Schooner Hunter ~ Chasing the Nathaniel Bowditch and the Lewis R. French

Two of the oldest schooners in the Maine fleet had eluded me for years.  I had been out on the water quite often in the twelve years we lived in Camden, Maine, including during the annual Great Schooner Races and Windjammer Weekends, but never managed to photograph either under full sail.  I never owned my own boat but always wanted to, so I was always at someone else’s mercy when it came to getting out on the water to photograph the graceful schooners. 

Now living in Virginia and traveling to Maine every other summer for a few weeks, photographing the schooners was becoming even harder.  What if the weather was bad?  What if there wasn't any wind and the schooners were just sitting there?  What if I couldn’t get someone to take me out on their boat?  I could rent a motorboat for a day or two but it would be expensive; the Maine waters are challenging, I don’t have much experience captaining boats (I say with a flair for understatement) and I have what some would say is an irrational fear of sharks! 

One summer I finally captured both the Nathaniel Bowditch and the Lewis R. French under full sail under rather unique and somewhat humorous circumstances.  The first day out on the Penobscot Bay on this particular trip was with my long time Maine golfing buddy Charlie.  We had talked about going in on a boat together for years even though neither of us were boaters.  We never did but he finally broke down and bought a 13 foot skiff with a 40 horsepower engine to putt (pun intended) around the bay in.  He has a young son and it was perfect for the two of them to go fishing in or explore an island together. 

Charlie generously offered to take me out and spend a few hours chasing the schooners around Camden Harbor.  The schooners had all gathered the night before for Windjammer Weekend.  Well sure enough we get out on the water in his relatively small skiff on the big Penobscot Bay and the wind is still.  All the schooners are just sitting there.  The Bowditch and the Lewis R. French are nowhere to be seen. Even if the wind was blowing big and the schooners were heeling and flying across the bay, how could this little skiff manage to keep up or even stay afloat?  Even big boats get tossed around in the open Maine waters! 

Charlie, like an old sea captain, but really a golfer, all of a sudden spotted the Bowditch way off on the horizon.  He hit the gas knowing how much I wanted a shot of it.  The little skiff had more juice than I had imagined and fortunately with the water calm we managed to close the gap between us and the Bowditch in a matter of minutes.  I looked around and we were way offshore.  I was starting to get a little nervous thinking of all that could happen to us.  Charlie noticed that the wind was picking up a bit, spotted some ripples on the water and informed me to get my camera ready.  Next thing I knew the Bowditch’s sails filled and it started racing down the bay, heading toward Gilkey’s Harbor, away from Camden!!!!!  

Storm clouds were on the horizon, it looked like rain and here we were a couple of golfers way out on the Penobscot Bay in a 13 foot skiff with a little 40 horsepower engine running all out trying to keep up with the 90 year old schooner Bowditch!  I could see the determination, fighting spirit and a twinkle in Charlie’s eyes!  He was throwing caution to the wind and going for it.  Thanks to Charlie I managed to get the photos of the Bowditch I was looking for.  We made it home safely and I will always be grateful to my golfing and boating friend for going out of his way (even though he put both our lives in jeopardy) for helping me hunt down the Nathaniel Bowditch! Pictured below are Charlie in action and my painting that captured the Bowditch titled Offshore Challenge.

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Offshore Challenge

A couple of days later, the last day before the schooners were to head back to their local waters, I had arranged to go out on my good friend Caroline’s brother’s boat with Caroline as captain.  I still hadn’t captured the Lewis R. French, the oldest of America’s schooner fleet at 141 years of age.  Caroline is an accomplished sailor, growing up on the Maine waters.  She’s skippered her family's sailing yacht many a race from Camden to Castine in the worst of weather.  I wasn’t worried about this outing at all.  It would be on one of the largest Whalers made, with three huge, I’m guessing 300 Horsepower engines and a highly skilled captain!  The weather was good, the wind was blowing and all of the schooners were zipping all over the Bay. 

Well, I forgot to factor into my comfort level on this particular outing that my friend Caroline has the need for speed.  This wasn’t her mother’s sailboat!  The schooners looked like little white blips on the radar, scattered all over the vast choppy bay.  Which one was the Lewis R. French? 

One second I was getting my camera ready, the next I was holding onto my hat with one hand and a metal railing with the other. I was holding on for dear life!  We were almost airborne, barely tickling the whitecaps. The large Whaler with Caroline at the wheel reduced the giant waters to what seemed like a swimming pool.  What if there was a log floating in the water or a whale was to surface?  If the boat were to hit something, I envisioned myself being ejected hundreds of feet into the air and into shark infested waters! :-0  We flew all around the bay I’m sure much to the annoyance of the sailing crowd, taking pictures of every schooner until we finally found the Lewis R. French under full sail!  As we pulled alongside, I let loose of my death grip, I wiped the spray from my face as tears of joy filled my eyes and I started taking pictures of the last schooner on my list.

My mission was accomplished thanks to my good friends and their boats, large and small.  I had lucked out with the weather.  The photos were in the can, so to speak, and I would live to paint another day!

Pictured below is my painting of the Lewis R. French.

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The Lewis R. French