Maine Maritime Academy's schooner Bowdoin in July 2008. Credit: Bridget Brown | BDN

If Orrington legislator Dick Campbell has his way, the lower Penobscot River will play host this summer to a maritime festival in celebration of Maine’s Bicentennial — a festival that he hopes can continue past 2020.

As part of the Four Port Loop, tall ships and other watercraft will visit the Penobscot River ports of Bangor and Brewer, Bucksport, Castine and Searsport from July 8-14. The Fort Port Loop initiative is planned by a new organization, the Penobscot Maritime Heritage Association. The ships’ visits will coincide with an array of riverside events planned for each port.

“All these communities have a historic connection, and that’s in the maritime heritage of the river,” said Campbell, a Republican serving his fourth term in the Maine House representing Orrington and Bucksport. “We’re hoping to strengthen those connections and celebrate the history of the region, and get everyone to work together.”

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The Four Port Loop is part of a larger Sailing Ships Festival planned for the entire state to mark Maine’s Bicentennial. It will kick off on June 26 in Boothbay Harbor, and continue in Rockland over the Fourth of July weekend, July 2-4, before heading up to the Penobscot River.

Rockland had considered hosting Tall Ships America, a separate, nonprofit organization that sends its fleet of sailboats around the world to promote maritime heritage, as part of its Bicentennial celebrations. It ultimately decided against that plan, citing the financial risk, but will host the ships participating in the Four Port Loop.

When the tall ships arrive in Bangor and Brewer, it’ll be the first time ships of that size will have made it that far up the river in decades, said Dave Cheever, co-chair of and lead coordinator for the state’s Bicentennial Committee. The last time tall ships went past Bucksport was 1984, before the Veteran’s Remembrance Bridge carrying Interstate 395 over the river between Bangor and Brewer was fully constructed.

“It will be quite a sight, to see these massive ships making their way up the river,” Cheever said. “It’s a sight that was commonplace back in the 19th century, but hasn’t happened in a very long time.”

Some of the ships that are slated to visit the river over the event’s six days include, most notably, the Maiden, a 58-foot aluminum racing yacht skippered by Tracy Edwards, who famously led a 12-woman crew to a second-place finish in the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race, now known as the Ocean Race, a prestigious October-June sailing race held every three to four years. After a popular 2018 documentary on the race, the Maiden now sails the world as part of the Maiden Factor, an initiative raising awareness and funds for girls’ education.

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Other ships visiting the Penobscot will include the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry, a Rhode Island-based, three-masted, square-rigged tall ship built in 2015, which sails around New England as a “floating classroom.” The Oliver Hazard Perry will visit Searsport and Castine, but it is too tall to fit underneath the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and the I-395 bridge. The ship is 131 feet tall, while the Penobscot Narrows Bridge is 135 feet tall, and the I-395 bridge is not as tall as the Narrows Bridge.

Maine Maritime Academy’s flagship vessel, the schooner Bowdoin, will visit the four ports. The Bowdoin, built in 1921 in East Boothbay, is 70 feet tall. The Bowdoin is the only schooner built for Arctic exploration, and has made 29 trips above the Arctic circle during her life.

Additionally, the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center’s 3D-printed boat, the largest item ever 3D-printed, will also sail down the Penobscot, as will canoes and kayaks representing Maine’s Indigenous people.

More vessels, including more tall ships, will be announced at later dates, as well as specific programming in each of the communities participating in the festival. The only land-based programming that has been announced so far is the Bucksport Bay Festival, which will occur July 10-12, during the same weekend that the tall ships will be in town, and Castine’s Maine 200 events, set for July 12-14. Campbell said educational events will be planned alongside just-for-fun events.

After the vessels visit the river, they will make their way back down the Maine coast, stopping in Belfast before making the sail down to Portland, where they will all convene for a Tall Ships Festival and Parade of Sail, July 16-19.

For 2020, Campbell said, the focus will naturally be on the Bicentennial celebrations, but if this event is successful, he hopes it can become a yearly event.

“The whole Penobscot basin is its own region, and we need to think about it like that,” said Campbell. “We want to get every town involved, and we want to make this an event that really highlights the beauty and the history of the region. We lost the [American] Folk Festival, so let’s try to make this something that can replace it. It’s a very exciting opportunity.”

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Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.