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Birth of the Bowdoin

They don’t make foul weather gear like this anymore! That’s arctic explorer Donald Baxter MacMillan aboard his schooner, Bowdoin, with a look of ready confidence.

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MacMillan was born in 1874 in Provincetown, Mass., to a seafaring family of Cape Codders. He was a boy when his father was lost at sea, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing a career on the water.

After graduating from Maine’s Bowdoin College in 1898, he ran a school for seamanship and navigation, catching the eye of arctic explorer Robert Peary, who invited him on an expedition in 1908. MacMillan would spend the rest of his life “voyaging north.” Caught in the ice during one polar mission, he conceived an idea for a small, rugged and maneuverable vessel designed specifically for arctic exploration. The result was the Bowdoin, designed by William H. Hand of New Bedford, Mass., and built by Hodgdon Brothers of East Boothbay, Maine.

Launched in 1921, the 88-footer was described as “small but strong.” The two-masted auxiliary schooner was double-planked and double-oak-framed. A massive ice fender of Australian greenheart encircled the hull at the waterline, and a steel-plate nosepiece weighing 1,800 pounds was bolted to the bow. An oversized rudder gave the ship maneuverability, and the hull was rounded so it would rise out of the water when caught in ice.

Bowdoin made 26 voyages north of the Arctic Circle in 30-plus years, logging more than 300,000 cold, hard miles. Today, the fully restored schooner is used by the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine for training.

January 2013 issue