Maine Sail Freight 1980 and 2015

by editor

j.goodman trem aug. 2015

Trem, a 19th-century lateener built in 2008, heading towards Greens Island with a cargo of  frozen blueberries. Photo by Jason Goodman, August 2015.

The Greenhorns led by Severine von Tscharner Fleming has initiated two sail freight projects in efforts to support and promote the new generation of young farmers. In 2013, a sailing barge made its way from Lake Champlain to New York City by way of the Hudson River and in the summer of 2015, combining forces with The Scholarshipwrights, a variety of traditional vessels delivered local Maine goods by way of sail: Cabbages grown in Whitefield were ceremoniously passed one by one over the gunnels of a Norwegian songebat through many hands to the Hallowell Farmer’s Market; frozen blueberries raked in Warren at the Ewing Fruit Company were packed in sawdust and delivered to North Haven and Hurricane Island by way of the lateener, Trem. A grand finale expedition aboard the schooner Adventure brought a cargo of Maine farm products worth $70,000 to the farmer’s markets in Boston.

Lance Lee conducted several sail freight projects in a similar vein as the Greenhorns in 1979, sailing along the Maine coast and to Nova Scotia in a traditional vessel from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia built at the Apprenticeshop. He retells the story of that voyage and the inspiration for it in the following essay, “The Tale of the Tancook.”

Photos below by Arista Holden, Dale Young, and Brenna Chase of the 2015 Maine Sail Freight Project in action: At the Hallowell Farmer’s Market along the Kennebec River and in Penobscot Bay on the North Haven docks.

Listen to the sounds of the ‘cabbage offloading work song’ in Hallowell led by musicians and farmers of Duckback Farm, Edith Gawler and Bennet Konesni, recorded by Sarah Kantrowitz:

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The Tale of the Tancook

by Lance Lee


The cast iron stoves were loaded in Nova Scotia into the schooner Vernon Langille, run to the Maine coast under sail and sold in Bath. She’s an open boat, and the first one in half a century known to have crossed the Bay of Fundy. It was 1979 and the reasons were two:

The vessel, a Tancook whaler, widely considered the loveliest of the inshore fishing craft of North America was built by and for apprenticing—reviving the  centuries old practices of learning and passing on the skills of the sea. The senior apprentice of those who built the Langille became the first mate, understudy to seasoned captains. Second and the more important reason was to encourage in actions rather than words the harnessing of the wind again to deliver bottom line freight, saving by not using fossil fuel, providing seamanship training, and avoiding pollution. Words were in no way distained. Media coverage was sought and accorded. We quote from two sources that told our Tancook story in 1980 and ‘81—the Nantucket Mirror and the National Fisherman.

vernon l sepia

The National Fisherman, foremost coverage of the maritime world of those years, ran two cover articles in 1980. After the Nova Scotia passage the project designed, announced and set in motion an International Conference to further advance sail freight. Both modern and traditional designs were represented. Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and three American firms entered designs and presentations. Slated were the Fletner roter, a fully rigged ship (see photo of the Herzogen Cecily below), a Downeast Maine schooner and an adapted 300-foot motor sailor designed by the acclaimed Frank McLear. Key to primary experience, organization and innovation was the Wind Ship Development Corporation of Norwell, Massachusetts.

David Getchell, editor introduced the Fisherman articles:

This is the second of two articles proposing ways the nation might move toward restoring sail freight as a viable industry in a world where petroleum-based energy is becoming increasingly expensive. The author is director of the Apprenticeshop… and in our April 1980 issue he described how his organization established a pilot project of sail training and sail freight that he believes could be adopted by many other groups. The key to the pilot project has been the building, launching and use as a freighting vessel of the Tancook whaler, the Vernon Langille.


 Is there Working Sail in our Future? opens:

It is critical to the success of the Vernon Langille as a symbolic gesture ––that is, of encouraging the development of sail freight and sail training –– that the actual form of the little Tancook whaler not be misunderstood. Just as she is a modern adaptation through the extensive use of white oak, silicon bronze and polysulfide epoxy…we hope to see the age-old principle of adaptation come to bear more broadly in the field of design and planning for wind-powered transportation. 

Below excerpts from that article:

Some guidelines: First, both public and private funds should come to bear. This suggests the early partnership of the Maritime Administration of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce. Second, modified rather than old- fashioned rigs may be the right track. Third, steel hull construction, or at least composite, appears necessary for almost self-evident reasons. Availability and cost of the timber to frame out a sizable vessel today make doing so in oak or long leaf yellow pine or central American hardwoods almost prohibitive. The same holds true for labor costs, always with a reservation here as there is much to admire in any effort which sustains older techniques which may well prove valuable to maritime affairs years hence. The last point strongly suggests that cost and experience alone ought not to be the only variables considered but also efforts to sustain technical continuity. 

Finally, sail freight is hardly a simple affair. In the old days it was rarely set in motion by individuals unaware of the complex make-up of the many forces which they were up against. Modern venturers in this field, whether on a theoretical or practical plane, should design their projects with more than the criteria of hull and rig, economics, viable route and time of year and nature of paying cargo (perishables, volume vs. weight, etc.) in mind. Each of the above is obviously a critical factor which must be taken into consideration. The studies conducted at the university of Michigan and Princeton; in Hamburg by Prolss and the Dynaships; on the East Coast by Bergeson and MacLear; and on the West Coast by Hugh Lawrence (Dyanship again) are pursuing these elements. 

But there is another consideration we would add besides those of a technical nature –– the variable of seamanship. …It often appears that the crucial response in active seamanship, or demanding circumstances, depends not so much on having a book solution as to doing the right thing when you don’t know what to do.

It Is Time to Take a Giant Step Backwards, Rep. George Brown of California introduced a resolution in October of 1975 to reexamine the commercial viability of sailing ships. Included in the July 1976 National Fisherman article entitled Small Vessels Can Offer Square-Rig Training, Brown said in part:

I say this only semi-facetiously because, in truth, we do need to get this country moving backward towards values and technologies which have unwisely been abandoned. Only by changing our current lifestyles, which have evolved to a level of organization that requires more energy than can be reasonably provided, can we expect to maintain a stable, balanced society. 

A variety of wind-powered sailing vessels have…a proven technological feasibility, a significant saving in energy consumption, and perhaps most significantly, they share the scorn and prejudice of their modern counterparts against the slower speed and more humble appearance…

Brown uttered those words just forty years ago. Voices today make nearly identical cries and with factual data unavailable to him. Of course there’s an angering debate. Within its spiraling paradigm, defined by the Britanica as ‘example’ or ‘model,’ is increasing worth. The Langille’s record of hauling cordwood, granite, cranberries, sheep and more was accrued during the severe oil shortage of 1979 and ‘80 when long lines at the pumps were the rule. The major parallel between Maine Sail Freight of 2015 and the Tancook Project of ’79-’80 is to draw public attention to the wisdom of sail freight through first live demonstrations and then broad media coverage.

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How Did It All Work? 

Notes below from the Tancook logbook of 1980:

The breaking, black rock coast of Nova Scotia came up suddenly out of a cold fog. There is that quick white smother of foam, which is all the warning you need in an open boat and we tacked. Tancook Island was off under our lee and we didn’t see it for several days…

August 27,1980  

08:00 Hard easterly.

11:25 Carried double- reefed foresail alone out of Harwich, windward of ‘L Homideau Shoal. 

12:40 Through Wood’s Hole—against peak current.

20:50 Made north end of Cape Cod Canal. 

splash vernon

In our future a comparable practice will serve. Professional crew must be there—for safety, training, legal and sensible compliance. But again sea-apprentices, those eager to gain such demanding, exhausting, exhilarating and fun experience will come into play. An administrative drain will be scheduling, sudden drop-outs, weather, the unexpected pains-in-the-ass. Seeking and training novices does a growing service to the nation. Over two seasons the freight paid the Langille’s skipper, and the mate as understudy gained further competence, not pay. A growing list of names and addresses is maritime gold. The apprentices put in maintenance and spring outfitting and put her away in the fall. Thus we emphasize the union, of hauling bottom line freight and sea-apprentices, in the same hull. When commerce and training are united and joined with the cost savings of using the wind, we gain more than a two’fer. Money, just at this hour in our history, seems to have run a bit amok. Fuel consumption has joined it. Wind’s a grand paradigm defined by the Britanica as simply ‘example’ or ‘model.’ We learned how to run the Langille from a master of the wind, his glorious paradigm and so bring us next to The Erikson Factor.


The Erikson Factor

Call the wind and its commercial use an exploded paradigm. Gustaf Erikson ship owner from 1900 of Marieham in the Åland Islands and master of a fleet of the great square riggers of the last era of commercial sail ‘round the earth from 1900 to the second World War. He paired bottom-line freight with sea-apprentices, commerce with learning, in some of the finest, demanding labor-for-learning ventures ever known.

Erikson salvaged these engineering giants of the Age of Sail from the knackers, bought them at the very bottom of the market and  put them back in service, training a generation for the sea. They were immense. Law Hill, Hugomont, Herzogen Cecily, Pamir and  Passat. At their peak in 1936, fifteen of these vessels were sailing around Cape Horn to the Australian Bight for wool and wheat, the Chilean coast for guano—for nitrates, fertilizer—and back to the English Channel. For some, the experience was a requirement to obtain mates’ tickets in commercial vessels, steam or sail. For others it was an adventure unlikely to be trumped. The practice was terminated in 1939 by the torpedoes of the U-boats.

The practice, like that of the salt-water farm and the widening organic movement inland was and is to Scrounge, Struggle and Make it. Thus—The Erikson Factor was the blueprint adapted next by Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn for seven years; then the Tancook whaler and next? Maine Sail Freight.

Late on the very first night of our 1977 Tancook (Nova Scotian) research, via beakers of whiskey, Neils Jannasch gave us his story: Drafted into the Kriegsmarine in the spring of l945, he was sent into the U-boats, their expected return then estimated at 25 percent. He said good bye to his family, reported to Kiel, was reassigned and became a communications officer on the Norwegian coast. With sparse communications remaining he spent the remainder of the war in the small traditional Boats of the North. He then went out to Ireland where Erikson had laid up for the war’s duration, Pamir and Passat, his last two square-riggers. Becoming Pamir’s ship keeper with patience, or rather impatience rewarded, he went before the mast to the Australian Bight, doubling the Horn in the last long run of commercial sail.

And then the same again! In 1949, Niels became bosun in Passat, as the renowned educator Kurt Hahn drew Germans and British together into a remarkable program. Hahns’ germinal Confidential Memorandum of 1948 includes:

The working of a Square-Rigged Ship demands more in endurance, resource, vigilance, co-operation than almost any enterprise designed by man. It stirs the heart and tires the imagination even today as all can testify who saw the Pamir sail into the Thames how the heart of the London people went out to that beautiful lady.

By 1949 Hahn had acquired Pamir and Passat, formed a German-British partnership and adapted The Erikson Factor perhaps as well as ever applied. For seven years he ran cargo and sea-apprentices to and from the English Channel to Rio de Janiero. But Hahn’s Why? beyond black ink was to rebuild Europe. The buildings and cathedrals will be not be difficult; rebuilding the economy more so but it is trust that we must rebuild. He crewed the two great barques with Italian, German and British youths including two former U-boat commanders. In this union too, The Erikson Factor governed the Why?

From May into September of 1979 and ’80 the 34-foot Vernon Langille ran cargoes and sea-apprentices from Nova Scotia to Nantucket. Sheep from grazing islands were brought to the mainland; cordwood brought to other Maine Islands and Nantucket; the iron stoves carried from Lunenburg to Bath; Cranberries; Granite; White oak logs—keel stock for a big pinky schooner…

There’s another factor: the curves of the sails and the grace of form and function. Said Goethe, Beauty tames anger.


Further Reading:

Burroughs, Polly. Zeb: Celebrated Schooner Captain of Martha’s Vineyard. Globe Pequot Press, 2005.

Greenhill, Basil and Hackman, John. The Grain Races. Conway Maritime Press, London, 1986.

Leavitt, John F. Wake of the Coasters. Wesleyan University Press, 1970.

Lee, Lance. “Apprentice-Built Ship Carries Cargo, Learning Crew,” National Fisherman, April 1980.

Lee, Lance. “Is There Working Sail In Our Future?” National Fisherman, June 1980.

Lee, Lance. “Apprenticeshop Students Built the Tancook Whaler as Part of ‘Living History.’”Mirror (Nantucket, Massachusetts), September 17, 1981.

Post, Robert C. The Tancook Whalers: Origins, Rediscovery, and Revival. Maine Maritime Museum, Bath, Maine, 1985.

Villiers, Alan. The War with Cape Horn. Scribner Book Company, 1971.