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Attractive Alternatives for a Maine Yachtsman

By JOHN GOULD / April 14, 1989



IT surprised but pleased me to have a pleasant letter from Stephen M. Smithwick, whom I can't place, and I hasten to share it with one and all. His friendly approach suggests I must have met him somewhere, perhaps at the dump or at a bagpipe concert, but I do meet so many people.... Mr. Smithwick, he tells me, is in the insurance business, and he is no longer favored with the soft bloom of youth, for he tells me he has been doing that for over 60 years. From what I've seen of the insurance business, that ought to be enough. Mr. Smithwick says he would like to assist me with my boat-insurance needs.

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He says he has developed a program that offers competitive rates and he can provide attractive alternatives for the racing yachtsman. His letter gets funnier as it goes along. At the moment, Back River is icebound, so I have my yacht up for the winter. I shouldn't need to explain to Mr. Smithwick that as a resident Maine racing yachtsman I engage in the sport only seasonably, but unless I tell him he wouldn't know that I race exclusively amongst myself.

During the winter, we (speaking familywise) have a great deal more activity in the tub, and it takes so long to do a three-lap race that I forgo my pleasures so other people can wash. Our shower stall can be used in the winter, but because we have no heat under the porch, not many are attracted to it.

In the summer, just about everybody showers (including neighbors around the point who tent out and come up through the woods), and this leaves me the bathtub rather much for my yacht. In order to schedule winter races, I would need to consult a lot of people, and get easements, and they would have to be short races and not too exciting. So I put my yacht up for the winter, on the bookcase, and I won't be racing again until the ice is out, or until it gets warm under the porch.

I do have two canoes that Mr. Smithwick might like to slap a couple of alternatives on. One is a birch model I made myself in 1921, and it is kept now purely as a souvenir of my lost youth and a memorial to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote ``The Song of Hiawatha'' and has his bust in Westminster Abbey, but not necessarily in that order. My second canoe is a White, cedar and canvas, 114 years old and semi-retired. I don't use it, but now and then some summer friends will lift it down from the rafters and paddle it up and down Back River. I'd like to insure the birch canoe for 25 cents, and the White for $1.25.

But while we're at it, Mr. Smithwick, what can you do for me about my saluting cannon? Here in Friendship Harbor we hold the annual Chowder Race every Labor Day weekend, and it's quite an event. It's the last Hooraw of the summer boating and all the yachtsmen who will be going back to Winchester, Massachusetts, tomorrow turn out and have a really fine time.

It isn't what you call a stylish race, because all the boats race together and nobody gets mad. Some people just sail Sailfishes, which are ironing boards with sheets. It's meant for fun and there is no grievance committee. It's a mighty important event in our harbor, and they can't hold the race without me.

It's like this: Years ago because of this and that nobody could find a cannon to start the race. There has to be a warning gun at 11:50 a.m., another at 11:55, and then at noon the starting bang. When that starting gun goes off, all the yachts and near-yachts and Sailfishes rip down the bay in a merry helter and a jolly skelter, and we have an exhibition of reckless abandon. So far not too many have been killed. So they came to me and said, ``We hear you have a saluting cannon.''

``I do, indeed,'' I made reply in friendly fashion, wiping the garden mud off my farmer's boots and giving the old commodore's smile, ``and who be this we?''

``Ha, ha,'' they said, ``we are the race committee for the Chowder Race.'' They said they'd like me to join the committee, shoot off my cannon, and then enjoy the customary sail down the harbor on the committee boat and catch a pail of mackerel. They would require four shots, they said - the three I have mentioned and a fourth when the winner, if any, came home.

I have accordingly become a member of the Chowder Race Race Committee, and they can't start without me. That's about it as far as a racing yachtsman applies to me, and it may or may not have been reason for me to hear thus from Mr. Smithwick. But while I have his attention, perhaps he'd place an small alternative on my cannon - should something happen and I lose it overboard.