A schoonerman passes

Eben Whitcomb, Jr., aboard the schooner he built, Harvey Gamage.
Eben Whitcomb, Jr., aboard the schooner he built, Harvey Gamage.
Whitcomb, Jr., aboard the schooner he built, Harvey Gamage.

Eben Whitcomb, Jr., the moving force behind the building, maintenance and operation of the schooner Harvey Gamage from 1973 to 1994, died on May 13 at the age of 98. He and Shirley, his bride of 64 years, were living in an assisted living facility in Connecticut.

Eben Whitcomb Jr. was born in 1925 into an old Maine family and was raised in Washington DC. Eben Jr. attended Yale taking a degree in engineering and upon graduation served in the Navy for three years. After his discharge he went to work at Brown Company a large paper company in Maine. Eben became an expert is setting up complex equipment necessary for the business. During all this time, working for the paper company, he was thinking about building a boat. His son, Eben Whitcomb III recalls ship’s plans laid out on the dining room table and being just four years old when his father took him to the launching of the tall ship Shenandoah.

By 1971 Eben was already to make his move. He decided to build a big schooner that could safely sail offshore accommodating 25 or more passengers. Thus began Dirigo Cruises. Dirigo is the state motto of Maine and it means “I lead.” He placed a small one-inch ad in The New York Times seeking investors “to build and operate a passenger sailing business.” 

Gamage under sail.
Gamage under sail.

Whitcomb offered limited partnership in shares of 64ths — a traditional method of apportioning partnerships in sailing ships. Dirigo Cruises was owned by 14 partners with Whitcomb as the general partner. The schooner Harvey Gamage took a year to build at a cost of $350,000 and was named for the shipbuilder that constructed the vessel.

Whitcomb understood that the short Maine chartering season wouldn’t pay the bills. Gamage became one of the very first US-flagged schooners spending the winter months chartering from St. Thomas, doing weekly cruises though the BVI.

Whitcomb was also was a big believer in the value of school programs and early on began “seamesters” with Southampton college on Long Island. Engaging students in science, art and seamanship. These “seamesters,” novel at the time, established the template for programs that still run today. Some of the students were so influenced by the experience that they themselves became professional mariners, writers and educators. Under the leadership of Whitcomb Harvey Gamage became a training ground for a generation of sailors “coming up through the hawse pipe” qualifying for their Masters Licenses and joining the after-guard aboard Gamage and other tall ships.

With a rare generosity of spirit Eben gave every crew member an opportunity to expand their skills. Many a young sailor, could get the opportunity to dock Gamage under Eben’s patient tutelage, their knees most likely shaking while they brought the big ship alongside a dock. 

He also introduced the idea of teaching celestial navigation on the way to and from the West Indies. Thus began the very successful “Celestial Navigation Practicums.” Hundreds of people from all over the country had their first experience of ocean sailing aboard Gamage. For a week folks could run away to sea making passages between St. Thomas and Bermuda and thence to New York or Connecticut. There were more than a few who would come back season after season. One of these adventures was filmed by Chip Croft in a video called “High Seas Schooner.” Students, passengers, crew, all loved being aboard as Gamage was not run as a military operation. Safety was stressed, of course, but the ambiance aboard ship was relaxed and friendly, the crew and passengers mixing freely. It was reflection of Eben himself. Under his leadership, Gamage was a happy ship.

Eben was a great teacher, without being pedantic. He was a skilled natural sailor who was blessed with good luck. He was a mentor, a teacher, a friend, a great shipmate. whose influence extends to all who knew him.