Spring Fit-Out North End Shipyard
It's nearing 6:00 p.m. on a hot and sunny spring evening in Rockland. High tide is about an hour away, and a small crowd of schooner bums has gathered at the North End Shipyard to watch the show. The Nathaniel Bowditch is about to haul out.
Captain Owen Dorr, having just positioned the Bowditch in the railway's cradle, now stands at the water's edge. He double-checks the fastenings on his dry suit, walks backward down the ramp, then slips underwater. As Dorr dives toward his vessel, a trail of bubbles rises to the surface and marks his path. Minutes later Dorr resurfaces, instructs his crew to reposition the boat, then - when the boat is properly aligned within the cradle - Dorr gives the go-ahead to begin hauling. On shore, Linda Lee fires the winch.
Captain Owen Dorr
With the gears now turning and the cables spooling, the Bowditch begins its slow crawl toward land. In thirty minutes she'll be on hard, and a new phase of spring fit-out will begin. It's the yard period.
There are 12 vessels in the Maine Windjammer Association, and 10 of them haul out at the North End Shipyard. (The Victory Chimes and the Angelique are too big to fit in the North End Shipyard's cradle.) The captains book a few days on the railway every spring to inspect the planking (and replace planks when necessary), and to clean and repaint the hull below the waterline.
Most shipyards employ a handful of workers, but the North End Shipyard is a self-service yard. The schooner captains like it that way.
Scraping paint from the Heritage
"The North End Shipyard is great for us," says Garth Wells, captain of the Lewis R. French." There are very few places - or any, really - where you can do your own work. It's the difference between hiring an electrician to rewire your house or doing it yourself: the quality of the work is about the same, but it costs a lot more."
"Without the North End, it would be much more difficult to do what we do," says Noah Barnes, captain of the Stephen Taber. "The fact that we're able to haul out our boats and do our own work in an increasingly OSHA-controlled marine industry is a godsend."
The shipyard is indeed old school. It predates OSHA (and acronym usage in general) by over 100 years.
"This is the site of the oldest working marine railway in the state of Maine," says co-owner Captain Doug Lee. "The company was formed in 1849. They built the wharf and the railway in 1851. We're living history right here."
He's not kidding; the shipyard is determinedly anachronistic. This is a place where twentysomething crews swing antique caulking mallets under the sun while salty old captains bend iron over a soot-caked forge. Even modern-day equipment appears old-timey: a mammoth acetylene torch, for instance, has been mounted on a set of wagon wheels. The land use harkens back to a time when waterfront was the exclusive domain of industry, not a site for the painstaking arrangement of rosa rugosa, stone patios, and bronze sculptures. Instead, these grounds are strewn with anchors, chains, cordwood, buoys, floats, heavy machinery, and the ghost of an old sailing peapod. It's the really real Maine: sunburnt, wind-chafed, and gruff.
Doug Lee, his wife, Linda, and John Foss bought the shipyard in 1976.
"We've got a nice situation here," Lee says. " Linda, John, and I are the sole owners of the corporation. We're the officers, the principals, and the shareholders. We've got about 400 feet of deepwater frontage."
How much was 400 feet of harbor frontage worth in the mid-seventies?
"We got this whole thing for about 50 grand," Lee says. "Times have changed, but it was a mountain of money back then. It was the end of the world."
Captain Linda Lee helps Captain Owen Dorr with his dive suit
Doug and Linda Lee and John Foss are schooner owners/captains (of the Heritage and American Eagle, respectively), and their shipyard serves as home berth for these vessels (plus the Isaac H. Evans). But their shipyard is a business in its own right; they haul tugs, fishing boats, and large wooden yachts throughout the summer. In the spring, however, it's all about the windjammer fleet.
"They give precedence in the spring to hauling out one schooner after another," says Noah Barnes. "They don't do it for free, but anybody else in the industry would make it more difficult and charge more. They basically do the appropriate amount of preparation, support, and ancillary work for us, and not any more than that, which is great for us."
Despite the captains' insistence on doing their own work, the yard period might be the toughest aspect of spring fit-out. It's not necessarily the nature of the work that's so difficult; it's the time constraints. Captains are charged by the day during their yard period, so there's quite a bit of incentive to wrap up early.
"It's a hard, hard week," says Barnes. "I can't seem to get off the railway in less than a week. I've painted the boat by the lights of my truck. We'll work from 6:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night. Every day in the shipyard it's 'Go! Go! Go!'"
Compounding that sense of urgency is the fact that there's usually a boat booked on the railway immediately afterwards. This year, the Nathaniel Bowditch is the last schooner to be hauled out before the sailing season begins.Captain Owen Dorr is out of his dry suit by the time the cradle stops at the top of the railway. Dorr stacks some blocking under the bow and drives a wedge to keep the blocks in place.
Dorr dives on all the schooner haul-outs.
Inspecting the Nathaniel Bowditch's prop
"I do it because I enjoy it," Dorr says. "We're a real community. We all help each other out, and this is one way I can help out the other captains. They care about their boats as much as I care about my own, and I want to make sure everything goes well for them when they haul out. I also dive on all the boats because I like to see the boats out of the water. It's like solving a mystery in some respects."
"I try to stop by the shipyard throughout the spring to see the different boats hauled out," says Garth Wells. "All the curve and the sweep of these boats is hidden beneath the water, so you rarely see it. It's just neat to see them out of the water and see how they're shaped."
If today's crowd at the North End Shipyard is any indication, Dorr and Wells are not alone in their affection for a graceful hull.
"I guess I'm kind of a nerd," says Joee Patterson, mate on the Taber and one of the spectators for today's haul-out. "This was the first day off I've had in about a month, but I wanted to see what this boat looked like on the bottom."
Why all the fetishizing of inanimate objects? Isn't sailing more about hauling lines than admiring them?
"These boats have so much history," says Patterson. "A hundred-year-old boat doesn't live that long unless people love it. There's a pride in being a part of this legacy and continuing the life of a boat that's done so much. That's why we break our backs for them."
Caulking the Heritage
Dorr echoes these sentiments when discussing the Nathaniel Bowditch.
"She's really just a wonderful boat," Dorr says. "It'll be nice to be able to pass her on to someone and say, 'We kept this boat going for 25 years.' She's a legacy."
So what will become of the North End Shipyard's long legacy? Will its history be kept alive in lockstep with the many boats she's served?
"It'll be very interesting to see what becomes of the North End Shipyard," says Garth Wells. "The people who own it are some of the elder statesmen of the fleet. The question is what will they do with it? Will they keep it? Will they sell it with their boats? Will it become something totally different?"
"The North End Shipyard is instrumental to keeping this industry around," says Noah Barnes. "When the shipyard is inevitably sold, I hope to God it's one of [the schooner captains] who gets it. It would be awful if the shipyard got out of the schooner industry."
In the meantime, Captains Lee and Captain Foss are doing a fine job of stewarding the oldest working marine railway in the state of Maine.
"These guys are the masters," says Dorr. "They've been doing it for a long time. I'd like to know half the stuff they've forgotten."
The cradle before being lowered into the harbor.
Up next: A Late-Spring Sail on the Mercantile