Walking the Plank: Capt. Jim Sharp - Soundings Online

Walking the Plank: Capt. Jim Sharp

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Say his name in certain salty circles, and you’ll notice a reverence in response. Capt. Jim Sharp has spent his long adult life on the water, loving (and piloting) more boats than most of us have even been aboard. He had a peripatetic childhood and a father who passed on his love of boats. At 12 he contracted polio and developed the grit to keep it from slowing him down.

Photo by Benjamin Mendlowitz.

As a young man Sharp bought the Alden yawl Malabar XI with a couple of friends and started offering Chesapeake and Bahamian charters. After that, there was Stephen Tabor, Adventure, Bowdoin and Roseway. And these were just the schooners. Sharp has spent his life sharing his knowledge and love with charter guests aboard his boats, and when it was time to “retire” he kept right on working, opening the wonderful Rockland, Maine, Sail Power & Steam Museum.

First memory of being on a boat: When I’d lived about a dozen years, my pop and I built a small lapstrake skiff. With my mom’s extra clothesline, I rigged a square sail capable of Cape Horn, in my critical eye. Stealing our new skiff when Paw wasn’t looking, I sailed all the way across Dredge Harbor, New Jersey, steering with an oar and pretending I was a grizzled sea captain. Fetching up on the beach on the downwind shore, I suddenly realized I had to row all the way back against the wind.

First boat you owned: In the 1950s I talked two friends into buying John Alden’s original Malabar XI, a beautiful 50-foot classic racing/cruising yawl. We sailed and chartered it for several years in the Chesapeake Bay, and I quickly became an addict of the boating world. So I sold out, recklessly moved to Florida, set up a charter business in the Bahamas and soon began an intense learning experience. I almost went lost in many a Gulf Stream gale, bounced her keel all over the Grand Bahama Banks, had barely enough charters to keep body and soul together, but with brute force and stupidity I muddled through.

Last or current boat (owned or commanded): I’ve owned and commanded five big vessels and am now down to one oceangoing, 65-foot, two-master called Gem (my wife’s name spelled backward).

Favorite boat you’ve owned (or commanded): There is absolutely no question here. Adventure is a very special vessel. She is a McManus one-off, 122 feet, 6,000 square feet of sail, 230 tons displacement, no engine, no winches, no fancy power other than what we call “Norwegian Steam.” A true Gloucester fishing schooner, she sails like a witch — fast, able and supremely beautiful. With a powerful hull, lofty rig and sweet sheer, there is no finer model. These Gloucester boats were the quintessence and are recognized by seamen all over the world.

Your dream boat: An extreme Gloucester schooner like the Puritan, Columbia or Gertrude L. Thebaud. They were designed to race against the Bluenose. Adventure was built to this same pedigree as a fishing vessel but is such a magnificent sailing machine in her own right that I can only imagine how incredibly powerful were those extreme models.

Most rewarding professional experience: I was so very fortunate to have a career that was challenging, exciting, rewarding and fun, and gave so many people an unusual experience they remember all their lives. To take 45 landlubbers from all walks of life, each and every week for a quarter century, and watch them settle in to shipboard life is a very satisfying endeavor.

Scariest adventure aboard: We were sailing my old Malabar, heading for Nassau, when we encountered a great nest of enormous black cumulus clouds building higher and higher in the heavens. I noticed one big funnel cloud to the northwest dropping a tail that soon reached the horizon, becoming a waterspout. We soon counted five around us and two more off in the distance. In panic, we motored this way and that, hoping to avoid being struck. There was a great flash of light, a deafening, ear-splitting crash, and the bolt passed through the vessel. The smell of ozone was almost choking. The engine quit, and we all sat stark still, petrified. I swear we could feel the electricity in the air all around, and I glanced up at the mast. There was a halo of light around the masthead and a glow illuminating the upper shrouds. I had only read of St. Elmo’s Fire. The entire vessel was electrified, and we had little strange happenings for some time after our shock.

Your most memorable experience aboard: This old gray head is chockablock full of ’em. To pick one at random, it was 1976. I was off to Operation Sail. … Ten thousand anchored yachts awaited us in New York Harbor. We beat all the way to the anchorage completely under sail, and that night my son, Topher (8 years old ) and I sat on the crosstrees at the masthead and watched the most phenomenal display of bursting fireworks I’ve seen before or since. The entire encounter was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I was glad to leave the brouhaha, pollution and clamor of the city, and welcome the good old Maine fog when we fetched Matinicus Island and sailed gloriously up Penobscot Bay, home to the coast I love.

Longest time you’ve spent aboard: I spent two months on a 150-foot barkentine called Verona, a disastrous voyage that ended for her in a raging fire off Fernando Po, off West Africa. I prematurely disembarked and managed to escape unscathed.

Favorite destination so far: Coast of Maine and the coast of Norway.

Favorite nautical book: With Reckless Abandon, There’s Magic Beyond the Bend, Kaleidoscope of Cruises, Adventure: Queen of the Windjammers.

Favorite nautical cause you support and why: Sail Power & Steam Museum of South Rockland, Maine (sailpowersteam museum.org). It has 12 running steam engines, hands-on navigation with sextant instruction, a boat shop to build your own dory, a restoration shop where volunteers are rebuilding the oldest Friendship sloop, many original half and full models and much, much more. It is my way of giving back to the community for the fabulous life I have lived here in Maine. I only hope this institution will perpetuate here on the Maine coast as a monument to all the men who sailed the great schooners.

Favorite quote about the sea: “Oh, no … oh my jeusezz … buy a farm.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.