Refit gives new life to classic Maine schooner

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“You’ve got 10 days to take it off our hands and insure it.”

Roseway is among the last of the Essex-built Grand Banks schooners.

With that, the 137-foot schooner Roseway, built in 1925 but now sitting in ruin at Rockland, Maine, was handed off to Abby Kidder and Dwight Deckelmann.

It was August 2002 and Deckelmann, a contractor at the time, had been keeping track of Roseway. The schooner was well-known in Midcoast Maine; in fact, Kidder, growing up in Camden, Maine, had been aboard her as a girl for her grandparents’ wedding anniversary.

The registered U.S. National Historic Landmark had served as a fishing schooner that caught a record 74 swordfish in a single day in 1934. She was later acquired by the Boston Harbor Pilot Association and fitted with a 50-caliber machine gun as a member of the First Naval District (New England). The schooner has also been honored with a bronze plaque for service in World War II and appeared in a 1977 television remake of Rudyard Kipling’s “Captains Courageous” featuring Karl Malden. She is now believed to be one of only six Essex-built Grand Banks fishing schooners left in existence.

Both Kidder and Deckelmann had talked about the idea since college: forming a school aboard a sailboat based on building caring and responsible communities. Now neither could believe their fortune. While they’d written to the First National Bank of Damariscotta (Maine), which had taken possession of the vessel, they never expected the bank would meet their request for the schooner that could serve as the base of their newly formed non-profit World Ocean School.

“We talked about how it was a platform for living in small communities — learning to problem-solve, learning to be responsible for a bigger group, to make a community function,” Kidder says. The project was something the pair committed themselves to after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“If there was ever a time,” Deckelmann says, “it was now. It seemed like the world was changing, things were getting serious.”

A plan takes shape

They planned to focus on international programs, to subsidize programs so they were affordable, particularly to undeserved populations. Their original vision for the program was a “gap-year,” of sorts, for kids out of high school, the pair explains. First, they’d go on a long sail, learning about themselves, exploring their environment. The second part would engage the students in community service, applying what they had learned to those who could most benefit.

Students each get a turn to stand beside the captain and help steer the schooner.

“There are a lot of programs and they’re great, but they’re really expensive,” Kidder says, referring to semester-long travel and exploration organizations. “We wanted this to be accessible.”

The pair proceeded at a conservative pace. They filled out the non-profit group application forms and thought about what kind of boat they might want, taking their time, thinking things through. They expected things to come together slowly, Deckelmann says.

But Roseway considerably hastened their timeline.

Deckelmann had heard that Roseway, repossessed by the bank because of her owner’s bankruptcy, was up for auction; the last deal had fallen through. Kidder and Deckelmann decided to contact the bank, even though they thought their chances were incredibly slim. They’d been prepared to deliver a presentation when they went in, Kidder says, but it seemed as though the bank folks had already made up their mind. They sold it to the pair for $10.

That led to the issue of how to insure the boat and where to put it. With only 10 days to insure the schooner at a cost of about $25,000 and remove it from a dock in Rockland, Maine, they had a lot of work to do.

“By the way,” Deckelmann says, “there is no such thing as a free wooden boat.”

Using borrowed money, they towed her to Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, and hauled out all 260 tons. Deckelmann called a number of friends in the industry to get their perspective on the project.

“A number of seasoned boaters, including a naval architect and a boat designer, broke up her ballast, gutted her, and started to assess 82 years of wear.” The damage wasn’t as bad as it might have been, says Deckelmann.

The work begins

While the planking below the waterline was sound, her below-decks would still have to be renovated and redesigned to serve the needs of World Ocean School, Kidder and Deckelmann determined. (See Sidebar, Page 6.)

The work was daunting, but there was also a lot of hope for the schooner, Deckelmann says. He started crunching numbers and Kidder set out to get funding. Both quit their jobs and “jumped in.”

A crew of 10 men averaged 40 hours of work on the Roseway each week, while a smaller crew assumed command on the weekend. All told, they say the renovation cost $1.3 million — just shy of the $1.5 million figure Deckelmann proposed at the offset. All of the funding came through donations or loans. The project took a total of 18 months.

The ocean as school

With a beautifully renovated schooner, in 2004 it was at last time to bring students aboard.

“We spent a summer working out the kinks, taking tourists sailing and sharing our mission,” says Kidder.

“We tried various ports and various programs,” Deckelmann says, “and realized that … we needed to do a mix of education and tourist sailing just to pay the bills.”

Kidder and Deckelmann knew they would need a year-round climate to fund Roseway, so they headed south. It was there they found St. Croix on the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has since become Roseway’s permanent winter home. Summer finds them in Boston, docked at the Fan Pier at the Federal Courthouse.

They developed a curriculum, in conjunction with educators, which is now partially funded by a federal grant through the United States Virgin Islands Department of Education, Deckelmann says. Now the World Ocean School has a yearly routine.

Every winter, about 700 St. Croix seventh-grade students from the public schools cross the decks, learning about a world larger than themselves.

“The kids are open to new things. It’s a good age for exposure to new ideas,” Deckelmann says.

The students have the chance to forge relationships and receive attention from the crewmembers — with the exception of the first mate and captains, the crew rotates each season. They range from literature majors to electrical engineers to criminal justice majors — passionate sailors all.

Summer finds the Roseway in the North Atlantic, where Kidder and Deckelmann work on strengthening their Summer Ambassador Program, an opportunity for students to set sail for 26 days. “During their expedition at sea, students will learn and practice seamanship and navigation … as well as carrying out lessons in history, environmental stewardship, team building and language arts,” according to the Web site.

For the program this year, the Roseway will leave her summer dock at the Boston Federal Courthouse (along with other visiting tall ships) and take a route from Boston to Maine to Nova Scotia, where they’ll join the Tall Ships Festival. They’ll go on to the Canadian Maritimes before returning home.

Deckelmann and Kidder endeavor to expand the Boston-based program they currently have.

“It’s a matter of finding support,” Kidder says.

Deckelmann has already started talking about another ship, to accommodate a greater number of kids. He already knows exactly the kind of ship he’d like. If he had his pick, he says, “I’d build another Roseway.”

For information, visit www.worldoceanschool.org.

See related story:

- Inside the making of today's Roseway

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the August 2009 issue.