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We set sail for long-ago shores

Last week, I spent a morning in the 19th century.

I shipped out on a wooden schooner named The Bowdoin, as if entering a time machine, sailing across Penobscot Bay from Searsport to Castine, Maine, with 15 high-school juniors from Belfast. They were students in an American Studies course who were learning about the Age of Sail.

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Wearing their varsity football jackets and jeans, they seemed like anything but a schooner crew from the 1800s. Some of them had never been in a sailboat, though they had grown up by the sea in a town with a proud shipping tradition. But on this day, they hoisted sail - up the Bowdoin's two gaff-rigged masts as First Mate Heather Stone commanded: Give way on the peak and throat together. Heave! Heave!

They learned to coil rope in the proper manner; they tied new knots, making lines fast; they charted and steered a course; and they calculated nautical miles and speed the old-fashioned way. This was all state-of-the-art seamanship for the 1800s - the roots of maritime skills that remain fundamental to modern shipping. Or even space travel: Astronauts use nautical terms for their physical orientation in space.

I listened to the creak of the wooden rigging and canvas sails, the gentle wash of waves on the bow, the easy listing of an old wooden hull and the sound of free fuel: wind. And I appreciated the tactile effects of my grandfather's grandfather's time: the feel of weathered rope on my hands, of fog on my face, of muscles I'm unaccustomed to using simply to transit eight miles of saltwater, to squeeze 7 knots out of a wooden hull, parsing the bay.

It had the feel of inhabiting history, not just reading about it; the difference between information and experience. This was not a documentary observed - it was observation documented.

As I stood amidship surveying Penobscot Bay, I imagined a day, not so long ago, when a fleet of such schooners might have plied these waters within view of the lookout of this very schooner. The last voyage of a commercial sailing vessel carrying cargo down the Bagaduce River and into Penobscot Bay is still within living memory of a few folks living at these waters' edge.

The captain, Eliot Rappaport, offered an intriguing perspective. Schooners were the tractor-trailer trucks of their day. It's only in the last century that we've gotten an infrastructure of roads and overland transport. Eighty years ago, the way to get your goods from point A to B was by sea.

The Bowdoin, I learned, was built 80 years ago, down the coast a bit. It is designed for arctic exploration. Ice will squeeze its hull like an orange seed, raising it out of harm's crushing way in a deep freeze north of 70 degrees latitude. It was built to be handled by small crews; cheap to build, cheap to run, typical of the fishing schooners of the Age of Sail ... a hard-working vehicle as well as a beautiful vessel, hardly an artifact, sailing past Turtle Head on a fall day.

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On a 19th-century fall morning, schooners laden with bricks would be coming down the Bagaduce River from the brickyards on the shore of the Northern Bay, exporting the very clay soil to Boston or Philadelphia builders.

Other schooners, carrying lime, granite, or sardines up and down the Eastern seaboard, would be tacking between Turtle Head and Cape Rosier. The bay would be alive with masts and trimmed sails - signs of commerce, rather than the present era's sailing for leisure.

On A 19th-century morning, one can imagine how different this bay felt when Bangor was the lumber capital of the world. Steam was not yet a cost-effective nautical technology then. And part of the American experience might have been 17-year-olds from Belfast, already with a few years before the mast, on their way to a life at sea - perhaps preparing to command a huge Downeaster of their own, outbound from Searsport for deep water, sailing for the exotic ports of the world.

On a 19th-century morning, Searsport would have been the nexus of shipbuilders and sea captains, some of whom spent years away from home on a single voyage. At times, it took three months just to pass round Cape Horn. They sailed with their families on long, lonely reaches from Down East Maine to ports of call at the ends of the earth, sailing wheat, iron, steel, or 500,000 gallons of case oil to Hong Kong.

They brought ice to India and the West Indies. These captains sailed home with firecrackers, feathers, matting, tungsten ore, silk, tea, exotic artwork, and home furnishings filling their holds. And they imported glimmers of new understanding of peoples and places from the profoundly different cultures they experienced.

After my morning in the 19th century, I can imagine trading my varsity-letter jacket for a few more days under sail in a wooden schooner ... and perhaps the chance to sail a Downeaster full of fabulous ice to a tropical island. I could trade what would be a new concept - cold - for glimmers of some new, tropical understanding.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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