At Large : 43 years, and young again
Saturday, 43 years after her launching from Harvey Gamage's South Bristol, Maine shipyard, Shenandoah was relaunched two miles away at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard where she spent the winter being substantially rebuilt.
I met Shenandoah 41 years ago, in the summer of 1966. She was two years old, and it was the summer of my junior year in college. Reporting for work in a shipyard in Fairhaven, I saw Shenandoah, new, crisp in every shipshape detail, painted white, overwhelmingly dreamy to look at, and hauled out of the water for annual maintenance. I climbed over the rail. Tony Higgins was the mate, and he directed me to Capt. Robert S. Douglas, slimmer and younger than he is today, as I was, as so many of us were. I asked him for a job as a crewman, and later that summer, he called to give me one.
Back in the water Saturday and warped alongside the shipyard dock, Shenandoah and Captain Douglas, her designer and master, hosted family, friends, and former crewmen. Thanking his guests, the shipyard's owners and operators, and the carpenters whose work he praised, Captain Douglas described his long, impassioned relationship with this 108-foot schooner, to which he gave life by drawing her long, lean lines on a sheet of paper on his desk overlooking Vineyard Haven Harbor. He had in mind a passenger schooner that would also be a training ship for young crewmen. He didn't want a simple vessel, nor one with auxiliary power. He wanted a vessel that was an authentic, challenging, demanding, living example of a breed of sailing ship that could inspire young men to join a breed of sailors, who understood the teamwork, hard work, camaraderie, and responsibility that such a maritime occupation entails. He drew her, adapting her shape from the 1830s revenue cutter Joe Lane, with square sails that required his crew to spend part of their time high above the safety of the deck and to do the vessel's work in synchrony and attentive to the difficulties of maintaining and navigating such a vessel.
Then, with this complex objective in mind, in 1964, Captain Douglas spent months in South Bristol working with the builders, nagging them mercilessly to do their work perfectly, as he had conceived her perfectly, and as he insisted it must be done. Harvey Gamage complained that his young customer was too fussy. "I can't suit you," the shipbuilder said.
When Shenandoah was first launched, Captain Douglas had no wife and no children. He was a young man who kept his BMW motorcycle in the living room of his Vineyard Haven house. There was no Black Dog Tavern, no café or bakery, no catalogue or retail stores. But Saturday, his wife Charlene christened the schooner before she was lowered in to the water. Two of their four sons were on hand for the event. The other two were aboard Captain Douglas's other schooner, Alabama, which was in Nova Scotia doing movie duty in a feature length film.
On the dock at Boothbay, there were former crewmen, some of them now master mariners themselves. There was the Scottish bagpipe band that had helped celebrate Shenandoah's first launching. Awaiting her turn on the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard's railway, the Maine passenger schooner Victory Chimes lay at anchor nearby. Mrs. Douglas had served as crew on the Chimes herself years ago, when Captain Douglas was studying the Maine schooner Mary Day, and before she and Captain Douglas formed their lifelong attachment. When Victory Chimes has been overhauled, Ernestina, the former Cape Verdean packet and now a Massachusetts school ship, will take her place, at this remarkable shipyard which is equipped to build and rebuild such historic wooden vessels.
There was Allan Miller, who lives in East Boothbay. Allan built the Black Dog Tavern for Captain Douglas and opened it in 1972, as its builder, chef, and manager. There was Bernie Holzer, now familiar to many travelers as a purser aboard Steamship Authority vessels, a long-time member of the extended Douglas family. Bernie went to sea at 16 on freighters in the Great lakes. Before turning to shoal-water ferrying, Bernie served on deep-water freighters and tankers that called at seaports all over the globe. Matthew Stackpole, now a fundraising officer at Mystic Seaport and a former mate aboard Shenandoah, was not in Boothbay. He was at Mystic, presiding over the relaunching of the rebuilt eastern rig dragger Roann. Roann was built in Maine for the late Capt. Roy W. Campbell, who ran Captain Douglas's 65-foot tugboat Whitefoot. Matthew's brother Rene Stackpole, who lives in Rockland, used a cell phone to send his brother a photo of the festivities in Boothbay. And, among many others for whom Shenandoah and Captain Douglas are unforgettable influences on their lives, there were my two sons, both of whom served as crew on Shenandoah.
As Captain Douglas told his guests Saturday, throughout her 43 years of service, Shenandoah has never gone sailing without him. He is in his mid-70s, so that may change, as he also suggested. She is stronger today than she was when she was launched from the Gamage yard. The Boothbay shipwrights have replaced planks and frames down three strakes below the waterline, they've rebuilt the waist, and they've done it with solid, long-lived white oak bought from lumber suppliers in the Midwest and South. There is still work to be done, mainly the rail cap atop the waist and the gallows at the stern, on which the main boom rests when the sail is furled, and from which the diesel powered yawl boat, Shenandoah's only means of propulsion when the wind isn't blowing, is suspended when not in use. Then Shenandoah will be taken in tow for Vineyard Haven, where her sails will be bent on, the grub will be taken aboard, the passengers, all kids these days, will join the ship, and Captain Douglas will put his hands on her wheel, to take his remade schooner sailing on the first voyage of her 44th year.