Nearly a Century Old, Famed Schooner is getting Major Overhaul

May 16, 2016

The Arctic Schooner Bowdoin is approaching its centennial. The ship was built for Captain Donald MacMillan in 1921, a graduate of Bowdoin College who designed the vessel for voyages into what was, then, still largely uncharted northern waters.

Most recently, the Bowdoin has been used by Maine Maritime Academy to train students, some of whom have sailed her back above the Arctic Circle. The school is mounting a fund-raising drive to keep the Bowdoin working for decades to come.

The Bowdoin is currently undergoing a major renovation at the Lyman-Morse shipyard in Camden. A crew of professionals are replacing her wooden deck, and updating her electronics and plumbing, Back in Castine, Maine Maritime Academy students re-built her engine and are working on her masts, rigging and other gear.

The Bowdoin, is a double-masted wooden schooner. Not the kind of boat you'd think would be at home in ice-choked waters:

"I always like to describe Bowdoin, instead of an icebreaker, as an ice wiggler," says Eric Jergenson, a former skipper of the Bowdoin. "Her primary goal is to not get stuck. Was to be able to wiggle through and not necessarily break, but find a path through that ice. She's good at that."

MacMillan, who had taken to exploring, repeatedly sailed Bowdoin into the Arctic in the 1920s and 30s. Former Captain Andy Chase says their goal was to make the arctic environment less mysterious.

"They did a lot of wildlife studies, ornithology especially," he says. "They photographed birds, they sketched birds, they shot birds and brought them back."

MacMillan also made early contacts with the Inuit people of the north. And, Chase says, he made it easier for future sailors to find their way.

"Nothing was charted, to speak of, up there. He was usually operating without charts," he says. "Of if he had charts at all, they were usually just a sketch of the outline of the shoreline. So, he was doing a lot of the charting that was done up there."

During World War II, the Bowdin was conscripted by the Navy to sail to GreEnland and provide strategic data about the Greenland coastline.

After the war, she became more of a display piece than a working boat. During this time, she deteriorated, due to age and a lack of upkeep. in the 1980's she received a new owner, and an overhaul that enabled her to join in a parade of sail in New York Harbor for the Statue of Liberty's centennial in 1986.

By then Bowdoin was purchased by Maine MarItime Academy which uses her to help train cadets in the timeless lessons of sailing vessels.

"We take them out of that nice, cozy wheelhouse and stick 'em out on the deck; it's what they don't like about it" Jergenson says. "But, the reality is that i can honestly say that, having sailed with our students at Maine MarItime for years and years and years, there's not a whole lot of them that don't like it by the end. They begrudgingly will say, 'Yeah, that was a good two weeks. I had a good time.' And they may never do it again. But, hopefully, those fundamentals of seamanship have, kind of, worked their way down and become part of what they are as mariners."

And, if her newest Captain, Emma Hathaway, has her way, some of those students will take Bowdoin again to the waters the schooner first plied almost a century ago.

"The thought of going further north each year is a really cool goal," Hathaway says. "And, I certainly have been doing my own research when it comes to Arctic exploration on board vessels as that has piqued my interest."

Work at the Lyman Morse shipyard is to be completed by June 1st. Bowdoin will be returned to the water that day and will spend another week in Camden before heading down to Castine. There, students will re-install the ship's masts and other equipment. It's hoped The Bowdoin will go out on its next training cruise by the end of June.