THE SKIPPER GOES ASHORE
When the two masted coasters began their decline as cargo vessels in the early 1900s, it left not only the vessels idle, but their captains at a crossroads. These hearty Mainers often came from a long line of seafaring men and women. Just as our founder's idea of carrying passengers gave new purpose for the schooners, it also gave a new direction for some of their captains. Many transitioned to this new cargo idea, allowing them to continue the life they had known and loved - the sailing of traditional schooners and the joys and challenges it entailed. Our captains from the early years, Parker Hall, Manly Grant, Ralph Gott and Monty Haskell were such men - independent, hearty and knowledgeable about every turn of the bay and change of the wind.
Appearing for the first time in the June 1956 issue of DownEast Magazine, the story that follows was written by well known Maine writer, Lew Dietz, on the occasion of Captain Monty Haskell's retirement. We hope it will give insight to the stamina and character of these amazing men. May their strengths be instilled in all windjammer captains that follow.
THE SKIPPER GOES ASHORE BY: LEW DIETZ
A few months ago when a spry old Deer Islander carried his seabag ashore for the last time it was more than just the end of the long and colorful seafaring career for Captain Montaford Haskell: his retirement dropped the curtain on an era.
Eighty-year-old Monty Haskell was the last of the old coasting skippers still carrying on at the helm of those busy little windjammers that once carried the bulk of the trade in and out of the ports and gunkholes of the Maine coast. Actually, this era closed after the First World War with the advent of black-topped truck roads, but Monty Haskell stayed on with the vessels that had been his home for the best part of a lifetime.
He made his first trip on a coaster in 1880 at the age of six, a short run with his sea-going father, Captain Charles Haskell. To a Deer Islander there was – and still is – only one career. For over one hundred years that island in East Penobscot Bay has bred seafaring men, the Haskell clan producing four generations of them. The seafaring career that ended last fall had spanned the heyday and the death of the windjammer coastwise trade. Never a “stinkpot” man, there was no place for Captain Haskell when power took over the sea lanes. When the coastwise trade languished and the luggers were tied up to rot at the wharves, it was Frank Swift with his idea for summer windjammer cruises that gave these old vessels a reprieve. When the coasting schooners stood out to sea once more, twenty years ago, Captain Monty was with them.
His last fourteen years have been spent shepherding vacationers in the windjammer cruises schooners Mattie and Mercantile. Some listened in the rare moments when the old skipper spoke of the past. Those who listened could glimpse some measure of the man and some small inkling of how it was in those robust days when schooners served the coast from Boston to the Maritimes and south to the Indies.
“You speak of hurricanes,” the old skipper would say, braced against the wheel box, eyes aloft, “I been through ten of them, more or less. There was one real howler, I recall. I was with George H. Ames. We’d unloaded 630 tons of coal at Bermuda and were heading in light for Jacksonville to take on a load of lumber. The gale hit us off St. Augustine, Florida. I ran her west a spell and head into it, but she wouldn’t right at all the wind. So we went about with the blow under forestays’il. We made 830 miles in three days, the rail ten feet under. Ended up off Charleston. If that wind had lasted a few more hours we’d a ended up ten miles into the woods.”
The skipper smiled when he recalled his last hurricane, the lady known as Carol. He had taken the Mercantile into Buck’s Harbor and dropped both anchors close to the lee shore of that tight little cove. The big wind hit. He sent all passengers below and stood by on deck to watch how his anchors would hold. They didn’t. The anchors started crawling. At the height of the storm a passenger’s head appeared in the companionway. It seemed to this uneasy passenger that the Mercantile was moving. “Aren’t we dragging anchor, Captain?” he wanted to know. Captain Monty shook his head and said calmly: “Not a mite of danger, Mister. She’s not draggin’, just stretchin’ her chain.: It was a close call, however. The schooner found holding ground a hundred feet from the weather shore and rode out the storm.
Seafaring men are wont to remember with special affection one vessel that had just a little more than all the others. For Captain Haskell it was the schooner George H. Ames, his first command. He was aboard this Maine-built vessel for ten years. Owned in Deer Isle and largely by the Haskell family, she made her last big money during the First World War when she carried coal from New York to Rockland for as much as eight dollars a ton freight. The bad days were upon her soon after that when cargo brought as little as sixty cents a ton on the same run.
The Ames was sold to a Greek syndicate and Captain Haskell took her to New York to turn her over to her new owners. The goodbye he said to his vessel was more final than he realized at the time. She ran into a gale off Bermuda a few days later and went down with all hands.
The hard, dry hands of the old captain were on the wheel. The knuckles of his fingers were calloused and white, the thumb of the right hand was awry. He spread his hand open, saying, “there was a nice lady aboard a few trips back. ‘Captain’, she told me, ‘you got arth-e-ritus bad.’ Madam, I said to her, that’s no arth-e-ritus I got. I guess you might call it fistitus, and I got it sixty years back.”
Sixty years is a long stretch backwards, but for a man living in the past it can be fresher in memory sometimes than the day before yesterday. If a man was not born tough, he had to learn how if he hankered to make a career on coasting schooners. “You just never knew from trip to trip what kind of cussed lubbers you’d have up forward. The pay was low and the food nothin’ extry. They’d come and go and there was trouble both ways.”
Monty Haskell as a stripling never went looking for trouble but he prepared himself for what was bound to come his way. He often had free time in Boston while his vessel was waiting to unload or was held up by contrary winds. Instead, of frequenting the beer halls that lined the waterfront, young Monty found his way to Professor George Godfrey’s Gym on Hanover Street. By his own count he wore out at least six of the professor’s punching bags learning the fine points of what was then called The Manly Art of Self-Defense. John L. Sullivan, the Boston Strong Boy, comes into his memories of those days.
“There was a fella for ye! Many the day I see John L. and the Professor goin’ it toe to toe at Godfrey’s.
“This thumb now. That’s another story. I kept myself in pretty fair shape in those days. I figured I wouldn’t al’ays be the biggest so I had to make up for it with a little fancy trimmin’s. I was goin’ mate at the time. There was a bluenose aboard, a big, loud-mouthed fella from St. Stephens. He licked every man forward but that wasn’t enough for him. This day he comes swaggerin’ aft in nail-shod boots right across a fresh varnished deck. I was there awaitin’. “Git forward and git yourself a hammer, and take every blasted nail out of them boots.’ And he says to me, ‘Matey, I won’t take no nails out of no boots for any s..o..b.’ Well, he did take them nails out. It was two months before I could get my hands in my pockets they were that swole up.”
Before the turn of the century, coastwide trade covered a variety of activities and schooners were built for the specific needs of each enterprise. In span of years between 1820 and 1880 an insatiable demand arose for small schooners in the lumber trade out of Calais, Machias, Ellsworth, and Bangor. In Ellsworth’s peak year of 1853 thirty-five million feet of sawed lumber were carried down the Union River, and 159 vessels, largely small coasting schooners, were owned in the town. In Down East river ports, where tides had a variance of twenty-five feet or more, small centerboard schooners could be beached at low water without damage. Long lumber was loaded through ports cut in the bow. A vessel with this unsinkable cargo was often so laden that on an even keel the deck was awash amidships.
These little schooners had another important day in the lime trade, and a dangerous business it was. The slightest leak could mean catastrophe, for lime slaked by water meant a fire that could be brought under control only by sealing the holds airtight. The ice trade became one of Maine’s notable industries after the Civil War. Here again the little centerboard schooners filled the bill, for they could be grounded out on cribbing, and ice chuted into their holds from icehouses on the shore.
The great granite trade came in the dying days of the coasting schooner. George Wasson remarks in his Sailing Days on the Penobscot that it was commonly assumed that when a vessel got too old for even lumber coating out of Bangor or carrying wood for Rockland lime kilns, she was considered none too ripe for the stone business.
In 1910 Captain Haskell was involved in one of the last memorable stone shipping enterprises in the State. Going mate under his father in the Belfast-built Susan N. Pickering, he made twenty-one trips out of Stonington to Brooklyn in one summer carrying paving blocks for the city’s streets. Twelve thousand tons of granite were unloaded under what was then the new wonder of the world, the Brooklyn Bridge.
The momentous days were over for the coasters after the turn of the century but for several decades more the coasting schooners were common sights along the Maine coast. They plied the coastal waters carrying the bulk of trade into the coves of Maine. They stocked the tidewater general store, they carried the coal and food into the fishing villages that would be cut off in winter from the rest of the world by ice and snow.
Captain Monty likes to recall the last load of coal he brought into the coastal town of Camden. It took seamanship to bring a vessel into a narrow harbor under full sail and that was the way Monty liked to do it. The deck hands stood by at the sheets and halyards waiting for orders to take off canvas. Not until the skipper was fifty yards from the coal wharf did he give the order – and then only to drop the tops’il halyard. The schooner still had a bone in her teeth as she came alongside the wharf. A small boy was standing idly by on the dock. “Take a line lad!” the skipper bellowed, “and if you make it fast you’ve earned ten dollars.” The boy caught the flying line. He laid a pair of hitches over the bitt. Sparks flew from the bitt as the line snubbed up and held. Only then did the skipper give the order to drop the fore and mains’il. “In five minutes we were bagging out coal:, the captain said. “That’s the way we had to do things in those days to make a dollar.”
For two hundred years the coastwise trade was the main breeding ground for sailors for the American Merchant Marine. Captain Monty will tell you that you had to be a sailor to sell the Maine coast before the age of power. “Ye had to know a thing or two to be a shoal-water sailor, I can tell ye! There was no part of this bay that wasn’t foul ground in a snow storm or fog mull. Many’s the time I’ve come through this Reach a’goin’ by ear. You make your course and let her come with one ear for the bell buoys and the other for the sound of seas on reefs. In a dungeon o’ fog it’s mighty thick pokin’.”
And he recalls some pretty fair going, too. In the old days, two-masted schooners would carry as many as eight sails, mains’il, fores’il, fisherman’s stays’il, jumbo, jib, flying jib, and fore and main tops’ils. They never were built for speed and were no great shakes to windward; but with fair breeze astern they could boil along at twelve to fifteen knots.
The old skipper was always a man to let his vessel go once he was cleared away. He loved to see the rail under and all sails drawing. It is little wonder that his freshest memory concerns his part in the America’s Cup race when the Columbia beat the first Shamrock. The crew were Deer Islanders under Skipper Barr, and Monty Haskell was one of fifteen bowsprit men. The crew trained all summer long under the exacting supervision of the skipper and designer. A stop watch was used on the handling of every one of the forty-five sails the Columbia carried. “And they weighed everything aboard,” Captain Monty recalls, “even the mate’s pipe.”
The Columbia won by eight minutes on that thirty-mile course off Sandy Hook. She would have won by considerably more, according to Monty, if the skipper had not mistaken a passing freighter for the lightship that marked the finish line and stood in too soon.
With the passing of the years Captain Monty has never lost his zest for racing. Though his last fourteen years have been spent at the helm of cruise boats, he seldom missed a chance at an informal brush with one or another of the windjammer fleet. One summer afternoon s few days before his retirement the schooner Mattie worked up astern of him. He never said that a race was on, but his eyes brightened and his jaw stiffened. He barked orders to trim ship and muttered away at any clumsiness at the sheets. No, he wouldn’t say he was racing exactly. “Just can’t abide any vessel chawin’ away at my weather quarter,” was the way he put it.
So there is vinegar still in the old man as he goes ashore to his home and blueberry lands on Deer Isle. And there is comfort in the knowledge that he won’t be far from the sea. “I’ve cut aw’y on my hill,” he says, “so I can see right out to Bar Harbor across the bay.”
On his last voyage on the schooner Mercantile last summer the cruise passengers, aware that this was Captain Monty’s valedictory to the sea, gave him a surprise party on board as the vessel approached the home port of Camden. There was champagne for the occasion. The skipper on this last day broke a life-long rule and took a sip from his cup as the toast to his health was offered. Then he doffed his sea cap and said softly: “Thank ye all, thank ye.”
That afternoon the mate offered to take the helm those last few miles. Monty Haskell shook his head. “Not that I don’t trust ye. I’m just thinking I’d like to hang onto her for a spell. There’s not much time left.”
He took her in on a fair breeze and all her canvas was drawing.
The Captain Goes Ashore printed by permission of DownEast Magazine