The email said that the “St. George Community Sailing Foundation teaches sailing, seamanship, and water safety to young sailors, ages 9-18, of all skill levels in beautiful Tenants Harbor on the coast of Maine.”
Five instructors were listed, along with the fact that tuition is $190 for residents and $380 for youngsters from away.
Learn how to sail a boat. What a fun thing for kids to do. In 1946, we had a few old neighbors who used to sail boats and a lot of neighbors who earned a living in power boats, but back then I never heard of one kid in St. George who wanted to learn how to sail a boat.
‘YOU DON’T KNOW’
Do you know what kind of memories talk of sailing a boat invokes in an old man who was born in a community that went to sea? When I was 10, I listened to old men who had learned to sail when they were children.
Captain Thomas told me of hearing the mate’s boots clumping down the ladder to wake him in the morning – and what it was like to work up in the rigging, who knows how far from the deck, trying to straighten things out in a gale – when he was 14 years old. If you couldn’t hang on, they probably didn’t ask you to do it again.
I can still see Captain Thomas looking down at me with a smile as he shook his head and said over and over, “You don’t know. You don’t know.”
Can you imagine letting a 14-year-old work on a vessel hauling freight between New York City and Japan? For generations of St. George people, going to sea before you were old enough to shave was the norm.
By the time he was 19, Ardie Thomas was a captain. As I recall, the ship’s owners wrote to St. George and asked for A. Thomas, his older brother Arthur, but Ardie took the job instead. Although he’d been at sea for four or so years by then, he said he learned celestial navigation by some serious reading in his cabin very soon after he had become captain of his own coaster.
He told me that he could come up from Cuba to New York City and, when he couldn’t read the stars, put his bow right on the Ambrose lightship with only dead reckoning and a lead line. He said that the masts were so high on one of his ships that he cleaned off the topmost flag going under some bridge coming into New York.
‘LOST AT SEA’
Captain Thomas’ great-grandfather was a brother to my Great-Grandfather Gilchrest. On one side of his gravestone is carved “Lost At Sea.” Mother said that Andy Wyeth painted a close-up of that side of the stone years ago, but I never saw it.
The H.S. Gregory, a big square-rigger, was built in Thomaston by my grandfather’s uncle. The captain was his cousin, Ed Watts. One of the chief owners was Samuel Watts, a distant cousin.
In 1882, my mother’s father was on this H.S. Gregory, hauling wheat from the West Coast to Ireland, when it sprang a leak off Cape Horn in a storm. The carpenter died trying to fix the pump, which was clogged with wet wheat. The captain and all but five of the crew were blinded by the fumes. Six hundred miles off Ireland, they were finally sighted by another vessel and were taken by breeches buoy into a lifeboat. When Grandfather finally got home he could have been captain on his next voyage, but thought better of it and never went again.
When I was a kid, some of my neighbors couldn’t look at a painting of a schooner without pointing out that this or that line was missing or in the wrong place.
So now another generation of St. George kids who can raise the cash for a two-week class can learn how to sail. The course is taught by people I don’t know who can do things I can’t do. We appreciate their willingness to teach young people how to sail, and hope that the students will always have the time and resources to support their hobby.
The life of a sailor is not without risk. More than a few St. George people left the dock and did not come back.
I might have told you about Captain Freddy, who went to sea at 17, rather late in life. He’d been asked to go before when Captain Watts wanted him to help haul a load of coal from Baltimore and around Cape Horn to Japan. Because most of the crew were from other countries, Captain Watts liked to have a few local boys aboard.
Freddy’s mother had lost so many relatives to the sea that she pleaded with him to not go. In telling about it 60 years later, Captain Freddy said, “Kind of funny how that turned out. That vessel simply disappeared and they never found a trace of it. I suppose it’s just as well that I didn’t go.”
The humble Farmer can be heard Friday nights at 7 on WHPW (97.3 FM) and visited at his website: