Bowdoin turns 100
A century of training, promoting science, cultural awareness, and adventure
THERE ARE QUITE A FEW ships around the world that are more than 100 years old. In fact, there are quite a few that are centuries old. But I can’t think of another 100-year-old sailing ship that is still sailing regularly, and still doing what it was originally built to do, except for Bowdoin, which turned 100 on April 9 of 2021.
As a former Bowdoin captain, Elliot Rappaport once said of Bowdoin, “There’s a big difference between a ship that went to the Arctic and one that goes to the Arctic.”
Bowdoin College graduate Donald (“Mac”) MacMillan was bitten by the Arctic bug when he served with fellow Bowdoin graduate, Naval officer, and Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary on Peary’s 1908-1909 North Pole expedition. Peary claimed to have seen a large landmass in the polar sea, which he named Crocker Land. MacMillan was determined to go back and find it. That expedition, which departed in 1913, was intended to last no more than two years, but he ended up staying for four, when two successive relief ships failed to reach him. It was during that long spell that he decided what it was that a proper expedition required, and that was a good ship.
MacMillan considered the failings of other ships that had been beset in or crushed by ice, left without fuel, or damaged by grounding, and came up with a list of requirements for a purpose-built expedition vessel. She would be as small as he could get away with, which would allow for maneuvering in tight spots. She would have a hull with rounded sides to prevent the ice getting a grip on it. With a wineglass shape, she should “pop” out of the ice. She would carry her greatest beam well aft, which would shunt the ice bits away from the propeller. She would have a draft of about 10 feet, matching the height of tide on the Greenland coast, which would allow her to be beached at high tide for repairs. She would have a simple engine that could burn anything from diesel to kerosene to whale or seal oil. She would be as strong as a shipyard could make her, but, just in case, there would be two watertight bulkheads so that if “I broke her stern off, she would float, and if damaged for’ard, she would still float, and if she broke in half, both ends would float,” MacMillan wrote.
After the Crocker Land expedition, and a three-year stint in the Navy, Mac commissioned William Hand, a notable yacht and workboat designer, to design his ideal vessel. He chose Hodgdon Brothers Shipyard in East Boothbay, Maine, to build it.
The construction estimate was $35,000, of which Mac had less than $3,000 on hand. But he promised to pay the yard somehow, and they started work with a handshake. He ended up selling shares to enthusiastic supporters for $100 apiece, and Bowdoin was built. Launching day was April 9, 1921.
The maiden voyage was to the west coast of Baffin Island, a region that had yet to be explored by anyone but the Inuit. On the way there, in a moment of confusion at the helm, Bowdoin ran headlong into an iceberg. The impact was enough to sink practically any ship of any size, but Bowdoin suffered almost no damage.
MacMillan found an ideal harbor, uncharted, but well protected from ice pressure by virtue of a narrow opening, and he named it Schooner Harbor. (He reserved the name Bowdoin Harbor for a different berth in northern Labrador.) There they moored the schooner and prepared the ship and crew for long winter nights. Once frozen in, with the help of local Inuit, the crew built a snow wall around the hull and igloos over the hatches, making her snug and relatively comfortable for the 10-month stay.
For his next voyage, Mac planned a multi-year expedition to far northern Greenland. Again, he found a suitable place, Refuge Harbor, where he settled the vessel in as before, this time for 11 months.
He very nearly didn’t make it out.
By the end of July 1924, it looked like the ice would not leave the harbor that summer. A narrow and shallow shore lead was all that had opened up, with just a little less depth than Bowdoin needed to get out. He determined that it was worth a try, or otherwise Bowdoin would probably be stuck for another year.
At high tide, Mac put the engine full ahead and tried to bounce the schooner over the shallow section. She hit it hard, and stuck. With the tide dropping, the crew feared the schooner would lean over and fill with water as the next tide rose, so they rigged tackles to the shore to hold her upright. That worked, until it didn’t. The lines parted; the schooner fell hard and cracked a couple of planks. Working feverishly, they unloaded all the gear they could, to lighten the vessel, and in case they needed to camp ashore for the winter. But Bowdoin did float on the next tide, and was able to get over the hump.
She would have made a clean getaway, had not an iceberg drifted into and run aground in the entrance (or exit) of the harbor. Mac surmised that if he hit it hard enough, perhaps the schooner could break through and get out. Bowdoin backed up and then rammed the solid ice at full speed. She stopped dead, but a crack in the ice appeared, and as the vessel pressed against it at full throttle, it gradually opened, and she slipped through.
Bowdoin had now proven herself, and proven MacMillan’s theory of what an ideal Arctic expedition vessel could be. For 33 years she spent few summers away from the Arctic. Her missions were training and education for mostly college-aged young people.
During World War II, the vessel was purchased and commissioned by the U.S. Navy and sent back up to Greenland to conduct surveys of sites for U.S. airbases. The work earned her two WWII service ribbons.
After the war, she was offered back to MacMillan, who bought the disheveled, stripped-down hulk for $4,000. At 71 years old, Mac had plenty of energy left. With help, he restored her to sailing condition. He stretched his resources to buy a new Cummins diesel engine; when the invoice arrived, it came with a letter of support from the head of the company and was marked “Paid in Full.” The relationship with Cummins has endured to the present day.
He donated the vessel to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where she was to become a museum piece. But Mystic didn’t have the resources to maintain her, and after nine years of neglect, she was almost too far gone to save.
In 1968, Capt. Jim Sharp, of Camden, Maine, approached MacMillan with a proposal to restore the ship to sailing condition. Mac was delighted, and Sharp spent the next year rebuilding her. Several friends helped, and one young helper, John Nugent, would stay with Bowdoin for many years.
As all hands knew that Mac was in declining health, they worked extra hard to get the job done. In the fall of 1969, Sharp and friends got Bowdoin under way and sailed her down to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Mac saw his proud ship under sail once again. He died less than a year later.
There followed a period of about 10 years when Bowdoin was commissioned as a private yacht, a charter vessel, and a school ship for kids. Eventually new safety rules meant the vessel needed to be rebuilt in order to continue paying her way.
A fundraising campaign was launched, and from 1979 to 1984 she underwent a rebuild so complete that she received a U.S. Coast Guard certificate as both a passenger and a sailing school vessel. The lion’s share of this work was done by John Nugent, often working alone.
When Cummins learned that Bowdoin’s engine needed work, the company traded it for a brand new one, realizing that she had the first marinized engine they had built, and one of their oldest engines still in operation. That engine is now on display in the lobby of the Cummins headquarters in Indiana.
The rebuilt schooner ended up with the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. But after a couple of years, that organization determined the vessel wasn’t a good fit for their mission, and word got out Bowdoin was again looking for a home.
At that time, Chris Kluck, a student at Maine Maritime Academy with a passion for sailing, got wind of Bowdoin’s situation and suggested we try to bring her to MMA. I was an ex-schooner captain with a new job on the faculty and was too new to my job to spare much effort, but I promised to support him. Soon thereafter, someone pulled a fire alarm in the dorm and Kluck had the foresight to bring with him a petition, which he circulated among the students mustered in the courtyard. It was in support of acquiring the vessel for a sail training program.
Maine Maritime President Ken Curtis was impressed by the initiative and also by the opportunity. He saw the ship as an iconic link to Maine’s maritime history and as a platform for teaching seamanship. He also saw her as a platform for fundraising—he was just starting MMA’s first major capital campaign.
MMA acquired Bowdoin in the fall of 1988, and I got the job as captain. In our first season together, we sailed the Maine coast with students aboard, as what I liked to call “modern-day pirates.” We’d sail into a port, host a fundraiser, and sail away with everyone’s money. Curtis liked to say that capital campaign was largely funded across the decks of Bowdoin. At the end of the 1989 season, I proposed taking the vessel back to Labrador. To my surprise, Curtis said, “Go for it.” And so we did.
Our six-week voyage to Nain, Labrador, in July and August of 1990, was a reunion for Bowdoin. At every port in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Labrador, people were astounded to see the ship again. She was a legend there, even more so than in Maine. It had been 36 years since they had seen her. They showed us photos of themselves as children on board with Mac. Two Inuit elders in Nain presented me with chocolates, returning the favor that Mac had done for them when they were little. We visited the schoolhouse that Mac had built for them with materials delivered on Bowdoin.
That trip was so successful that on our return I suggested to Curtis that we shoot for Greenland and the Arctic Circle the following season. Again, he said yes. The 1991 voyage lasted nine weeks and covered 5,000 miles, crossing the Arctic Circle and reaching 70° north latitude. Again, the locals were thrilled to see their beloved “White Ship.” We were able to find photos of some of them in the old copies of National Geographic that we had on board, some dating back as far as 1923.
Since the Arctic voyage, Bowdoin has continued MacMillan’s legacy of taking people north to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador, and Greenland, voyaging north of the Arctic Circle under the MMA flag three times.
In 2015, 30 years had passed since her last rebuild, and it was time for Bowdoin to get another makeover. A $1.5 million capital campaign was initiated; the first phase was a rebuild at Lyman-Morse/Wayfarer Marine in Camden that included replacing the deck and upgrading many of her systems and engine. The Cummins company sent a technician to Castine to supervise MMA students in the Small Craft Technology Lab in rebuilding the engine, and provided all necessary parts. Phase II of the rebuild, completed at Bristol Marine in Boothbay Harbor over the winter of 2018-19, involved replacing planking and frames as necessary below the waterline.
Throughout the rebuild, pains were taken to keep her as historically accurate as possible. She is still the vessel MacMillan specified: strong enough for ice work, with watertight bulkheads, a short rig, and an ice barrel aloft for the captain to stand in while conning through the ice.
When I was in that barrel picking my way through the ice, I could feel Mac’s presence beside me. He seemed pleased. He kept telling me, “Relax, she’ll take care of you.”
By the summer of 2019, she was once more in like-new condition, and planning began to celebrate her 100th season with another Arctic voyage. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic put that plan on hold. Even so, shortly after her birthday on April 9, 2021 Bowdoin got under way once again for the season doing exactly what she was built for—scientific research, cultural study, and exploration, while teaching seamanship and providing adventure for the young people (mostly MMA students) who are fortunate enough to earn spots as crew.
The Arctic still holds Bowdoin in its spell, and when conditions permit, she’ll go back.
Capt. Andy Chase is an Emeritus Professor of Marine Transportation at Maine Maritime Academy. He has sailed professionally on merchant ships and sailing ships since he was 16, and holds an unlimited master’s license. He is the subject of Looking for a Ship, a book about the U.S. Merchant Marine by John McPhee, and the author of Auxiliary Sail Vessel Operations (Cornell Maritime Press), which is in its second edition.
A version of this story appeared in Maine Maritime Academy’s Mariner magazine.