Did you know that they still have a Retired Skippers Race in Castine and that I once participated? Tina Pitchford at Maine Maritime Academy tells me that Aug. 19 will be the 66th annual race and that you can find the schedule on Facebook.
This came as a surprise when I checked it out, because it was probably 1957 when I set out for the race as a foremast hand for my friend Captain Freddy. Sixty years ago, he and most of the other skippers were over 80, so when I did the math I knew there couldn’t be too many of them left.
Back then, there were a dozen or more vintage schooners in the Rockland-Camden area that had been refurbished so they could take passengers out among the islands near Penobscot Bay. The Coast Guard safety regulations were rather stringent and maintaining a big old sailboat was expensive, but people in Boston and Philadelphia have no idea of the temperature on Maine’s salt water, and because promo photos of happy customers lounging on deck didn’t show goose bumps, the owners were able to turn a profit.
I might misremember, but this might be how the skippers race worked: Capt. Jim Sharp, who owned the Adventure, and Captain Giles, who owned the Victory Chimes, and all their friends who owned the other coasters, mustered all the old skippers who were still able to walk, propped them up behind the helm of an old schooner and told them to race.
Although Rockland’s Red Jacket broke records for an ocean crossing, I doubt if racing was in the blood of even one of the old skippers I knew. The stories I heard as a kid gave me the impression that delivering the cargo and vessel intact and then getting home alive was more important than pushing it and not getting there at all.
Around 1790 my great-great-great-grandfather Peter Hilt set out from Waldoboro with a load of wood for Boston and was lost when driven aground in a storm. Captain Freddy, like anyone brought up on the coast of Maine, knew that going anywhere on a boat was a risky business.
For the past two years I’d worked on the bridge of the Coast Guard Cutter Laurel, and although I knew nothing about sailing, I could navigate. During those two endless years, I’d learned that if there was only one fog bank on the entire coast of Maine, it would make its home in Eggemoggin Reach. So I was asked to go along for moral support.
The same summer I had also worked on the Victory Chimes, which warrants mention here.
There is nothing like an ocean voyage to make friends. World literature is replete with tales of grieving widows or beautiful young heiresses who found romance and adventure at sea. A cruise is not only romantic but also can be turned to one’s personal advantage.
A cousin to my great-grandfather met his German wife while transporting German immigrants to New Orleans. While accompanying her father on a trip to Peru to pick up guano, a lovely 17-year-old second cousin to my grandfather met, and shortly after married, a nice young man who did well trading with the skippers there, founded W.R. Grace and Co. and ended up as the mayor of New York City.
Similar opportunities were anticipated by passengers on the Victory Chimes in the summer of 1957. Every Sunday afternoon, two dozen professional women, fresh college diplomas in hand, came aboard, some hoping to cultivate the friendship of a young doctor or lawyer beneath Maine moonlight. But for an entire week they had to settle for me and the cook’s helper, Ronnie Marsh.
I knew nothing of sailing, but I hummed sea shanties as I self-consciously swabbed away in front of what I hoped was an appreciative audience.
Working on the Victory Chimes was the best job I ever had. There was probably not a night that I got more than four hours’ sleep.
All went well until Captain Cotton shouted, “Bob, take the slack out of that main sheet when she comes into the wind.” He might as well have asked me to perform brain surgery on a clam.
The morning I went to Castine with Captain Freddy was calm and foggy, so we went home. At the time I thought that Captain Freddy was scared to cast off and drift into a fog bank in a wind-powered boat. But having had 60 years to think about it, I’d now say that he was smart.
It was the trip home in Alex’s old Lincoln that etched this day in my mind.
I was in back. Captain Freddy was the co-pilot. Just south of Perry’s Sunoco Station, we came up on a stop sign. Knowing that Alex was going so fast he didn’t see it, I instinctively reached over and clutched Captain Freddy by both shoulders, so he didn’t go through the windshield when Alex saw the stop sign and screeched to a stop.
And that was the last time I sailed with the Retired Skippers.
The humble Farmer can be heard Friday nights at 7 on WHPW (97.3 FM) and visited at his website: