Down East 2013 ©
Last night during the lobster bake, I overheard two captains reviewing their plans for today’s windjammer parade in Boothbay Harbor.
“So the parade is at 2:00?”
“So we get to sail around for a few hours before we line up?”
“My crew is going to love that.”
And so it is for the crew of the Heritage as well. This morning we woke up in Linekin Bay—just a few short miles from our destination in Boothbay Harbor—so there is literally nothing to do today but sail aimlessly in the Gulf of Maine.
And sailing is best when it is aimless.
Today the skies are bright blue, the sun is warm, and there’s a steady breeze pushing us along at a smile-inducing 8 knots. Best of all, weather conditions were calm last night, so the Gulf hasn’t yet developed a chop.
As one of the learned passengers aboard the Heritage points out, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Abaft, the Nathaniel Bowditch crew bends on a fisherman sail, sheets it in, and gives chase off our port quarter. For a time, the Bowditch gains on us, but when the Heritage fetches around the ledges on the southern tip of Damariscove Island, she forces the Bowditch into a turn. The Bowditch crew begins the laborious task of tacking the fisherman sail, and thus loses any ground she’d gained on us.
Whether this forced tack was a strategic error on the part of the Bowditch or a bit of chicanery on the part of Doug Lee is anybody’s guess, but it’s clear that Doug is delighted by this sudden turn of events, and the Heritage crew laughs with genuine admiration for their captain.
Today we were rejoined by the mate, Adam McKinlay. Adam had missed the first two days of the trip while at a wedding, but was driven to the shore of Linekin Bay this morning, and Captain Doug retrieved him in the yawlboat shortly after breakfast.
I was worried that the return of the mate might spoil the crew’s easygoing dynamic—that Adam would somehow restore order to the Heritage’s seemingly lawless foredeck.
I needn’t have worried.
The only perceptible change in attitude comes when Harry Sandler, a messmate from Massachusetts, contritely admits to Adam that the crew hasn’t been performing their sit-ups and push-ups during his absence.
Morgan Parmenter shows off her tattoos.
“What?!” Adam says in mock seriousness.
Calisthenics aren’t mandated by the Lees; it’s just a bit of positive peer pressure among the crew. After every tack, the crew drops to the deck and bangs out 10 sit-ups and 10 push-ups in an obsessive effort to stay in shape.
“It’s just part of our madness,” Harry says.
On most days, this pact carries little impact. If, for instance, you’re sailing a broad reach from Rockland to Stonington, you might not tack at all. But today, as we tack repeatedly around Boothbay’s outer harbor, the Heritage crew is feeling the burn.
It is bedlam in the harbor. Boats of all sizes—from motor skiffs to mini cruise ships—zip around us from every direction. Adding to the chaos is a Navy ship anchored in the outer harbor; fully armed RIBs orbit the cruiser and shoo away any civilian vessels that stray too close.
The Friendship of Salem.
Parading into Boothbay Harbor is understandably stressful. Even if you were motoring in, the tight channel and heavy traffic are enough to give anyone a full-blown migraine. But doing so under sail is an altogether different beast. There’s a blind approach to the head of the harbor, so if there are any boats blocking the anchorage, you won’t know until it’s too late. The channel between the mooring field and the Public Landing is so narrow it’s common for the main boom to swing over the heads of any onlookers standing on the docks. The winds at the head of the harbor are notoriously flukey, too. Just because you sail in with a steady breeze on your beam, doesn’t mean the wind won’t veer onto your nose at the worst possible moment.
On any other day, entering this harbor under sail would be almost unthinkable—even the most cavalier captain would motor in—so imagine the added pressure of doing so in front of nearly 20,000 spectators. Years ago, when Captain Garth Wells was presented with the opportunity to buy the Lewis R. French, his sole hesitation was this yearly event.
We have the lead position in the parade, and the Heritage is putting its best foot forward. Colorful flags fly from her shrouds, and the crew wears rainbow suspenders.
The winds are light during our approach, but the breeze picks up when we reach the head of the harbor. As we round up into the anchorage, Captain Doug gives the order to strike the headsails and drop the hook. Minutes later, as a handful of other windjammers coast into the harbor, Captain Doug fires the canon at an appreciative crowd.
Boothbay Harbor’s Windjammer Days is a two-day event. There are pancake breakfasts, craft shows, and concerts. The windjammer parade and fireworks display on Day 2 are the big headliners, but the occasion is mostly about coaxing fools into parting with their dollars.
And I’m game.
In the evening after dinner, I join the crew for a shore trip. I’m expecting the crew to go completely feral as soon as we hit the docks. After three days at sea, I expect to see Bavarian-caliber drinking, street brawls, and early morning bail hearings, but the Heritage crew surprises me. Instead of kicking down the door at the nearest brothel, they essentially step from one boat directly onto another. The Friendship of Salem is docked nearby, and the Heritage crew makes a rhumb line for it.
Alongside the Lewis R. French.
The Friendship of Salem is a full size reproduction of the Friendship—a full-rigged merchant ship from the late 1700s. This modern-day equivalent was built by the National Park Service, and she’s essentially a floating national park.
Tours of the ship ended four hours ago, so, when we reach the gangway, the ship’s mate politely stops us from boarding.
“We’re crew on the schooner Heritage,” Morgan Parmenter says.
“Oh,” says the mate. “In that case, welcome aboard.”
When I began this project, I didn’t understand sailors’ objectification of boats. I’d always thought boats were a simple means to experience the thrill of sailing—the wind in your hair, the sun on your skin, the gentle rocking of waves. Back in May, when a crowd of schooner professionals gathered at North End Shipyard to see the Nathaniel Bowditch blocked up on the railway, I confessed I didn’t get it. It seemed as alien and geeky to me as a pack of cologne-soaked car-show junkies gawking glassy eyed at a custom carburetors.
A race up the rigging.
That has now changed.
I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent aboard five different tall ships in the Maine windjammer fleet, or if it’s the grand spectacle of the Friendship itself, but consider me a convert.
The Friendship of Salem was launched in 1998. At a distance, she looks like an antique, but when you get close you can see and feel the modern materials incorporated into her design. She has twin diesels, hydraulic steering, a mechanized capstan, and a fire-suppression system. Of all the modern elements, the standing rigging is perhaps most noteworthy. It is graphite. The mate tells us that the forestay alone has a breaking strength of a million pounds.
You would think the modern rigging would make her indestructible, but, as her captain tells us, the Friendship’s graphite is an unlikely Achilles’ heel. On the original ship, the top rigging would break off in high winds and thus keep the Friendship from getting knocked over; however, this burly modern rigging will stay intact to a fault. In a hard blow, the Friendship of Salem could be heeled over to the point were she could ship water and perhaps sink. As such, this crew sails more conservatively than their 1700s counterparts.
After the impromptu tour, I walk with the crew to a waterfront bar that reached its aesthetic peak in 1987. When we enter, Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” kicks off an impossibly long set of spelling-challenged hair metalists. At least half the people in the bar—including the Heritage crew—were in diapers when these songs last played on Top 40 radio.
On the foredeck.
I feel old and ashamed of my generation.
But once again, the Heritage crew graciously accepts me as one of their own. Even when I procure a photograph of my 9-month-old son, they politely pass it around the table while I babble idiotically about how special he is.
When we return to the Heritage, the crew is admirably sober. They know that their shore trips are a privilege that so-called schooner bums aboard other vessels are seldom afforded, and they know that one screw up is all it will take for the axe to fall.
But there’s something beyond rules and boundaries that keep this crew on the level. They might hail from the savage shores of Rockland, but they’re gentlemanly and they maintain a deep, abiding respect for Captains Lee.