I noticed this week that my very favorite sailing vessel, the celebrated Bowdoin, is back in Camden, hauled out at Lyman Morse at Wayfarer. It is my very favorite vessel because she gave me a chance to play pope in New York Harbor.
You don’t get to play pope very often.
For those who have forgotten, the Bowdoin was commissioned by legendary explorer Donald B. MacMillan to explore the Arctic. The distinctive vessel, built in 1921 in the Hodgdon Brothers Boatyard in East Boothbay, is double-planked and double-framed with a rounded hull designed to rise up when trapped in the ice. The explorer and doughty vessel visited the Arctic 25 times together and sailed 300,000 miles at a time when Arctic exploration was like flying to the moon.
When they both retired, the Bowdoin ended up with the Schooner Bowdoin Association until 1988 when Maine Maritime Academy purchased the vessel for student training. In case you didn’t know how famous she is, the Bowdoin is not only the official vessel of the state of Maine but resides on the National Historic Landmarks. At one point Capt. Jim Sharp restored the vessel and brought her to Camden.
I got to know her during OpSail in 1986. The boat owners called my Bangor Daily News office in Rockland and wanted to know if anyone wanted to sail into New York Harbor for the celebration honoring the restoration of the Statue of Liberty.
If you can believe it, one (nameless) reporter said no thanks and I jumped up to volunteer. (Think of the mileage check). The deal was to drive to Long Island, get aboard the Bowdoin as part of an OpSail tall ships ceremony, and then sail down the East River to the statue. Blue Eyes was wary of The City, but even she could not pass up this opportunity. We screamed down the New York Thruway and it was remarkably quiet. She is usually the worst Front Seat Driver in history. I thought she had got used to my daredevil driving. But when I looked over, she had her eyes jammed shut, with a death grip on the door.
She insisted we arrive the night before, get a room and locate the dock where the Bowdoin would land. And we did, although I thought it was all a little excessive. Naturally, we arrived on the dot and met the captain. He said it was time to sail on the tide and ordered to cast off all lines. You have to know Texas Larry. He, as a duly appointed reporter for the enemy Portland Press Herald, was supposed to join us. Texas Larry was nowhere to be seen. The captain, Bill Cowan, said he could not wait and prepared to sail. I could hear the engine before I saw the car. Texas Larry was driving 80 miles an hour down the access road. Against my better competitive judgment, I begged the captain to wait. He did. It ended up that Cowan had purchased my old house in Martinsville.
We took off and sailed down the East River. There must have been a few hundred thousand people lining the buildings, roads, bridges and docks along the river. Everyone was cheering. I strode to the bow of the Bowdoin and started waving, like the pope. I pretended they were all cheering for me. You may laugh, but I will remember that moment for every second of my pathetic life.
If you go to New York, you get in trouble. It is a law. In those good old days, we had to find the Associated Press office and deliver some black and white film of Gov. Joseph Brennan and other dignitaries. Today, we would send images at the touch of a button. Naturally, we got lost on the New York subway, a sobering experience after my duration as pope. We finally found the Associated Press office.
Later that night, we stayed in a friend’s apartment in Little Italy. It was three stories up, it was 90 degrees and I left one suitcase of very sweaty clothes in the car to save another trip up the stairs. Mistake. Big mistake. When we awoke, the landlord, who was a New York cop, was out on the sidewalk, taping what was left of my car window. Some desperate soul had seen the Maine plates, seen the suitcase, smashed the window and took the suitcase. I would guess that was The Most Disappointed Thief in New York City when he opened the suitcase and found those very smelly clothes.
I did lose all my Camden schooner T-shirts and never bought another.
The Bowdoin had become my favorite sailing vessel, anyway. It was on her decks that I was the pretend pope. I must visit the Camden boatyard and give the Bowdoin my blessing.
Emmet Meara lives in Camden in blissful retirement after working as a reporter for the Bangor Daily News in Rockland for 30 years.