Sail Training in the Gulf of Maine

The schooner Harvey Gamage under sail.
The schooner Harvey Gamage under sail.
The schooner Harvey Gamage under sail.

The sails themselves tell the story: A double-reefed main and single-reefed foresail announce that the ship expects wind, lots of it. The 131-foot schooner Harvey Gamage, operated by Sailing Ships Maine, sails with 24 Naval Sea Cadets and a crew of eight aboard. The schooner is on a sail training voyage in the Gulf of Maine, from Portland to a point 64 miles offshore, then back to Portland via the Isles of Shoals. To add to the challenges faced by the trainees, Tropical Depression Frederick is stalking the waters south of us, likely to march north.

The Sea Cadets, however, are not in the habit of showing nervousness. Sponsored by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, the Sea Cadets are a maritime-based youth program for young people aged 10 to 18, who train on military installations around the country and, as a practical matter, sign up for adventures that appeal to them. This group contains participants from around the country. 

“It’s not learning to sail but learning from sailing,” said Robin Graf, retired USN Admiral and adult volunteer on this week’s voyage. Graf is also a former interim director of the program and the current National Vice President focused on youth programs for the Navy League of the United States.

“That’s what drew me to sail training in the first place, its value on so many levels. Where else can you get an experience like this? Most of these kids can’t even drive a car yet, but here they are, standing watch at night, doing bilge checks and learning teamwork. It’s great to see them building confidence.” 

The cadets, most of whom have never sailed, move nimbly around the deck and get deck gear ready for a proper blow. Things that may fly are fastened down, abandoned headlamps and personal belongings move to the lost-and-found box in the chief mate’s cabin. All open hatches and skylights are closed for the expected rain. Dish-cleaning tubs from the last meal are stowed. 

We have recently passed our farthest seaward position on the route, an eastern waypoint in the Gulf of Maine 64 nautical miles from the nearest land, and are now making five knots on a course mostly west. Spirits are high. They often are on Gamage. 

“The word I use most is authentic,” said Alex Agnew, executive director of Sailing Ships Maine, which runs the Gamage programs. 

“It’s a coming-of-age experience for kids. When they’re on watch they have to do things to keep the ship safe, and they know right away why they have to do it. The off watch is grateful that the other watches are working so they can sleep. It’s a true meritocracy. 

“I’ve done all kinds of stuff, camping, coaching, and I don’t think there is anything to beat taking kids out to sea.”

Safety training

The Cadets began their journey with several hours of safety training. They learned what to do in case of man overboard, what to do in case of fire, in case of flooding, in case of abandon ship. Station bills posted around the boat list every person on board together with his or her job in the event of an emergency. 

They learned the basic skills of a tall ship sailor, how to use a safety harness, how to belay and palm a line, how to haul a halyard. They learned the particulars of using the highly persnickety Lavac marine toilets. They learned the occult secrets of keeping clean in an environment with no showers. They learned, as if the Sea Cadets had not already drilled it into them, how to be part of a crew. 

“Everyone who joins has fun,” said Chief Petty Officer Matteo Canu, leader of the group and himself a teenager. “I am there to do the training alongside the others, but it’s also a matter of being humble, and helping out when there is something that needs to be done.”  

We left the our home port Portland Shipyard, spent the evening nine miles away at Chandler’s Cove, began our run next day for sea, sailed day and night, reached our outward mark in the middle of the morning, tacked for home, gathered interesting information all the while about Frederick, and sailed with a vengeance.

The morning after our turnaround, the wind has piped up to Force 6. Crew members walk on the high side of the ship. Everyone is belayed to jacklines running the length of the deck. In the galley, cook Tyler Calderwood prepares dinner at an angle of about 10 degrees of heel, the blustering north wind making the act of cooking an acrobatic as well as a culinary skill. 

The stiffer wind moves us at eight knots. At the wheel, Second Mate Shannon Jacobson cons the vessel while providing clipped instructions to helmswoman Gabriella Bijjani. 

“Easy left. Give me three spokes left. Steady up,” she says, with every command repeated by Bijjani, as was taught during the first hours aboard. 

Captain Pamela Coughlin has planned this voyage to offer the Cadets as good a taste of ocean voyaging as can be had in a week, taking them out of the view of land–and most of their known world–for several days. 

“I always prefer going offshore instead of staying inland and dodging lobster pots,” Coughlin said. “But we do need safe harbors for training and safety.” 

Through the frantic night

Through the day and into night Harvey Gamage ventures on, amid the susurrus of passing water and the occasional gurgle audible inside the ship. 

Gamage, a wooden gaff-rigged topsail schooner, with a rig height of 91 feet, and a sail area of 4,200 feet, was built in 1973 in South Bristol, Maine. 

To those belowdecks, there are sounds like someone knocking on walls and doors through the vessel at all times, a concerto of bumps and taps and clangs and thumps, with everything in the cabins rocking to the steady surge of the seas. 

Some evenings on this voyage I have had to brace myself in my bunk to keep from rolling onto the sole, and evenings also when the just-turned-on fog signal made a desperate trial of sleep. The fog signal sounds every two minutes, the perfect interval to knock you out of sleep just as you enter into it, again and again, until at last the watches rotate and the attempt becomes irrelevant.

Outside on this watch, the darkness seems alive. The seas are tangled, almost violent. Once on deck you can see that the night is not so much wild as carefully contained. Jacklines are rigged sturdily, skylights are closed. A lookout stands amidships gazing forward, and two figures stand by the wheel. Two more figures wait silently on the quarter deck peering inboard at the galley house and inward into their private worlds. 

The ship plunges on through the frantic night with most aboard her asleep, while the watches turn silently and the shore slowly nears. It’s a dark and stormy night at sea, but we’re buttoned up tight. We are an emissary from civilization in the wilderness. We swim on unconcerned. The seas protest our motion forward with every surge and splash. Still we move. We sail. We fly. The crowded field of lobster pots are far away inshore. 

A taste of solid ground

From our point 64 miles offshore we make our way to Isles of Shoals, a long beam reach under reduced sail, and finally drop the hook in a sheltered anchorage. This little group of islands, with their low buildings and big wooden resort hotel, represent both Maine and New Hampshire, the state border dividing them neatly in two. Though still six sea miles from the mainland, the islands are the first taste of solid ground we’ve had for several days. At night the remnants of Frederick, now post depression, make a chaos of the waters outside our little harbor. But inside all is serene. 

From Isles of Shoals we move up through Hussey Sound to Harpswell Harbor, a charming anchorage where the Sea Cadets and crew of Harvey Gamage enact the traditional end-of-voyage talent show, showcasing the accomplishments of those aboard without pressure from the conventional definition of talent: Cook Calderwood, for one, performs the making of a Hollandaise sauce to the great satisfaction of all. 

From Harpswell we go to Chandler’s Cove, our favorite staging area for the entrance to Portland. And next day, with wind blowing strong, we get to Portland making three knots under bare poles. It’s a tricky entrance to the dock, a downwind approach with lots of wind behind us. It’s made especially tricky when our pushboat dies while helping us nose into the berth, and Coughlin resorts to something she calls “dredging” the anchor to work back to our place.

This is what she does: Just downwind of the wharf, which the pushboat failure has caused us to miss, the captain drops the anchor to a depth just greater than the depth of water. The ship swings 180 degrees and points upwind. Coughlin then motors the ship slowly back upwind, the anchor dragging the bottom rather than digging into it. 

This holds the bow steady as we slowly motor back into our berth, coming to rest finally backwards from our usual position, but well set up for the next storm, scheduled to arrive in two days. It’s a fine piece of seamanship and it has the chief mate scratching his head. 

An hour later the bags are packed and loaded on deck, the trainees are once more wearing fatigues, their parents are once again beaming at high wattage on the dock, waiting to take them all in separate directions. Though other groups will come aboard in coming weeks to stand watch and hear the fog signal, the Sea Cadets will return. 

“Getting out on the ocean is a life-changing experience for these kids,” said Andrew Nash, regional director for the United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps. “Every time they come back they can’t believe what they’ve learned, even if they don’t always know what they’re getting themselves into.”

Rob Laymon is a freelance writer and served as chief mate aboard Harvey Gamage for this voyage.