Bowdoin and Ernestina-Morrissey: restorations draw Bowdoin museum attention

Posted:  Saturday, May 11, 2019 - 9:45am
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Two big pieces of sailing history, schooners Ernestina-Morrissey and Bowdoin, sit a couple hundred feet apart at Bristol Marine in Boothbay Harbor keeping some of the East Coast’s finest shipwrights and craftsmen busy.

On May 8, shipyard manager Eric Graves and Bowdoin project manager Ross Branch led a tour and detailed introduction to the work being done on both vessels. In attendance were local businessman Mark Gimbel, owner of the new Windjammer Emporium, sailing enthusiast and model ship builder Jon Dunsford, and several members of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College.

Ernestina came to Boothbay Harbor from New Bedford, Massachusetts via tugboat in 2015 on a $6 million, first phase contract between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, formerly Sample’s Shipyard and now Bristol Marine. The 156-foot vessel, now 125 years old, nears completion of this first phase of hull and longitudinal structure replacement and repair. Graves said the vessel will remain in the Harbor for about another year before returning to owner Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

Bowdoin returned to the Harbor last December to undergo replacement of 18 planks and various work arising from the removal of the original surface. The 88-foot vessel was drafted by Massachusetts yacht designer William Hand Jr., under the direction of the vessel’s longtime captain Donald B. MacMillan, and built in 1921 by Hodgdon Brothers Shipyard, now Hodgdon Yachts.

Bowdoin was famous for two dozen Arctic explorations under MacMillan. Those began shortly after its launch in 1921 and lasted until its commission into the U.S. Navy in 1941 for patrol during World War II. In 1943, the vessel was decommissioned and refitted for Arctic exploration and in 1959, MacMillan sailed the vessel to Connecticut where it fell into disrepair, serving as a display for Mystic Seaport until 1967.

Bowdoin’s ownership changed a couple more times before Maine Maritime Academy got it. It has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks and dubbed Maine’s official sailing vessel.

Graves noted, one of the more time consuming aspects of restoring these older vessels is sourcing material. About 15,000 trees per hectare are groomed with undergrowth kept to a minimum. A certain number of trees can be felled and must be fully matured.

“I don't know how many hundreds of acres are being (groomed), but out of 15,000 per hectare, they wound up with 30 trees matured for this type of project,” Graves said.

While Ernestina’s workers were busy treating the hull, the Bowdoin’s were busy preparing a 20-foot long board to be attached to the hull. Branch explained, to attach it to the hull’s shape, every inch of board thickness needs at least one hour in the steam box.

“This one doesn't have a lot of shape and we want to get it on the boat today, so it's been in there for just an hour and a half.”

Queue the clamps, sledgehammers, pipes, drills and sweat to make the best of a short window of time – 10 minutes for most boards – to attach just one board.

“It’s amazing,” said Dunsford. “Most of humanity never sees this.”

“It looks like they are doing fantastic work,” said Peary-MacMillan Museum’s curator Genevieve LeMoine.

Said museum director Susan Kaplan, “It's amazing to see these two historic Arctic vessels sitting side by side having people show such care in their restoration. It's just really wonderful to see.”

After the tour of the vessels at Bristol Marine, Gimbel led the group down the road to Pier One and the new Windjammer Emporium, almost ready for its Memorial Day opening. The shop honors the history of Boothbay Harbor and its neighbors in creating a lasting culture around shipbuilding.