CASTINE — The flagship sailing vessel for Maine Maritime Academy, the Bowdoin, is celebrating 100 years from when it first launched to explore the Arctic Circle. It was the first of 26 Arctic voyages between 1921 and 1954 for the 88-foot gaff-rigged schooner. The Bowdoin found a home at MMA decades later, in 1988, the same year it was named Maine’s official state vessel and the year before it was named a national landmark.
Designed by William Hand and built in East Boothbay at the Hodgdon Brothers Shipyard at a $35,000 cost, the Bowdoin was first rebuilt in 1984 at the Percy & Small Shipyard in Bath. MMA took on a full hull and deck restoration, including new masts, between 2015 and 2019. A capital campaign raised about $1.5 million for the project, with an additional $300,000 used from the schooner’s endowment fund.
“I think the boat is a little bit faster now,” Captain William McLean said. “Because we removed quite a bit of rusted planking and rusted paint, so it’s a lot smoother in the water.”
Named captain in 2017, McLean trains students through short and long cruises. Rising seniors sail to Newfoundland each year on a two-month voyage and students help crew the public tours around Penobscot Bay. Student cruises were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic so the Bowdoin has an accelerated training schedule this summer so students can complete their training.
“If everything goes well — as you know, anything can change these days — the plan is to have public sails this fall,” McLean said.
McLean takes 12 students at a time on two-week training cruises each school year in addition to the longer trip to Newfoundland. There, students learn to handle the challenges that arise at sea. And while many students are familiar with the concepts of tacking, heeling and helming a sailboat, about half have never stepped foot on a sailboat before boarding the Bowdoin.
“Maine Maritime gets students from places like Iowa who have never seen the ocean before,” McLean said. “But by the end of the two-month cruise, the students are really feeling confident about their abilities on board. They’ve been in rough weather and [experienced] all the trials and tribulations of handling a vessel at sea.”
He recalled his second cruise to Newfoundland leading a student crew.
“We got into some really rough weather off of Nova Scotia,” McLean said. “We were sailing heading downwind, with the seas and winds following us, probably blowing 30 to 35 miles per hour, with 20- to 25-foot waves. All of a sudden, we get hit with a really big wave over the stern.”
While his students on deck handled it with ease, McLean was sleeping in his bunk when a deluge of icy ocean water woke him up.
“The wave had crashed perfectly down into my bunk,” he laughed. “I shot out of bed, jumped up on deck, and the crew — they got a little wet — and were not phased.”
Later, the crew steered through foggy weather to the south coast of Newfoundland, some of the most remote maritime areas of Canada, McLean said. “We went up this fjord with 1,000-foot granite cliffs dropping down to the ocean. It was a nasty, rainy day, so we tucked in over there. The next day, we woke up and it was glass-calm in the fjord. The sun was rising, and the students came up on deck and were just in awe.”
McLean and his student crew spent two days hiking the “beautiful, rugged terrain” of the remote fjords. “It’s kind of a cherry on top for that trip.”
By the time the students return from their Newfoundland cruise, they are trained sailing crew.
“Two months on a vessel is good, solid experience,” McLean said. “They can go out on any vessel and be a good crew member.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Captain William McLean.