The launching of the John F. Leavitt cargo schooner was front page material for the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 9, 1979. The schooner was meant as a wind-powered way around the ongoing fossil fuel energy crisis. Credit: Courtesy of the Bangor Daily News

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Gasoline prices have jumped nearly 50 percent from this time last year, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consumers haven’t felt such sudden pains at the pump since the energy crisis of the 1970s and ’80s.

In 2008, prices went up nearly 38 percent but in 1974, gas prices shot up 43 percent over the year before. They skyrocketed more than 60 percent higher in 1981.

During the energy crisis of the ’70s, some people thought returning to the age of sail was the best way to beat fossil fuel’s rising price tags. To prove the point, 45 years ago, in 1976, Maine shipbuilders laid a keel for the first commercial, wind-powered vessel in four decades. Three years later, the handsome boat hit the water.

As gas prices continued to climb, the schooner headed south with a cargo of lumber. But instead of igniting a second commercial shipbuilding boom on the state’s coast, tragedy struck. The boat was abandoned in a storm, 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, on her maiden voyage. It then sank, taking the dream of a new age of wind-powered commerce to the bottom with it.

The ship was named the John F. Leavitt.

The Leavitt, and the wind-powered plan, were Ned Ackerman’s dream.

The day the keel was laid at the Newbert & Wallace Shipyard in Thomaston, in September 1976, Ackerman admitted he didn’t know if his plan would work. Despite the high price of gas, he couldn’t be sure the boat could make money.

“No one will ever know until someone tries it,” he told Bangor Daily News reporter Emmet Meara. “If it was proven it was a money maker, more people would be in it.”

Ackerman also refused to say how much the Leavitt would cost.

“I’ll have to beg, borrow and steal what it takes,” he said. “But I’ll get it done.”

Several local boat builders in the know at the time estimated the project would cost $300,000. Accounting for inflation, that’s roughly $1.3 million in today’s money.

Ackerman, a former English teacher from Dover, New Hampshire, named his boat after sailor, boatbuilder, author and maritime artist John Faunce Leavitt.

In 1970, Leavitt wrote the book, “Wake of the Coastal Schooners.” It revealed both the hard realities and romantic notions of Maine’s glory days of commercial sail. Leavitt called modern sailboats “maritime ghosts in an atomic world.”

Leavitt worked on New England’s coastal schooners as a young man and knew them intimately.

“It was in 1938 when the last cargo-carrying schooner was launched in the State of Maine, yet today there seem to be very few who remember when the reaches and thoroughfares swarmed with coasting schooners,” Leavitt wrote.

The book inspired Ackerman to try and bring the once-ubiquitous schooner back to life, and solve the modern fossil fuel crunch.

By January 1978, the 96-foot Leavitt was taking shape and Ackerman was thinking about its first cargo. Speaking with the BDN, he repeatedly speculated about hauling oversized lumber, granite, Maine potatoes and even flower pots from a Rockland factory.

A story and photo package by Bangor Daily News reporter Emmett Meara, about the schooner John F. Leavitt, appeared on Jan. 26, 1978. Credit: Courtesy of the Bangor Daily News

In July 1979, as the cost of diesel fuel rose higher, Ackerman grew more confident about his experiment. He reckoned that it would cost a fuel-powered freighter $13,000 to get 100,000 feet of spruce lumber to Amsterdam. With his boat, Ackerman said he could do it for just $11,000.

The Leavitt was designed to use only wind power. It had no auxiliary engine — a detail that would come back to haunt it.

“The engine would make it a lot safer,” Ackerman told the press on launching day, Aug. 8, that same year. “But if I put it in, the Coast Guard owns me. The engine makes the ship subject to so many regulations it would be prohibitively expensive to operate.”

That day, more than 2,000 people turned out to watch the elegant, wooden ship slide into the St. George River. The BDN, the Associated Press and United Press International were all on hand to cover the event. A documentary film crew, who’d been following the entire building process, were there as well.

“Everybody told me I was crazy when I started this project,” Ackerman said. “But I’m crazy like a fox. The price of fuel is not going down. If we have a complete crunch, this may be the only kind of transportation you can buy.”

To hammer the point home, the Leavitt sported a figurehead carved like a grinning fox with a henhouse feather in its mouth.

The glory of launching day was dimmed by the time the boat finally left on its maiden voyage on Nov. 11.

Less than a quarter mile into the journey, with the documentary film crew aboard, the Leavitt ran aground in the St. George River mud. It was then forced to wait until the next high tide, when it was refloated.

A headline in the Dec. 29, 1979, edition of the Bangor Daily News announces the search for the John F. Leavitt has been abandoned. The schooner was built in Thomaston. Credit: Courtesy of the Bangor Daily News

Later that fall, the Leavitt took on a cargo of oversized lumber and leather tanning products in Quincy, Massachusetts. By the middle of December, it was bound for Haiti. Ackerman said he planned to spend the winter trading in the Caribbean Sea before returning to Maine in the summer.

But the Leavitt never made it that far.

While rounding Cape Cod, the ship ran into a raging winter storm and an unforgiving streak of bad luck. The Leavitt’s first and only commercial voyage ended with a Coast Guard helicopter plucking Ackerman, his crew and the filmmakers out of a life raft on Dec. 26 — leaving the ship behind, at the mercy of the seas.

It was never seen again.

A few days later, in the New Year’s Eve edition, the BDN ran a story fully explaining what happened.

According to the coast guard, the Leavitt was overloaded and missing a few key pieces of essential modern gear.

First, the loading boom wasn’t secured properly. In the rough weather, it broke free and smashed a cover, leading to the cargo hold. That let in sea water. The Leavitt was also missing a device called a sounding pipe that would tell Ackerman how much water was in the hold.

At the same time, a small engine on deck for hoisting cargo was leaking hydraulic fluid and had no manual shutoff valve. That made the deck too slippery for the crew to secure the dangerous, flopping boom in rolling, 20-foot seas. They couldn’t get near or lower the foresail, which would have made the ship more maneuverable in the storm’s 60 knot winds.

Additionally, with the treacherous fluid coating on the deck, the crew could not start the cargo engine — which also ran the bilge pumps and charged the radio.

With no way to pump water out of the hold, while being blown further out to sea, Ackerman called the Coast Guard for help. It came and all nine people on board — including the film crew — were rescued.

In August 1981, the documentary finally hit movie screens in Maine. It was not well received. Moviegoers booed, hissed and openly jeered it at a screening in Camden.

Meara was there, stating the film’s voiceover narration was, “done in the style of an Old Spice aftershave commercial.” Meara also noted the reasons for abandoning the Leavitt were poorly explained. Several viewers blamed Ackerman alone for the loss of the beautiful ship which so many locals had worked so hard to build.

The general sentiment led to a running, midcoast Maine joke where the ship was called the John F. Leave-it.

Nobody ever actually saw the ship go down. Salvage companies searched for months but to no avail. Later, Ackerman told the BDN that he thought the ship could be raised and he even talked about building another one. Neither ever happened.

The Leavitt was a singular dream and it died that day in December 1979. It’s been 45 years since it started to take shape in Thomaston and, despite the world’s still uneasy reliance on fossil fuels, no other commercial sailing vessels have ever been built.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled Emmet Meara’s first name.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.