Rowing and sailing an open boat 300 miles along the New England coast is an adventure few people will undertake in their lifetime — especially if it includes building the vessel, as it did at the Apprenticeshop, a nonprofit boatbuilding school in Rockland, Maine.
The purpose of this voyage was to deliver a 30-foot whaleboat for the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving American whaling ship, which was extensively restored at the Mystic (Conn.) Seaport Museum. The Morgan was scheduled to go back in the water July 21, the 172nd anniversary of her launch at the Hillman yard in New Bedford, Mass. After that she will be fitted out and readied for her 38th voyage, which will take her on a tour of the southern New England coast in 2014. She will bring whaleboats that were built to original plans and instructions set forth in Willits Dyer Ansel’s book “The Whaleboat: A Study of Design, Construction and Use From 1850 to 1970.”
Whaleboats are extremely rugged and seaworthy, propelled by six oarsmen and a simple sailing rig. They were launched from the deck of the whaling ship to chase down, harpoon and secure the quarry. Tethered to a mortally wounded leviathan, whaleboats often were towed at great speed, embarking on a “Nantucket sleigh ride.” Surviving it required a skilled helmsman and a sturdy boat with a buoyant and flared bow that could ride over waves and resist being pulled down.
For the Morgan project, Mystic Seaport outsourced the construction of 10 whaleboats to various builders on the Eastern Seaboard and as far away as the Great Lakes. Only the one built by the Apprenticeshop was delivered by the power of oar and sail. “The idea was born out of the spirit of the boatbuilders,” says Margaret MacLeod, executive director of the Apprenticeshop.
Soup to nuts, she says, it was a $60,000 project. “Most funds were private donations, but the apprentices contributed about $2,500 with a dinner and selling raffle tickets,” she says.
It wasn’t enough to build a traditional vessel in a labor-intensive process that began in August 2012. The builders also raised money so they could go on the arduous two-week journey, braving cold, heat, rain, thunder, lightning, fog and fickle winds. All for that one moment when they pulled into the dock at Mystic Seaport during the WoodenBoat Show with these words: “Hi, we’re the guys from the Apprenticeshop in Rockland, Maine. And this here is the boat we built for you.”
Sounds crazy, eh? In a nutshell, that’s what happened. Well, sort of.
“It was not a top-down process,” says shop director Bryan McCarthy, a Cape Cod, Mass., native who led the trip. A graduate of Maine’s The Landing School, he also worked at the San Diego and Chesapeake Bay maritime museums. “The apprentices were responsible to light the fire.” And nobody stoked the fire more than second-year apprentice Timothy Jacobus, a Navy veteran who used to work in construction and was appointed to lead the building.
In January 2013, Jacobus and lead instructor Kevin Carney headed to Mystic for a builders’ meeting to discuss the delivery of the boats. “When it was Tim’s turn to talk, all he said was, ‘Just leave some space at the dock,’ ” McCarthy says. It took a second for everyone to fathom what he meant before applause erupted.
Now they were on the hook. “We fought tooth and nail to do this trip because the Apprenticeshop never has done anything like it,” Jacobus says. “Safety was a concern for a 300-mile open-water voyage on an open boat with an untested crew.”
They chose to build a design by Ebenezer Leonard, which is a bit trickier than the more common Beetle boats, explains Jacobus. “The hard part was bending the frames over the mold to fit each station,” he says. Two pointy ends instead of one and hollow sections toward the stern added to the challenge.
Once the boat was finished and fitted out, practice commenced. They went out to row in the mornings twice a week. “It was easy to get moving and keep pace,” Jacobus says. “She held a large air bubble when we capsized her, and we had additional flotation, so it was easy to right her.”
Weather vs. schedule
On June 16, a crew of six men and one woman between the ages of 20 and 45 set out from Rockland for points south. At first, living was easy, and they covered the 20 or so miles to Port Clyde in no time flat. But it was not to last. “Crossing Muscongus Bay was rough,” says McCarthy, a trained outdoor educator who also led kayak tours in Camden, Maine. “We had to get people off the boat and get a tow to Pemaquid Harbor.”
The tow was provided by Advent, a 36-foot schooner captained by Ken Rich, a former harbormaster in Rockland and a longtime Apprenticeshop board member. “Having Ken along for the ride made me more comfortable,” McCarthy says.
Advent was called in for assistance when conditions demanded. After all, they were on a tight schedule and had to make port every night. Either they camped out, bunked on the schooner or stayed with people who offered free room and board along the way. They got under way early, clicking off the miles toward their destination. But often they had to defer to the weather and sea conditions — for example, when approaching the Cape Cod Canal. One moment they were reaching along nicely under sail, doing 4.5 knots. The next they were battered by a backing breeze, which slowed them just enough to miss the tide for the transit. That forced them to tuck into a Sandwich, Mass., marina before being towed through by Advent the next day.
Other than that it was row, row, row the boat, with some sailing sprinkled in. They carried enough food for the day, personal gear, 6 gallons of water plus an emergency kit. Barebones boating, reduced to the necessities. Relying on skill and strength to make way toward a destination was a pure and satisfying experience. “It was a wonderful trip,” says crewmember Rachel Davis, a Utah transplant, who has sailed on tall ships. “I enjoyed the physical aspect of [rowing] — there’s a rhythm to it.”
Starting in the back, the rowers rotated through the different stations in 30-minute intervals. Whoever was off watch retired to the bow to rest and tend to personal needs. But for the lone woman with six guys in a small boat, isn’t it awkward when nature calls? “No problem,” says Davis, pointing out that everybody faces backward when rowing. Everyone, except the guy on the steering oar, of course, and that was mostly McCarthy. “When Rachel had to use the head, she simply told me to look down and check my charts,” he says.
The trip also was a social experiment of sorts because living in close quarters requires a level of tolerance that exceeds what individuals normally might grant each other on terra firma. “In the shop, you can go home at the end of the day and reset,” says McCarthy. “In the confines of a boat, conflicts need to be settled before they start to fester.”
The intrepid crew held up well despite being thwarted by the weather and other setbacks. They needed TowBoatUS and a police escort to take them into Pope Island’s Marina in New Bedford after Advent’s engine acted up. They dealt with fog on their way to Newport, R.I., but managed to row into Narragansett Bay and even hoisted the canvas to sail into Ida Lewis Yacht Club.
They set out early the next day for the penultimate leg to Watch Hill, R.I., but had to turn back because of fog. They later made it to Point Judith, R.I., where they sought refuge from more fog, which had reduced visibility to 25 yards. Rowing up the channel into a lively current, the crew put their backs into the oars until they reached the Coast Guard station. With a forecast of high winds and thunderstorms — and time running out — it was time to develop a Plan B to get to Mystic. “It came down to safety,” says McCarthy, who decided to call in the cavalry: a truck and trailer.
Their own trailer was in Maine, so their fellow whaleboat builders awaiting them in Mystic pooled resources to pick up the fogged-in Apprenticeshoppers at Point Judith. What followed was an asphalt cruise to the Mystic River Marina on Mason’s Island, where they launched to row the last couple of miles to Mystic Seaport and the show, in full swing. On their way in, they were joined by seaport staffers on another whaleboat, by some of the people who had hosted them during the voyage, and by their mates from the Apprenticeshop. It was a joyful conclusion of a daring trip.
“We did not want to re-create a historic voyage but test the seamanship skills we teach,” says McCarthy. It might not have been a record of any sort, which seems to drive much of what sailors do these days, but it was a firsthand experience of voyaging in a small boat on a big ocean.
When they tied up at the dock, they made good on the bold promise Jacobus made at the builders’ meeting. “When it came to fruition, it was the conclusion of a long journey,” he muses. “It took nine months to build the boat, four months to plan the trip and two weeks to complete the voyage.” Now it’s up to the Charles W. Morgan to carry these boats that once were so instrumental for her success.
But instead of harpooning whales, they will help bring to life history that holds important lessons about seafaring, the environment, sustainability, technology, economics and politics. By building one of these boats and delivering it in authentic fashion, the folks of the Apprenticeshop became an integral part of it — and an inspiration for others to follow.
Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.
September 2013 issue