Monday, July 20, 2015

Time For Tall Ships

Rounding Bug Light, Maine Historical Society

In South Portland, it’s nice to walk out my door in the morning and smell the sea. During summer, it’s a sweet fragrance. I hear the ferries sound their horns as they leave the pier in Portland and head to one of the islands, and I hear the deeper, base sound of tankers as they’re leaving the harbor — a longer blast, not unlike that of cruise ships that come and go in summer and fall.
Dawn at Portland Pipeline pier

Several tall ships came down the shipping channel last weekend and I watched them from a high point on the old Fort Prebie, now the campus of Southern Maine Community College. I could see down to Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams and Portland Head Light where they entered the channel and starting trimming sails to navigate the narrower passage under power. Some kept a few up though and the effect was stunning, mostly because I could imagine how it was for previous generations who stood and watched from where I was standing. Here was this huge ship, even taller than it was long, using wind and water to move along silently and elegantly. Would those long-dead people have been as enthralled as I was? More so?
Trimming sails in the channel

For them it would have been routine, not so special to see stately sailing ships passing by but I’m not used to it. I’m accustomed to what sailors call “stinkpots” — motorized vessels. I even own one that I keep on Kezar Lake in Lovell. Motor boats are not what anyone would call beautiful compared to sailing ships. Nonetheless, I like to watch the big tankers come and go from the various tie-ups of the Portland Pipeline Company on the South Portland side of the harbor. Tugboats help them get around tight corners and then turn around back to port and the tankers head for open sea.
From the Maine Historical Society

Perhaps though, those 19th century Mainers appreciated the scene even more than I did. Their world wasn’t as rushed as ours. They were accustomed to waiting for things and didn’t try to jam too much into a day as we do. Perhaps their unhurried life put them in a better state of mind, more able to appreciate the classic lines of a sailing ship — or several of them — all up and down the channel.
Crowded channel

At least 10,000 people watched the tall ships last weekend, but the big ships were surrounded by smaller, motorized pleasure boats and that made it difficult to imagine myself back in the 19th century. Browsing the Maine Historical Society’s picture collection last winter, I studied many images of Portland Harbor in the days of sail. Some tall schooners in those pictures were tended by motorized tug boats but other, smaller vessels visible were sailboats too. On the South Portland side of the harbor, down the street from where my house is, were shipyards with enormous schooners under construction.
My grandson Riley at wreck of Harold W. Middleton

The bones of a schooner that wrecked over on nearby Higgins Beach in Scarborough are another reminder of those days. They’re all that remain of the schooner Harold W. Middleton that was carrying coal from Virginia and hit ledges offshore. It finally came to rest on the sand near the outlet of the Sprurwink River. Locals made off with the coal and the insurance company salvaged what it wanted, then left the rest in place. Storms storms have covered and uncovered the wreck in the century since.
As a boy in elementary school I loved drawing square-rigged sailing ships. It gave me pleasure to sketch the sweeping lines of the hull and bowsprit, the straight masts and rectangular sails that weren’t perfectly rectangular as they billowed in the wind. I’d draw waves breaking against the bow and imagine how they might appear from high up on one of the masts. Sometimes I’d draw triangular sails on schooners but I liked the square rigs better and I’d always include a flag atop the tallest mast.
Sunrise at Bug Light South Portland

Though I’m semi-retired, I still have a compulsion to keep busy, to accomplish something every day. Plagued by this lingering need to be productive, I seldom give myself enough time off to just walk around, think, feel the breeze, smell the air — stop and appreciate beauty in whatever form it should present itself. Gotta change that. Though I had writing to do last Saturday, I went over to SMCC and waited with thousands of others for the tall ships to appear over the horizon. 18th and 19th century Mainers waited there for loved ones to return from long voyages and became anxious if they were overdue. The local cemetery I walk through contains many headstones declaring someone “lost at sea,” telling me it wasn’t all tranquility and elegance to go “down to the sea in ships.”


Unknown said...

As someone who has sailed square rigged and fore/aft schooners, I agree they are beautiful. I was there to watch and visit on Sat. and Sun. Today I was putting up my winter wood and thinking about what it was like maybe 150 yrs. ago. Work was so much more physical in nature, both on the sea and here in the mountains. it may seem harder than sitting at a desk, but I find in retirement I enjoy that. There is a sense of accomplishment because you can see the fruits of your labors; the steady course marked by your wake on the water or the stack of warming wood near the back door. Nice piece Tom.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed this Tom Thank you Jan

Anonymous said...

Tom, you suck, and I'll tell you why.
Never mind my previous references to car and boat shows.
Yeah, yeah, "Tall Ships, yada yada, blah blah.....
Of course, the very next day The Union Leader posted a back page photo looking straight up the wooden mast at the HUGE (main?)sail.
In my older age you MADE me regret one (of many) "Road's no taken" back when
I had the option to venture into *cough...cough* years ago.
1. Working on HUGE private sailboats, or
2. Entering the wooden shipbuilders trade. (*sigh* I even have a "pirate" sword)

OT, I DID end up running "hemp" house "fly crews",based on wooden ship "technology", but with sand bags. Theatrical scenery rigging was ALWAYS done by sailors, back in ie. Shakespere's day. and building pretend boats and ships, for the stage.
(I can't even remember the NAME of the Metropolitan Opera House production with an ice bound shipwreck for scenery)
Just a note thanking you for giving me a scape goat to blame for my OWN personal choices. It's YOUR FAULT...for reminding me...uh...somehow.