Seven weeks in a shipyard

American Eagle in Drydock, 12X16, $1159 unframed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

In the muck of a muddy Maine spring in 2016, I wandered into the North End Ship Yard, where I met Captain John Foss and the crews of Heritage and American Eagle. I spent the next seven weeks documenting the annual ritual of hauling schooners from the water onto the ways.

Smaller vessels spend the winter months on land, but these big schooners stay in the water. While our harbors do freeze, it’s more a form of thick slush than rigid ice. (And there’s nothing so fascinating as watching ice ripple on a cold winter’s day.) The Atlantic is only marginally colder in winter than in summer, so below decks it is warmer in the water than out. The hulls are better supported in the water, and there’s no risk of the planks drying out.

In the old days they made prisoners pick oakum as a punishment. It still needs to be done, and in the absence of debtors’ prisons, we’re left with crew.

They do come out briefly each spring, however, when they’re readied for the coming season. There’s a device called a marine railway, which is essentially a cradle that’s winched out of the water with the boat aboard. North End Ship Yard has one of these, which is powered by an old quarry engine that’s older than dirt.

The hulls are scraped, caulked and painted, planking is replaced, and the Coast Guard comes by and looks things over. A few days later they slide gently back into the water, where the real business of sanding, scraping, varnishing, mending, tarring, polishing, etc., commences. ‘Fit out’ is much like aging actors slapping on the greasepaint and adjusting their stays for another arduous summer performance.

I love this winch engine almost as much as I love the boats.

For the crew, it’s exhausting work. “I would love to work on a schooner for just one season,” I recently told Candice Kuchinski of the ketch Angelique. At her look of horror, I explained that I wasn’t looking for a job. My back is too darn old for fit out. Hoisting sails is hard enough; fit out is brutally difficult.

“How much does a Maine windjammer cruise cost?” people sometimes ask. That depends on the length of the cruise, its home harborage, and whether there are specialists (musicians, ecologists and, yes, artists) aboard to enhance the trip. But having watched the months of preparation that happen before these behemoths ever take on a passenger, I’d say they’re worth every penny.

My 2024 workshops:

4 Replies to “Seven weeks in a shipyard”

  1. Love your paintings of boats, and seascapes! This post brought back memories of my 35foot, classic Rhodes sloop with a 50 foot tall mast. Most springs I spent doing the extensive pre launch work myself- sanding, caulking, painting hull, top sides, deck, many coats of varnish on woodwork, pulleys, and the mast, repairs, rigging, etc.

    Once, (while camped below on my boat- dry docked on land, in Bath Maine,- after I had just arrived the day before to start the Spring prep,) hearing 4 teens perusing the boat yard- laughing and sneering about the dump of a boat they were looking at. I Realized It was my boat they were commenting on, (which had a few years back won best boat restoration in a prestigious Newport classic boat show, and which i continued to improve for 11 years after). It was just at the beginning (paint peeling as usual,) of the yearly 2 – 3 weeks spring work to launch! Laughable!

    Second, at Cape May, NJ, during a beautiful sunset. My boat was tied at the end of a long dock with dozens of boats (most modern yachts or motor boats); with only a view of ocean, trees, swamps and the fading sunset beyond. I was below, when I heard a little girl outside on the dock exclaim in sheer delight – “Look ma, a pirate boat!!” No better compliment than that!!! (I of course had to go on deck and say hi to her so she’d know girls could be pirates!)

    Third, a couple weeks after the first memory, my boat was launched, and docked in Maine . I was nearing the end of the spring prep, with only a few coats of varnish to go, and down below decks after another long days work. I heard a man exclaim at how stunningly gorgeous a boat was. I figured probably commenting on one of the many modern yachts, or pricey motor boats all around. But when i looked out a port hole, i saw it was my boat he was talking about. I went out and we talked. Turned out he was the First Mate on the Bowdoin, an antique, classic, 88 foot yacht built to sail in the Arctic!! High praise indeed!

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