with verve. With the mainsail bent on, we then taught them to furl it — a harbor furl — neat and precise as a freshly ironed shirt.
Though enlisting our passengers to help out might have been a little unorthodox, most everyone thought it was an exciting thing to do, and it made each of them feel like a genuine part of the crew. The more schooner chores we provided for our passengers, the better they liked it. Duties included cutting up vegetables for the galley, swabbing the deck, coiling lines, furling sails, and even mundane things like taking a trick at the wheel.
Out on the bay, we all ganged up on the halyards and raised that new three thousand-square-foot mainsail and, wow, was that thing big and some powerful! The new sail plan really made the vessel go. I was “jumping up and down” excited and looking forward to racing my good friend and competitor, Captain Hawkins, on the Mary Day.
It was a wonderful summer, that summer of ’66, full of passionate sailing and schooner lore. Orvil and I had both gotten our Coast Guard license endorsements, and Andrea, his wife, and Louise, my wife, were cooking. We had a great, young, giggly mess girl named Pam Seekins, who had a wonderful way of conning help from everyone around her. She made everyone laugh with her shy but infectious and carefree titter and added much to the spirit in the galley.