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It’s hard to imagine that a wooden boat built in the early 1920’s that was designed to bash its way through arctic waters is still sailing open waters and hasn’t disintegrated or been locked up in a museum. But, the Maine Maritime Academy is working hard at making sure the arctic schooner Bowdoin remains exactly where she was meant to be: in the water.
And thanks to the work of two MMA professors, Betsy Reese and Peg Brandon, and the Castine Historical Society, the untold stories of this historic vessel are being presented to the public through homecoming weekend.
The Bowdoin was commissioned by Donald B. MacMillan, an arctic explorer, after the ill-fated Crocker Land Expedition in which he and his crew were stranded for four years in the frozen and deadly waters of Melville Bay off the coast of Greenland. It took three rescue attempts before a vessel was able to successfully reach the explorers. During those four years he waited to be rescued, MacMillan envisioned his ideal arctic exploring vessel, a vision which would later become the Bowdoin.
After his rescue, MacMillan served in the Navy during World War I and began saving his money for the construction on his ship. After the War he hired New Bedford, Massachusetts native William H. Hand to design his ship based on the specifications he came up with. He then hired the Hodgdon brothers out of East Boothbay, Maine to construct the eighty-eight foot long vessel.
The Bowdoin was launched in 1921.
During his forty-six year career, MacMillan made more than twenty-six voyages notching more than 300,000 miles with the Bowdoin. But it wasn’t just MacMillan’s pioneering adventures that make up the long history of the Bowdoin. In 1941 MacMillan sold the ship to the U.S. Navy for the mission of helping establish airfields in Greenland and to conduct surveys of northern waters.
“As soon as the Germans invaded Denmark it was very apparent to the U.S. that Greenland was strategically important to the allied effort,” said Brandon. “It was important for three reasons, the cryolite mine… that is important for aluminum productions and therefore making airplanes. It was important for airbases, so that we could fly to Europe and so [the Germans] couldn’t fly here. And it was important for weather and radio stations because if you know what’s going on in Greenland you know what’s going on in Europe.”
These missions off the coast of Greenland became known as the Greenland Patrol and played an important role in establishing airfields and weather stations that had a direct influence on the war effort beginning with the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. However, there is still a large amount of the ship’s history missing from this period and Reese and Brandon have made it their mission to uncover more. With the help of a grant from the William Wood Foundation, the two colleagues have been able to hire students to assist in the research of journals and maps to help uncover the past.
“Every lead we’ve followed turned in to another great story,” said Brandon.
The search for the Bowdoin’s missing history began when the family of David Nutt, the executive officer on the Bowdoin during World War II, gave MMA a portfolio of charts that had been on the Bowdoin during the war. Brandon and Reese searched through the maps trying to learn as much as they could from them while trying to find a place to keep them. Eventually their interest in the maps spread to the student population and the Castine Historical Society because of the strong ties the Bowdoin has to the town of Castine.
“It’s been a great partnership between the Castine Historical Society and Maine Maritime Academy,” Brandon added. “And I think the Castine Historical Society people and the public have really enjoyed working with the students.”
“Every time I go somewhere I get stopped by someone who says they are just thrilled with the students,” said Reese. “It’s been a pleasure to come in to town because people stop me and say ‘oh my gosh these students are so nice.’”
After the war, in 1945, MacMillan bought his boat back from the Navy for the price of $3,000. For nine more years MacMillan piloted the schooner to the harsh northern seas around Greenland.
After MacMillan’s retirement the boat belonged to the Schooner Bowdoin Association until 1988 when the Maine Maritime Academy purchased the vessel for the purpose of training students. In 1990 the Bowdoin returned to the artic for the first time since the 1950’s and has been a total of three times since the academy acquired the ship.
Today the Bowdoin is operated as a training vessel for MMA students and provides cruises for the public.
For more information on the Bowdoin, visit the Castine Historical Society at 17 School Street or visit their website at www.castinehistoricalsociety.org.