ROCKLAND — Dick Spear will never forget his first time high in the rigging of a sailing ship crossing the Atlantic. He was the lone teenager in a crew of experienced old salts taking the 142-foot barkentine Capitana on a historic retracing of the ocean journeys of Christopher Columbus under the direction of naval historian Samuel Eliot Morrison. Spear was supposed to be with his senior class back at Rockland High School, but chance and the lure of the sea got him a topsail seat on the 1939 voyage.
“You had to climb up the rattails and walk across a three-quarter-inch line,” Spear recalled. “When I got back on deck my legs were rubbery. I wouldn’t admit to them that I was scared, but I was. But after a while, like anything else, you get used to it.”
The young Spear’s unexpected voyage is the focus of the film “The Adventures of Dick Spear” by local historian-filmmakers Gil Merriam and Wayne Gray. A shortened version of the documentary premiered to a standing-room-only crowd at Rockland Public Library earlier this
month. The entire version will be aired on Rockland’s local-access cable television channel in the coming weeks.
Gray and Merriam said they began working with Spear on the film last fall. They conducted more than 50 hours of interviews and used images from Spear’s scrapbooks and still photographs of his life’s journeys.
“We had to weave the stories and pictures together,” Gray said. `”His is a wonderful story.”
After participating in numerous Liberty Ship convoys to Europe during World War II, Spear spent the postwar years in the maritime industry crossing the Atlantic and Mediterranean many times, as well as transporting products though the Suez Canal and around the southern tips of South America and Africa. After his Merchant Marine service, Spear returned to Rockland where he managed the Maine State Ferry Service. After his retirement in 1989, Spear traveled to the North Pole and Arctic Circle. He took a trip to Antarctica with his daughter in the early 2000s.
The voyage of the Capitana was sponsored by Harvard University, where Samuel Eliot Morrison was head of the history department. Along with Morrison and his historians, the three-masted bark with a steel hull and teak decking carried a crew of 15 sailors from America, Finland, Estonia, Denmark and Sweden. They were seasoned salts, and all spoke English.
“They were weathered, but they were good seamen,” Spear said. “I learned a lot from them.”
The purpose of the voyage was to retrace Christopher Columbus’s four voyages to the new world. The trip lasted five months and covered more than 10,000 miles. The voyage was the subject of a Life Magazine article and recorded for history in Morrison’s book “Admiral of the
Ocean Sea.” Using Columbus’ logbooks, the historians proved conclusively that Columbus “was a pretty good dead-reckoning navigator,” Spear said.
While the voyage had a purpose and a routine required by historical standards, for Spear it was an adventure he could have never imagined. He boarded the Capitana a novice cabin boy and returned to land as a captivated seaman. The water would define the rest of his years.
“I’d had enough hard work,” Spear quipped of his weeks in the rigging. “When I got back I decided to go to the Maritime and get a license, so I’d never have to do hard work again.”
Spear’s father worked for East Coast maritime firm Marine Towing and learned through his contact of Morrison’s planned voyage and their need for a cabin boy. Within a few weeks Spear had obtained permission from his high school principal to take a year off from school, was issued his seaman’s papers and passport and was waving goodbye to his mother after she dropped him off at the Rockland station for the night train to New York.
“When I got off the train at Penn Station, I was terrified with all the people milling about. I wasn’t used to that sort of thing,” he recalled. He made his way to Oyster Bay, Long Island, and soon was ensconced below deck on the Capitana where he was put to work as a “mess boy” cleaning, making beds and washing dishes and hardly saw the light of day.
“I was seasick for five days,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me stop, though. I had to keep working.”
War had just broken out in Europe and to be on the safe side, the American flag was aloft and also painted on the ship’s hull where it was kept illuminated at night “so they [German U-boats] would leave us alone, and they did.”
The Capitana made ports of call in Spain, Portugal and Morocco before setting off from the island of Tenerife for the trans-Atlantic voyage to the Caribbean islands. The Capitana made landfall in the islands and Central American coast before concluding its voyage on Jamaica, where the ship was sold.
Morrison and his crew returned home on a commercial vessel owned by United Fruit Co. that, as Spear recalled, carried a “lot of bored secretaries looking for husbands. I was only 18, I had to lock myself in my room.”
Spear said that he and the crew were never was told why the Capitana visited so many ports before leaving Europe. Some of the visits lasted a few hours, others a few days. He recalled that while on Madeira, he and his shipmates were treated to a “thimble full” of 200-year-old Madeira wine. It was his first taste of alcohol, he added.
Homesickness was apparently never a concern and when asked after the movie what his mother thought of her young son shipping off to sea, Spear smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never really gave much time to think of it.”