August 31 2016…
Schooners, Schooners, and more Schooners.
So many, in fact, that old timers claimed one could cross Gloucester Harbor by stepping from vessel to vessel and never get wet.
But that was then.
This is now, a chance to enjoy the ones we still have.
An odd sequence of events finds me in Gloucester for the first time in several years.
It feels good!
Serendipity and blind luck are making it even better because it’s Schooner Festival time.
Let me tell you a couple of tales about events related to previous Schooner Festivals, both involving my old friend, the late, great Steve Waldron.
Steve and I did all manner of boat work, from high budget yachts to the scruffiest working vessels around.
We also spent many hours doing restoration and repairs to Steve’s Schooner, Strombus, a fascinating vessel.
You can google Schooner Strombus and learn some interesting facts about its current state of affairs, but read this first.
This happened sometime in the 1990s, hard to recall exactly.
As The Schooner Festival approached, it appeared that Steve and I, with a lot of assistance from others around the waterfront, had Strombus in shape to enter the Schooner Race, almost.
The top of the mainmast had a relief cut in it where a sheave ran over a pin through the mast.
The pin ran through the wooden mast, with the sheave oriented fore and aft.
The topping lift, which raises the gaff, ran over the sheave.
We knew it was old and little wobbly, if the line ran off the sheave we had no mainsail, because the line would jam between the metal sheave and wood, leaving the sail stuck wherever it was at the time.
Needless to say, we gambled that the rig would suffice for a few more hours.
We set out from Smith’s Cove and headed toward the starting line, outside the breakwater, under power.
Those of you who knew Steve Waldron will chuckle, because as a mechanic, Steve’s ‘Iron Jenny’ was usually apart or being replaced by his latest, too good to be true, discovery.
As soon as we could find an open spot, just inside the Boulevard, we lashed the rudder and let Strombus circle slowly while we set sail, or attempted to do so.
The sheave jammed almost immediately.
So much for Strombus’ first entry into The Schooner Race, DRAT!
Then a miracle happened.
David Brown, operator of Bickford’s Marina on Rocky Neck, appeared in the marina’s launch, with a Bosun’s Chair.
To this day, I have no clue how the pieces of the puzzle led David to show up when he did, with the chair, but he did.
Up the mast, rig repaired for the time being, mainsail set, David motors off, and we approached the start under sail.
The first marker was a huge orange air bag.
Our approach had us heading SE, out to Sea, gathering some momentum and tightening the rig, but the marker had to be passed in a NE direction to get on the course.
Steve was the Captain that day, and I was the helmsman.
Strombus, at 50 feet, was steered by a tiller.
Picture turning a tractor trailer hard left, past 90 degrees, at slow speed, with no power steering, just a long stick tucked under your arm for leverage.
That should give an idea of what it was like to steer Strombus without a lot of headway.
Not quite up to miracle status, but I got the ‘bus headed the right way, and we passed the marker in first place just as the gun fired.
We were so close that I could touch the air bag as we passed, but didn’t because Capt. Waldron feared it might be a penalty.
At that magical moment, we were in it to win it.
I have never seen Steve so happy and exhilarated.
We looked around for the first time and realized that the real contenders had left early, headed toward Salem, and were roaring back with plenty of oomph and a decent breeze.
But we were still the lead boat if only we could catch some wind and get Strombus moving.
The ‘bus was terrible in tight conditions, but underway she could be tuned and tightened to make steady time.
Steve had located an old furling system for the Genoa.
We had never tried it.
Now was as good a time as any.
It worked like we knew what we were doing.
Strombus actually lurched forward and heeled over as the Genoa tightened.
I estimated that the favorites were moving at twice our speed, but their run to Salem had them at least twice as far from the finish as us.
Could it be, would everything stay in place for a real run to the finish?
We roared ahead as fast as Strombus could go for about 100 yards before the wind suddenly stopped completely.
I’m talking instant doldrums.
Capt. Waldron ordered wing to wing, main and mizzen set as far outside the rail as line would allow.
The Genoa was furled, as we tried everything possible to catch a whisper of breeze, rapidly pulling in the sails, first one side then the other, trying to row through the dead air with the sails as oars.
The Schooner Race ended for Strombus at that moment, but we had crossed the start in 1st place, even if only for that magical moment.
It made everything worthwhile to be there when Steve felt the hint of victory.
The disappointment was eased because the same thing happened to all the participants.
Race over, in our minds, WE WON!
Another time, our adventures during Schooner Fest involved, The Schooner Adventure.
She had undergone extensive work to be ready for the Parade of Sail, ‘96, I believe.
Adventure was tied up behind the Coast Guard station at Harbor Loop.
The day was perfect, with throngs of visitors roaming the dock with their kids and dogs.
The Louis B. French entered the harbor under sail with the longest streamer trailing atop the mainmast that I have ever seen, beautiful.
While all this was going on, Steve and I were emptying a ‘black water’ tank deep within Adventure’s hull.
The US Coast Guard stepped in and took over at the last minute.
Before Adventure could leave the dock, or anyone could go aboard, this riveted, cast iron tank, which appeared to be as old as the vessel herself, had to be emptied and purified of numerous toxic gases.
Black water nightmares are as old as boats.
Human waste produces some really nasty stuff when allowed to simmer for decades in a contained space.
Stories of ruptured tanks suddenly choking and killing all aboard ships of yore were rampant that day.
I believe them.
This stuff, oily looking brown sludge, could potentially kill, and almost surely sicken a lot of people, ruining the event for all, if any gases escaped while we pumped out the tank.
Done properly, there would have been several guys in Hazmat suits with sophisticated, sealed pumping systems, and lots of superiors on hand to oversee the proceedings.
Days would have passed while paperwork flowed, with Adventure in a form of Quarantine.
Steve and I got ‘er done on the spot with a cheap electric pump, several lengths of garden hose, a special vise grip with felt cloth in the jaws to prevent permanently crushing the hose when we shut off the flow to check the pump, and a pickup truck parked on Harbor Loop with four blue plastic barrels standing in the truck’s bed.
It was several hundred feet from the tank to the truck.
The hose ran along the ground, through the crowd.
The Coast Guard guys stayed around to show us the issues, point out the dangers, and went off to start the paperwork.
As soon as they left, Steve and I pumped out the tank into the blue barrels and dumped some sort of anti-toxicity agent down the tank’s ancient vent pipe.
All went well, none of the visitors suffered any ill effects, and Adventure got away from the dock in time to participate.
From the exhilaration of a moral victory, to basically shoveling shit against the tide, like I said, we did it all.
Just a couple of everyday days around the Gloucester Waterfront.
Stay tuned...more to come…
Gloucester, August, 2016