Historia y Arqueología Marítima


Indice  Grandes Veleros

A Down East Coasting Passage

 Recollections of the Last Days of Sail

By A. F. WILLIS - The Rudder 1952

IN 1937 there were still a few New England coasters sailing Down East waters but they were a dying lot. The carrying of Maine pulpwood, Nova Scotia lumber, and a few cargoes of coal here and there to small out of the way harbors were the remaining fields of activity.

In early June of 1937 the Stonington, Maine, two masted schooner Annie and Reuben brought a cargo of Deer Isle granite to a Boston wharf. At that time my father was building a house for a wealthy summer resident at Brooklin, Maine, a few hours' sail up the bay from Stonington, and he immediately contracted with the owners of the vessel for delivery of building materials and fixtures from Boston to Brooklin.

I was a part of the deal and after some persuasion the skipper agreed to sign me on as cabin boy and general nuisance (at the age of fourteen) along with a case of canned goods, a crate of oranges and two smoked hams. I joined the ship on June 17 at Cambridgeport where she was tied up in the canal, loading plumbing fixtures and steel beams.

Launched in 1891 at Bath, Maine, the Annie and Reuben was a good example of the large heavy boats of that time built for the stone trade. She grossed 128 tons and still carried her topsails and four jibs set on a long spike bowsprit. Her crew consisted of the captain, a mate who ran the donkey engine and two deck hands, one of whom acted as cook. All the crew were from Stonington, the principal town on an island famous for its able sailors, and which in the old days furnished crews for the America's Cup defenders.

Captain John Duke, the skipper, was a taciturn lean Yankee in steel bowed spectacles. Manlon Grey, the mate, also an old timer, was genial and talkative and always joshing Jim Holland and Albert Hutchinson, younger men from Stonington who had given up lobstering temporarily for a trip with "Cap'n John".

The Reuben's main cabin aft had quarters for only those four so I slept forward. I bunked in a sleeping bag on top of the water tank for the donkey engine that ran the heavy wooden derrick used for loading stone and hoisting sails. The furnace door of this coal fired engine was only three feet from my bunk. This together with coal dust left from a cargo of coat | carried on a prior trip quickly "sooted up" my skin and clothes in a manner that lasted for the entire trip.

After two days at the dock, due to light winds and delays in loading, the Reuben's yawl boat was cocked up against her stern and we "towed out" of Cambridgeport through the locks and drawbridges into the harbor. Whfa steam up, sails were quickly hoisted and we sailed down the harbor to Dorchester Bay where we remained anchored for several days. The wind stayed in the east, light and intermittent. Twice we set sail on light westerlies, only to have the wind shift into the east again and force us back to our anchorage.

Life was fairly dull anchored off the Dorchester flats. The hulks of three large schooners lay far across the harbor in Chelsea Creek. Built ten to twenty years after the Reuben, yet now waterlogged and abandoned, they were the Jennie Flood Kreger, Horace A. Stone and Ellen Little. However there was another old sailing vessel closer by and the cook and I rowed over and went aboard her. She was the four master Snetind, built at Tacoma, Washington, in 1918 and she was fast aground on Spectacle Island where she had drifted after parting her cable. She lay there, her stern resting on a garbage dump with fourteen feet of water in her hold and occupied by an elderly eccentric and her middle aged son who had squatted on her for some years. The decks were festooned with what seemed like thousands of potted geraniums and black with flies from the nearby garbage dump. The son admitted things were a bit unpleasant when the wind blew from the east.

On June 22 we set sail with a light northwester abeam, which died down opposite Magnolia. A squall struck us shortly thereafter and, after dousing topsails and two jibs, we dodged into Gloucester. After a day in Gloucester due to head winds we sailed the following evening and all night. Morning saw us becalmed off Portsmouth, and with light winds and little headway it took us until the next afternoon to reach Monhegan Island. Just inside Monhegan the wind shifted into the east and we ran back into the shelter of Boothbay.

For six days we lay at anchor in Boothbay due to fog and head winds. By this time Captain Duke was of the opinion that I was a Jonah, an opinion which I was beginning to share myself. With the impatience of youth I was getting slightly fed up with the weather and the continual dodging in and out from one "hole in the beach" to another.

Boothbay Harbor in those days was an impressive if melancholy sight. Seven large schooners of the Crowell and Thurlow fleet were laid up in the cove—the four masters Freeman, Edna M. McKnight, Zebedee E. Cliff, Helen Barnet Gring, Harry G. Deering and Maude M. Morey, and the five master Courtney C. Houck. I clambered happily over their decks and up their rigging, to Captain Duke's horror, and got to know every plank and block on them.

On July 2 we set sail from Boothbay with a fine beam wind. It was a lovely clear day and the Reuben plowed along at her five to six knots. Abeam was the two mast auxiliary Evelyn McFarland from Parsbaro, Nova Scotia, bald headed and with three jibs set. With the McFarland's kicker shut off, we drew ahead of her and she went winging off at an angle for the Maritimes. The schooner Gracie and Alice passed us going west, heading for Portland with a load of weir nets. Off the Muscle Ridge the three masted schooner Helvetia tacked in and out of a fog bank some distance offshore, a beautiful sight.

Past Owls Head, through Fox Island Thoroughfare and across to Deer Isle. While passing through Deer Isle Thoroughfare we sailed slowly by the little granite town of Ston-ington. The big James M. Webster lay disintegrating at Green-head Wharf and swinging at their anchorage off the town were three bay coasters, the schooners Mattie, Clinton and Isa Beu-lah. We rounded up Eggemoggin Reach where off Hog Island we passed the schooner Stephen Taber bound up the bay with a load of pulpwood fpr Bucksport.

Around six o'clock the Reuben nudged into the wharf at Brooklin after fifteen days from dock to dock. Even after such a wonderful day's sail I was glad to get ashore and have a bath, which I had not had for two weeks, and a good meal. The cook, although a good fellow, was somewhat green in the culinary department. Even on a somewhat limited budget he lacked imagination and the main items in his repertoire were gingerbread, fried onions and the perennial salernus biscuit.


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