My Modest Contribution To 400 Years of Maine Boats

When you come to Maine, several things other than L.L. Bean are worth visiting, and one is the Maine Maritime Museum in the City of Bath. Many ships have been launched here and hereabouts since the pinnace Virginia was commenced a-building at Popham Beach on the 21st of August, 1607, with shipwright Digby in charge. She was the first vessel of her sort constructed in the New World. A small craft of but 30 tons' burden, she was well built and durable, and made many crossings of the Atlantic until she was wrecked off the Irish Coast two decades later.

I remember well how amused I was, and delighted, to find in the records of our Plymouth Pilgrims that they sent their own little shallop up from Massachusetts 25 years after the Virginia was launched to cadge some food, for they were hungry. Making landfall by Sheepscot Bay, the Pilgrims aboard were surprised to find so many sloops flitting about, along the main and from island to island. They had supposed nobody was here 'ceptin' them. They put in at the Damariscove Islands to be further amazed by a considerable fisheries station with docks, derricks, drying flakes, housing, hands, and appurtenances sufficient to load 32 vessels that very summer to go to England. Sure thing, and if you liked fish, they had fish.

The 33rd vessel to load salt cod at the Damariscoves that season was the Pilgrim shallop, and she returned to Plymouth rejoicing. The Pilgrim records praise the generosity of the Maine fish cutters, for they made no charge for the starving Pilgrims.

That sounds as if we were truly kind neighbors until you read a bit further. The parent trading company back in London had written to its Maine settlers earlier. The letter said, in effect, that the Bible-pounding nuts down at Plymouth might come asking for help, and it would be politically incorrect to make fun of them or refuse them. Be nice to them, it said, and do what you can "in the name of the company." The company was the London Company, owners of the pinnace Virginia.

John Popham, Lord Chief Justice of England, was running the London Company from his prestigious address, and I'd say he knew about public relations and corporate courtesy.

The marine museum at Bath would be glad to see folks stopping in, and it's a good place to learn a lot about things you never knew before. They even have a Rangeley Boat.

The Rangeley Boat was designed by Rufus Crosby of Rangeley, Maine, who made hundreds of the things and sold them new for $1 a pound. It was a double-ender, lapstrake, round-bottomed rowboat that would average, after the paint dried, about 75 pounds. Rufus's trademark was a circular seat on the thwarts. The two round seats were rowing stations with oarlocks by both. Alone in the boat, you rowed from one seat, and with one or more people you rowed single from the other. If two rowed, it usually meant a loaded boat. Balanced accordingly, the Rangeley boat responded gently to rowing, and was fully as seaworthy as the Grand Bank dory, perhaps the safest craft afloat except for the bateau of the French-Canadian coureurs-de-bois, and maybe an Indian birch-bark canoe.

The model built by Rufus Crosby became the boat of the Rangeley Lakes. When outboard motors came along, most of the old Rufus boats were squared off at the stern to accommodate power. While built double-ender in the beginning, most of the originals still afloat have square sterns. As Quimby Bubier used to say, "So's you can tell one end from t'other!"

I came to own an original Rufus Crosby boat maybe 25 years ago, and had in mind to restore her and use her in my own piscatorial dalliances. I gave up that idea almost at once because of the paint. Being wooden (pine and cedar), the boat required annual painting and traditionally the color was a rich window-blind green. The boat I had acquired had been painted every spring for 75 years and it was now my task to remove the 75 coats of paint and go about my restoration. I found I couldn't start the paint with a chisel. Heat helped, but I foresaw spending a fortune for propane gas. So I gave a respectful ring to the Maritime Museum at Bath and asked if they'd like the gift of an original Crosby Rangeley Boat.

I WAS thoroughly honest. I told them about the paint, and suggested their competent shop would have tools and ways to remove the paint that I did not. The Museum said they'd send a truck, trailer, and crew immediately. This they did, and I donated the Rangeley boat you will see at the museum if you attend and look.

Which was good of me, to be sure, but my tricky cousin now enters the story. My cousin Ralph had made some years earlier a replica of the Portland Harbor pilot's boat, a beautiful small craft of artful construction of which he was proud. He had given it to the Maine Maritime Museum where it had been on display for some years and still is. Ralph had also made other gifts to the museum, some of them in money.

What I mean is, that the folks at the museum knew all about my cousin, but had never heard of me. So I never heard a word about my Rangeley Boat, but Cousin Ralph got a wonderful letter thanking him for his gift of the beautiful Crosby boat that would now be carefully restored and added with pride to the treasures of the museum. Cousin Ralph, being my cousin, never missed a chance, and he used that letter to take a $1,500 deduction on his next tax return. So if you wish to see an original Rufus Crosby worth $1,500, you know where to go. Tell 'em I sent you.

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