North Sea trawler finds new life in Maritimes

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The Dutch have long been known for their ability to produce quality ships that can handle the fury of the oceans, whether the vessels are oceangoing tugs — recall Jan de Hartog’s fictionalized accounts of Dutch salvage tugs working the grim Murmansk run in The Captain — or fishing vessels built to work the North Sea in winter. Such a vessel, a steel trawler built in Holland in 1963, has recently been refitted for service as an expedition vessel, one that will explore the coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, taking paying passengers and scientists on wildlife-observation adventures.

The expedition vessel Wanderbird, named for the vessel on which sailing legends Irving and Exy Johnson first met and fell in love, now sails from Winterport, Maine, on two- and three-week voyages to the Canadian Maritimes. Capt. Rick Miles, a veteran Grand Banks fisherman (“I went to the University of the Grand Banks,” he quipped.) and Maine windjammer captain, and his wife, Karen Miles, a captain-cum-artist who has worked as a designer in Boston and who grew up on the coast of Maine, found the vessel through a broker in the south of France and last year flew to Antibes for an inspection. A few months later, the purchase agreement was complete and Rick enlisted a ragtag crew for the trans-Atlantic journey.

“She was quite an ugly duckling,” Rick said of the boat when he first saw the vessel moored amongst numerous Saudi yachts. “But I could tell (the boat) was built for a beating.” Rick and a crew of five steamed for Gibraltar, where, in April 2002, they loaded 7,000 gallons of fuel and laid out a great circle course for Halifax.

“Things went okay until we ran into a series of gales about 1,000 miles southeast of the Flemish Cap,” Rick said. “The northwesterly gales combined with the ice brought down by the Labrador Current made things a little rough.” Boarding seas found their way through a deck leak and into the vessel’s lube oil tank, contaminating the supply and forcing the crew to turn back for the Azores. “We repaired the leak and then made it across to Mount Desert Rock (Maine) in nine days.”

Since the vessel was foreign built, Rick applied for and received a waiver that allowed him to flag the vessel in the United States. While alongside at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, he and Karen spent the following year gutting the interior of the ship, sandblasting the fish hold, and then priming and insulating the entire interior in anticipation of the joinerwork. Karen designed an interior that, blending simplicity with elegance, would suit the demands of a vessel that could handle rough weather, yet offer a feeling of luxury to 12 passengers and a professional crew. They ordered 1,200 feet of mahogany and called in the shipwrights.

The vessel was fitted with two stout masts, making its ultimate profile resemble an overmuscled ketch. The eight-cylinder, 500-hp Industrie diesel, which was in near-perfect condition, according to Rick, requires frequent attention by an oiler, but it’s slow turning — the vessel can cruise at 10 knots at only 500 rpm — meaning to Rick that it’s built to run forever, with the proper maintenance. “Everything is built in triplicate. People like to say of these engines that they were built by geniuses to be operated by fools,” Rick said. “I’m the kind of guy that people pass on the highway. With modern high-speed diesels, which are meant to cruise at over 3,000 rpm, things happen too quickly for me. When something breaks, it happens fast and dramatically. Not so on these old engines.”

The vessel’s engine and three generators take fuel from a daytank, the supply line of which is well above the bottom of the tank to allow water that enters the tank to settle on the bottom. “The engine room in this vessel reminds me of the cars I remember when I was growing up. You look under the hood, and it’s all there,” he said. The engine has no valve covers, and each valve needs to be hand-oiled every few hours. Each cylinder has a thermostat. “It’s more labor intensive, but it’s very deliberate,” Rick said.

Wanderbird voyaged to Nova Scotia in the summer of 2003, observing whales and pelagic seabird populations throughout the Bay of Fundy. They have plans to visit Labrador and Newfoundland in 2004. They have pledged to reserve one berth per voyage for a scientist whose work in marine biology can be accommodated by the vessel’s schedule.

“We want passengers to feel involved,” Rick said. “We will offer our vessel as a platform for scientific research, but always with the stipulation that passengers can participate.”

After 12 years of operating the schooner Timberwind — a former Portland (Maine) pilot vessel — on the Maine coast, Rick said he was ready for new adventures and that the unspoiled beauty of the Canadian Maritimes suited his and Karen’s interests. “Maine is a beautiful place, but it’s gotten pretty populated in recent years. Sailing the coast of Maine used to be a rite of passage in a way. You had to know your business,” Rick said. “The coastlines of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador are so rugged, so remote. It reminds us of Maine 30 years ago.”

Wanderbird now sails from Winterport, Maine, on the Penobscot River — the summer home for the Mileses as well as their black labs, a spice manikin finch and a blue-and-gold macaw named Junior. See for more information.

By Ocean Navigator