Ship Building
Though shipbuilding has been an important part of Maine's economy, wooden boatbuilding has had a longer history, one closely related to shipbuilding. From colonial times, fishermen built their own boats, which included pulling boats (wherries, double-enders now known as peapods, and dories), larger ketch-rigged boats (Hampton boats and small pinkies), sloop boats (Muscongus Bay boats and Friendship sloops), and small schooners.The first vessel built in Maine by Europeans was the pinnace Virginia, built in 1607-8 at the Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River. Though the colony did not last more than a year, the Virginia did, and it later served to bring supplies to Jamestown, also settled in 1607. Virginia was about fifty feet long, with two masts: one with square sails and the other with a triangular fore-and-aft sail. Launched in 1608, it helped bring the settlers back to England after the colony's leader died. Note the sideways picture of the vessel on the left side of the map of Popham Colony.With a slow growing European population, there was little shipbuilding in Maine in the colonial era. In 1640-41, a bark was built at Richmond Island, south of Portland.
Some of the few colonial vessels built were mast ships, designed to carry Maine's mast-sized white pines to England for the Royal Navy. More common were smaller sloops and schooners used for fishing and for shipping goods to Boston or the West Indies. Ship construction around Penobscot Bay didn't really start until after 1759, when the French retreated from Castine, and the British encouraged settlement east of the Penobscot River.

Sloops and Schooners

During the early years of settlement around Penobscot Bay, most vessels built were small sloops and schooners. With little money or market for larger vessels, Bay residents needed these smaller ones for fishing and coastal transportation. Designed for coastal trips, they could sail closer to the wind than square-rigged vessels and were smaller, handier, and required fewer crewmen. More schooners were built around Penobscot Bay than any other type of vessel.

Sail on two Vintage Schooners

Running partners Scott Reischmann and Twain Braden went to the Maine Boat Show in March 2002 looking for plans to build a dory for recreation in Casco Bay. At the show, Scott picked up a copy of Wooden Boat magazine, saw a 49-passenger classic wooden schooner named Bagheera for sale in San Francisco, and an idea was born.

Two short trips across the country (Bagheera’s mast and hull made the cross-country trek from San Francisco to Maryland on two separate trips), and a sail up the coast from Maryland to Maine a few weeks later, and the Portland Schooner Company was open for business. Bagheera made her inaugural voyage on Memorial Day Weekend, 2002. Braden has since moved on to law school to pursue a law career, and Scott’s wife Michelle left her job at MIT to run the business full-time with Scott in 2004.

The 88-foot schooner Wendameen, like Bagheera, was designed by the famed yacht designer John Alden. She was built in EastBoothbay, Maine, and launched in 1912 when she took center stage in the golden era of fast, sleek ocean schooners. Inactive since the 1930s, she was thoroughly restored in the late 1980s and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wendameenis Coast Guard certified for 14 overnight passengers plus crew or 49 day sail passengers.
Click here for information and details on our Overnight Windjammer Sailing Adventures from Portland aboard the schooner Wendameen.
Bagheera is also vintage Alden, featuring long overhangs, a sweet and graceful sheer line and a long bowsprit. For construction, Alden turned to the rich shipbuilding heritage of Maine and found able craftsmen at Rice Bros. Shipyard in East Boothbay. In the 1920s, Bagheera sailed in the Bermuda Race at least once before being delivered to the Great Lakes, where she won the annual Chicago-Mackinac Race for several years running.
In her more than 80 years of cruising the world's oceans, Bagheera has crossed the Atlantic, cruised areas of the Pacific, including the Galapagos, and spent many years in the Caribbean Sea. In the 1980s, Bagheera was fitted out in San Diego for the passenger trade. She was transported back home to Maine in the spring of 2002 to serve Portland Schooner Company.
Portland Schooner Company
Maine State Pier, 56 Commercial Street
Portland Maine 04112-0210


Brigs and Brigantines

Small square-rigged brigs and brigantines were first built on the Penobscot soon after the American Revolution, as new markets opened for the new nation. They typically had a fuller hull than a schooner, and carried more cargo. Square rigs were better for deepwater, transoceanic passages. Shipbuilding then slowed after the imposition of Jefferson's Embargo in 1807.
Barks and Ships
After the War of 1812, more people settled in the Penobscot Bay area. They fished, lumbered, quarried rock, and built and sailed ships to link the growing communities around the Bay and trade to the south. Ship owners prospered from carrying lumber to the West Indies and the cities of the East Coast, and wanted larger vessels for that trade. At the same time, with shipbuilding becoming more costly in southern New England, Maine-built vessels became competitive for carrying southern cotton to northern cities and to England. For these new markets, shipbuilders built barks and ships, much bigger sailing vessels that, by the 1850s, carried cargoes to ports around the world. Slightly smaller barkentines were popular in the Atlantic deep water trades.
Clipper Ships
The famous clipper ships were a short-lived phenomenon that had little impact on Maine shipbuilding. Clippers were designed for carrying small, high value, perishable cargo products like tea from the Orient, and for transporting people and goods to booming gold fields. The economics of the clippers, too large a crew for too small a cargo, killed them after less than 20 years.
Because of their high building cost, most American clippers were built in Boston and New York, where there was plenty of investment capital and many experienced shipbuilders. A few clippers were built in Maine, including the famous Red Jacket, built in Rockland in 1853. Red Jacket was 251 feet long and registered 2,305 tons. It was known as a fast-sailing ship and could sail 17 to 18 knots in a good breeze.
Wooden shipbuilding in Maine in the nineteenth century required little capital expense for a physical plant. It needed only space to build and store materials, the right slope to the shore for the inclined ways to launch the ship, and enough deep water at high tide to float the vessel. After the introduction of steam power many shipyards had a building for sawing in addition to one for lofting the vessel's lines, but these were not absolutely necessary for small yards. Some shipyards had a steam shed for steaming planks to make them bend more easily, and some yards had an on-site blacksmith.
The 1880 census of manufactures showed that the average wood shipyard had $6,200 of capital investment.
On the other hand, steel shipyards in 1880 had an average of almost $470,000 expended to build all of the facilities necessary to work with steel. It wasn't until the mid-1880s that Bath Iron Works was founded. On Penobscot Bay, investors chose not to build in iron. Thus, the wood shipyards kept on doing what they knew how to do best, for as long as possible.
Woods for Shipbuilding
Ship builders chose woods based on availability and characteristics, matching species to the needs of the vessel. Keel, beams, and frames, or ribs, of the ship are best made with white oak. White oak is hard, strong, relatively inflexible, and rot resistant. More common red oak isn't as good for shipbuilding because it is not as rot resistant as white oak. The preferred wood for planking was longleaf yellow pine, shipped north from Georgia or South Carolina. Yellow pine is harder than Maine's white pine, and it has long fibers that bend with the shape of the hull, while keeping its strength. Locust treenails, or trunnels, fastened planks to the frames and the frame pieces to each other.
Locust is a hard wood that withstands pounding with a mallet, yet it can be cut into round pegs easily. Wooden ships have knees: pieces that follow a 90° angle naturally. Most knees are made of hackmatack, also called tamarack or larch. The largest are cut from the trunk and root of the tree. White pine, originally used for masts, is also good for decking and for interior woodwork, or joinery. Nineteenth century mast and spar woods include Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, both from the west coast. These woods have the advantage of being bendable without breaking, an important characteristic of masts and other spars. 
Shipbuilding Work and Tools
Shipbuilders operated much like general contractors. The master carpenter subcontracted work to different trades or skill groups, including [ship's carpenters], sawyers, dubbers, fasteners, caulkers, ship smiths, ship joiners, riggers, and painters. A blacksmith was sometimes part of the shipyard operation or the builder might contract work out to an independent blacksmith.
Shipbuilders used a variety of hand tools for sawing, cutting, drilling, and planing wood. These tools included saws, axes, adzes, drawknives, augers, and planes. Fastening the ship required mauls and other hammers to drive fastenings. Caulking, which filled the seams between planks, required caulking irons and a mallet. Not until late in the nineteenth century did powered saws and other tools become common in larger shipyards.
Workers typically earned $1.50 to $2.50 per ten-hour day. Shipbuilding was seasonal, especially in smaller communities: most work went on between fall and spring. By the end of the nineteenth century, reduced demand for ships and consolidation of wooden shipyards meant that shipbuilders might find work only 8 or 9 months of the year.
Building any ship begins with design. In nineteenth century Maine, once the owner and builder decided on the basic size and shape of the hull, the designer or master carpenter carved a half hull model, made from a number of boards or lifts pinned together. Once finished and accepted, the designer removed the pins and separated the model's lifts. He then measured these and drew the shape of the hull full-size on the loft floor.

Keel and Frames

The keel is the ship's backbone and provides the most important longitudinal strength for the ship. The keel was built up from 12" x 12" lumber, or larger, and the long pieces were scarfed and bolted to provide a solid backbone. The stem piece, which defines the bow of the ship, and the sternpost, on which the rudder is hung, were scarfed and bolted to the keel.
The ship's ribs, or frames, were made up of straight and curved timbers. Frames were made of a number of pieces called futtocks. Bottom futtocks are called floors. The shipbuilder made patterns from the design on the loft floor, which he used to choose the best-shaped timbers. [Ship's carpenters] cut the wood to shape, and dubbers refined the shape using adzes to chip off unneeded material. The futtocks were scarfed, bolted, and fastened with treenails, or trunnels.
Shipbuilders hoisted the finished frames into place one by one, atop the keel, forming the basic skeleton of the ship. To strengthen the skeleton, a second keel, called a keelson, was built over the keel, on top of the floor timbers of the frames.

Planking and Caulking

As additional structure was added to the ship, it became ready for planking. Long planks were bent length wise around the hull Not only did they have to be cut correctly to fit the hull, they had to have their edges prepared for caulking. When all of the deck beams were in place, ship's carpenters laid the deck planking. Another type of planking is called the ceiling: an inner skin planked inside of the frames. Despite its name, the ceiling acts as a floor to the cargo hold, and it provides additional longitudinal strength for the hull. Caulking makes the hull watertight. Oakum, a coarse, tar-impregnated yarn of manila or hemp strands from old ropes, is driven into seams between planking or decking. The caulker drove a few strands into the seam with a caulking iron and caulking mallet. The mallet made a knocking sound that told the caulker how far the oakum was in the seam. After the seam was fully caulked, it was payed, or covered with tar, completely sealing the seam. 


While the hull was being built, spar makers fabricated masts, yards, bowsprit, and other spars. After the Civil War, most spar timber came from the West Coast, which had a large supply of Sitka spruce and Douglas fir. After squaring and tapering the timber, spar makers shaped the spar into an eight-sided timber and finished it round. Shipbuilders used shear legs to lift and place the masts onto the ship.
Riggers set up the ship's standing rigging-the lines that hold up the masts. To protect it from rot, rigging was given a waterproof cover, a process called worming, parceling and serving. Running rigging, the lines that move through blocks, were cut to length and whipped, or were given eye splices if needed. Then the rigger set up all of the spars, preparing them to receive sails, attaching iron work and blocks, and running all of the rest of the lines.


A ship was constructed on large wooden blocks and posts called shores. Before launching, ship carpenters built a cradle under the ship's hull and greased the ways: the rails that carried it into the water. Dozens of wedges made up the cradle and were driven just before launching to transfer the weight of the ship from the blocks to the cradle. When the ship's sponsor broke a champagne bottle on the stem, a pin was pulled that allowed the ship to slide down the ways, stern first, into the water. A festive launching could attract hundreds of friends, neighbors, and curious spectators.
After the Civil War, American shipping went into decline in the face of competition from the British, who led the world in construction of iron steamships and composite iron and wood sailing ships. American economic and political interests shifted from international trade to southern reconstruction, westward expansion, and railroad building.
With skilled labor, plenty of nearby lumber, and low costs, Maine continued building square-rigged ships. These competed internationally, carrying low freight-rate cargoes, such as grain, coal, guano, iron rails, and kerosene oil, called case oil. After the Civil War, California grain exports increased from 43,000 tons in 1865 to 488,000 tons in 1884. American ships carried much of that grain.
Economics determined the design of these deep-sea sailing ships, which came to be called Down Easters. They were deeper and fuller in shape than the most extreme clipper ships, but they still had clean lines for fast sailing. They were a little bigger than the clippers in volume (register tonnage), but not in overall length, and carried one and a half times as much cargo. Their three masts carried large sails, but they were easier to handle because the largest sails of the clippers had been split into two smaller sails. The rig was not as extreme as the clipper rig. These changes meant that Down Easters typically required a crew of thirty or forty, half that of a clipper ship. By some counts, Maine built about 350 Down Easters between 1862 and 1902, half built in and around Bath. Penobscot Bay towns built about 55, most during the 1870s. Yet it was the 1880s when Searsport ship captains served as masters on 10% of all U.S. flag square-rigged sailing ships. Local ownership and captaincy of these ships was important to Maine's supremacy in the Down Easter era. Though the ships never came back to Maine after their launchings, they became an integral part of Maine's maritime communities. Maine families went to sea and came home, bringing souvenirs and experiences from around the world.
These ships typically sailed out of large ports like New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, and their crews were from all over the world. If a captain came from Maine, one or two mates might also, but the rest of the crew could be from Europe, the West Indies, China, or other U.S. states.
Down Easters often sailed to California to carry grain to the East Coast or to Liverpool or Hamburg. From England or some East Coast ports, they might carry coal to ports around the world. Ships loading in Philadelphia and New York carried case oil, or illuminating oil, to San Francisco, China, and Japan. Some carried hemp, jute, hides, iron rails, sugar, wool, and even guano. Ships going to San Francisco went around Cape Horn. If they were going to the Far East, the preferred route was around the Cape of Good Hope, taking advantage as much as possible of the prevailing westerlies and trade easterlies to make fast passages.
Despite continual competition from British iron sailing and steam ships, Down Easters were not superseded by steam until the early 1900s. Improved engine efficiency cut coal consumption, and opening the Panama Canal shortened steam routes. Few Down Easters were built in the Penobscot Bay area after 1885 and none were built in Maine after 1902. Many Down Easters ended their lives as barges, or wrecked or otherwise lost at sea. The last one, Benjamin F. Packard, served as an attraction at an amusement park near New York City. Her cabin is preserved at Mystic Seaport Museum.
Down Easters had to compete against foreign shipping, but domestic shipping was a legally protected trade. Beginning in the 1870s, coal shipped from the Delaware River and the Hampton Roads area of the Chesapeake Bay encouraged the building of larger and larger schooners. Three-masted schooners had long been the primary means of transporting coal to Boston and Maine, but, by the 1880s, the four-masted schooner had become more popular. The late 1890s saw five-masted schooners, and the first six-masted schooner, George W. Wells, was built in Camden, Maine in 1900.
By 1910, 45 five-masted schooners and 10 six-masted schooners, each the length of a football field, had been built, mostly by Maine shipyards. Bath was their primary builder, but many were built in Rockland, Camden, Belfast, and other Penobscot Bay towns. These Maine-built schooners, owned both locally and by out of state coal shippers, were more efficient in the domestic coal trade than square-rigged Down Easters would have been. They required a much smaller crew, could be built at lower cost, and sailed better in the prevailing winds along shore. While most schooners shipped coal along the eastern seaboard, some carried cargoes to Europe.
Like the Down Easters, coal schooners eventually succumbed to competition from steam colliers, though not without a fight. Some continued to work, as the economy permitted, into the 1920s. In the end, they couldn't compete with steamers, barges, and the railroads.
Well before 1900, Bath had become Maine's shipbuilding center, successfully converting from wooden ship building to metal. Metal working skills grew out of the steam boiler building business and large scale machine shops which hardly existed anywhere else in Maine. Other Maine-built steamers bought engines and boilers from Bath or out of state.
Bath Iron Works prospered, not by building commercial vessels, but by building ships for the U.S. Navy, a tradition that continues. Trying to extend the sailing ship era, Bath's Sewall shipyard built a few steel sailing ships and barks. The first, in 1894, was the Scottish-designed four-masted bark, Dirigo, named for the Maine State motto. The Sewalls then built other steel sailing ships, particularly for the case oil trade to the Far East. Yet like the Down Easters and the great schooners, they fell out of use in favor of the larger, more reliable steel steamers, most of which were built in Great Britain.
The U.S. Government contracted for construction of a number of large schooners to carry cargo during the First World War. Most were not completed until 1920, after the war was over. A post-war glut of shipping ended most wooden shipbuilding in Maine and elsewhere; however, some shipbuilders continued building wooden vessels. Shipyards that had built large sailing ships and schooners switched to fishing boats, lobster boats, and [sardine] carriers, most engine-powered. Some commercial schooner construction persisted until about 1940. During the Second World War, there was a fresh flurry of wooden shipbuilding and boatbuilding in the historic shipyards in Camden, Rockland, Thomaston, and East Boothbay. Mine sweepers and a wide range of support vessels, up to 200 feet long, kept wooden shipbuilding skills alive for another generation.
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