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My Column for Toynbee

PPH February 2017? ???

Thank you for looking at this, Toynbee..

Did you know that they still have a Retired Skippers Race up in Castine? Tina Pitchford up at Maine Maritime Academy tells me that August 19th will be the 66th annual race and that you can find them on Facebook.

This came as a surprise when I checked it out, because it was probably 1957 when I went up there as a foremast hand for my friend Captain Freddy. Sixty years ago he and most of the other participants were over 80, so when I did the math I didn’t think there could be too many old coasting skippers 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 in 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 what the air temperature is on Maine’s salt water, and because promo photos of happy customers lounging on deck don’t show goose bumps, the owners were able to turn a profit.

I might misremember, but this might be how the skipper’s race worked: Captain 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, chauffeured them to Castine, 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 1775 my great-great-great grandfather Peter Hilt left Waldoboro with a load of wood for Boston and was never seen again.

Captain Freddy knew that going anywhere on a boat was a risky business. For the past two years I'd worked on the bridge of the CGG 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 went along for moral support.

I had also worked on the Victory Chimes the same summer, 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 not only sounds romantic but it can be turned to profit. A cousin to my great-grandfather boasted that he’d got his German wife by reaching down into the hold of his ship and pulling her out by the hair. While on a voyage a second cousin to my grandfather met, and in 1859 married, a nice young man who did well hauling guano from Peru and ended up as the mayor of New York City.

Similar opportunities were taken for granted 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 meet in Maine moonlight a special young doctor or lawyer. And for an entire week they had to settle for me and the cook’s helper Ronnie Marsh.

I knew nothing of sailing but hummed sea shanties as I self-consciously swabbed away in front of an audience dressed in bathing suits.

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.

There was probably not a night that I got more than four hours sleep. Working on the Victory Chimes was the best job I ever had.

The morning I went to Castine with Captain Freddy it was calm and foggy so we turned around and went home. At the time I thought that Captain Freddy was scared to 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 on my mind. I was in back. Captain Freddy was the copilot. We were just south of Perry’s Sunoco and coming up to a stop sign so fast that I knew Alex didn’t see it. I quickly reached over and grabbed Captain Freddy by both shoulders. And that was the only thing that kept him from going through the windshield when Alex saw the stop sign and screeched to a stop.

Robert Karl Skoglund
785 River Road
St. George, ME 04860
(207) 226-7442


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