With one foot planted on the top rung of a narrow rope ladder, I squeezed my shoulders between the horizontal spars near the top the mast. I clipped a carabiner attached to my harness to a rope, giving me the first sense of security I’d felt since starting up the swaying ladder.
“What have I gotten myself into?” I thought, knees trembling a little as I looked down at Rockland Harbor, where lobster boats and sailing vessels puttered about some 60 feet below. Spending 24 hours crewing for the Isaac H. Evans, a handsome 131-year-old schooner berthed in Rockland, had seemed it might be a pretty cushy assignment.
To spotlight the vital but often little-noticed seasonal work that revs up the midcoast in summertime, my colleague Alex Acquisto and I are taking turns at trying our hands at mucky, sweaty or simply odd jobs for a day.
When I mentally penciled “schooner deckhand” onto my summer jobs list, I expected to, yes, swab the deck, wash a few dishes and maybe carry some bags of trash to a dumpster as I helped the tourist ship’s regular crew clean up between voyages. I hadn’t expected to be hanging so precariously, high above the deck, that a “down and dirty” job actually sounded appealing—at least the “down” part.
Until I was within reach of the horizontal spars, what sailors call the crosstrees, I’d been climbing unsecured. There was no point in tethering myself to the ladder if I was only going to have to unhook and rehook the safety line every rung or two. Now I was supposed to step off the ladder, somehow hoist myself up to the crosstrees and either sit or stand on them to work on the rigging.
Heights don’t much bother me, but getting off this ladder seemed a step too far. “I think I’m good right here,” I shouted down to deckhand Fitz Miller, a 19-year-old who’s been sailing since he could walk and earning money doing it for more than two years.
Fitz kicked off his shoes and scrambled up the ladder behind me. He hooked up his own carabiner, swung off the ladder, grabbed a rope and pulled himself up to the crosstrees, his bare feet walking up the mast.
“Show off,” I said.
“This is my favorite place on the ship,” Miller said, grinning, “best view you could ask for.”
He pulled out a spool of wire and asked me for the wire cutters, which were stored in my pocket along with a wrench. Both tools were tied with twine to my belt so they wouldn’t hurt anyone below if one of us (meaning me) fumbled them. Miller was securing shackles in the schooner’s rigging, looping wire through to prevent the pin from shifting or slipping from the shackles.
One key piece of advice for seafaring is “one hand for yourself and one hand for the ship,” and that rule of thumb as key today as it was hundreds of years ago. The idea is to hold on with one hand and work with the other. But whenever I wasn’t handing Fitz a tool, the ship had both my hands: one wrapped around a bolt on the crosstree and the other gripping a rope.
The boat rocked gently, but the height of the mast magnified the motion where Miller and I were perched. He was enjoying it. I was holding on tightly.
Fitz reminisced about climbing other ships’ masts during storms, about working to repair damage with waves buffeting the hull and rain lashing the sails. When the ship is underway and turning tightly, you don’t see the boat when you look down. You see the ocean.
After 10 or 15 minutes, the shackles were secure. We unhooked and climbed back down to tackle the lower-altitude chores that had to be done to prepare the Evans to take 22 passengers out on an overnight cruise.
For passengers and crew alike, traveling on a ship in Maine’s windjammer fleet is a leap back into history—at times busy and strenuous, at others peaceful and gorgeous.
From June through October, the Evans takes up to 22 passengers on trips around Penobscot Bay. The excursions range from lobster dinner cruises to six-night explorations of the bay and its islands.
The Evans sails with a crew of just four: its captain, a cook, a first mate and a deckhand. It takes more hands than that to run a sailing vessel. Guests who are able are asked to pitch in on shucking corn, hoisting sails and countless other tasks.
“None of this happens without the crew and guests,” said Capt. Brenda Thomas, a former banker who bought the ship in 1999.
After a schooner has spent a few days at sea, there’s a long check list of things that must be done before it will be ready for its next voyage.
The Evans’ crew greeted me at the wharf the morning it returned from its latest four-day sail. This season, the ship is staffed by Miller; Tristan Feener, 20, a junior at Maine Maritime Academy who joined the Evans in early July; and First Mate Autumn Simpson, 17, who was offered a job at 15 after volunteering for a few sails and impressing the captain.
It’s common for Maine’s schooners to hire high school and college students for the summer. The pay is only $200 to $300 a week (plus guest tips), but they get the benefit of living aboard a historic ship for the summer and eating meals alongside the guests when the ship is at sea.
My first duty was the most straightforward of the day, hauling off the trash and empty bottles that had accumulated over the past four days.
Then Miller took me down to the galley, tucked into the bow. All the cooking is done on a wood-fired 1905 cast-iron stove. A water tank hooked to the back of the stove provides hot water for the ship’s shower, which consists of a kitchen-style sprayer set up in one of the ship’s heads.
I scraped the surface of the stove clean with a wire brush. Then MIller and I scooped the ashes, grease and grime into a metal trash bin. Ash swirled through the galley, leaving us in a cloud. Miller handed me a sponge and a tube of stove polish, and I set to work covering every inch with the goop, which stained my hands black for days.
As I moved around to scrub the stove from every angle, the galley’s low ceilings and odd angles got the better of me. I left with a few lumps and bruises.
Later, after my time up the mast, I washed the 65-foot deck, fixtures and railings using a brush, hose, and liquid dish soap. Next, I helped tidy the cabins.
The work I did in my 24 hours on the schooner merely scratches the surface of what must be done over the course of the year. Each spring, the crew sands down the wooden ship and repaints the hull and deck fixtures. Later this summer, the crew expects to oil the decks.
They’ll also have to slush the masts, a dirty project in which a crew member sits on a narrow board, gets hoisted to the top of the mast and rubs grease down its entire length. This lubrication makes it easier to hoist the sails. Historically, crews used lard, but most now use petroleum jelly. Capt. Thomas told me I narrowly missed being the slusher of 2017, as there just wasn’t enough time to do the job in the day the ship was docked between excursions.
Steeped in history
The Isaac H. Evans first hit the water in 1886 in New Jersey as part of a oyster-dredging fleet and spent most of the next 80 years filling its holds and deck with mollusks.
Just after World War II, the owners of the Evans plucked off her mainmast and installed a motor. By the 1960s, the Evans stopped oystering and was largely ignored until Doug and Linda Lee purchased it and brought it to Maine. The Lees converted it into a passenger vessel, and reinstalled the mainmast.
The two-masted schooner was only built to last a couple of decades, but because it earned its keep at oystering and later found owners willing to give it new life, the Evans is still sailing. Since 1991 the Evans has been a National Historic Landmark.
The old schooner is a workhorse, not a speedster — with a cruising speed of just 4 or 5 knots.
“She’s old, and she’s slow, but she’s got so much personality,” Thomas said. “I know her so well. She talks to me constantly. She gives me feedback.”
Thomas, a Farmington native who used to work for Camden National Bank, bought the schooner in 1999 from its then-captain, Ed Glaser. Thomas had gotten introduced to the schooner-tours business in 1993, when she started moonlighting as a bookkeeper for another midcoast passenger schooner. She became a crew member on the Evans in 1995. while still working for the bank. She and the Evans have been nearly inseparable ever since.
Yet, Thomas is now looking to sell the schooner for $350,000 and step away from the helm so she can spend more time with her children.
A night aboard
Once my day’s work aboard the Evans was done, one crew member went home, another left to visit his girlfriend and a third went to a party for a crewman on another schooner who had wrapped up his last voyage of the season.
So, for a few hours that evening, I had the schooner to myself. The captain was kind enough to offer me a cabin so I could sleep aboard before the Evans took on new passengers the next afternoon.
Before I called it a night, a passenger joined me on board. Susan Guldborg, a 52-year-old Montana native who works as an English teacher in North Dakota, has sailed on the Evans five times since 2011.
“It’s my happy place,” she said. “When I’m here, I can just be myself, and nobody knows the difference.”
A fellow passenger once asked Guldborg about one of her tattoos and jokingly asked whether she would get a tattoo of the Evans. Thomas told Guldborg that an Evans tattoo would earn her a free trip. Guldborg got the tattoo on her foot, and the complementary trip.
After we chatted a bit more, I retired to my cabin at the stern. It held a full-size bed under a low overhang, a bookshelf, small sink, reading light and a handheld mirror.
I recalled that Thomas had told me, “This is like camping on the ocean. It’s not for everyone.”
The sounds of creaking boards, lapping water and straining ropes quickly lulled me to a sleep undisturbed by memories of my time upon the mast.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.