Who remembers these Boat School scenes?
In this winter Scuttlebutt, we’ll “take a sip of kindness yet for days of auld lang syne.” Greg Rossel, class of 1980, advised us that photos on the website of Searsport’s Penobscot Marine Museum (penobscotmarinemuseum.org) include the National Fisherman Collection’s archival 1970s images of The Boat School. From the first class in Calais to the Lubec facilities, these are priceless. Archivist Kevin Johnson granted us permission to reproduce them on theboatschool.org, and in upcoming Scuttlebutt editions. If you recognize anyone, please let us know. If you have photos, please share them with us, and anecdotal recollections, too! We cherish these memories of how it was, as we actively pursue the ways and means to “bring back The Boat School” and its constituencies. Spring 2023 priorities are creating an advisory council and media kit, and sourcing funds.
Quoddy Head to Deep Cove, 1978
by Greg Rossel
Boat School freshmen arriving in July 1978 must have thought Eastport and Lubec were on the cusp of unprecedented change. Both waterfronts still showed
the effects of the recent great Groundhog Day maelstrom, yet smoke reliably curled from McCurdy’s Smokehouse in Lubec. Soon-to-be-removed railroad tracks wended across the causeway into downtown Eastport, where the air was redolent of processed sardines and related products: “The smell of money!” declared old-time residents. But uncomfortably fewer sardines landed meant less of Raye’s Mustard was needed for canning with the sardines. (Residents could pay $1 a gallon for Raye’s; bring your own bottle).
More profound changes were in the wind. Pittston, an energy and armored car company with a dodgy environmental record, wanted to build a $350-million refinery the New York Times claimed would cover half of Moose Island. The Canadian government, citing fog, 24-foot tides, and tricky currents around Head Harbor Passage, opposed supertankers of black gold traversing their waters. Legal swords were drawn on all sides.
Big news for us incoming students was The Boat School’s migration from the historic life saving station on Lubec’s Quoddy Head to the less romantic but practical buildings at Eastport’s old Deep Cove seaplane base: more space for boatbuilding, finishing, diesel repair, and fisheries including the school fishing trawler Ecopesca III, a.k.a. Fish Finder, acquired from the feds for a song. The move would be in September, so initial classes were in Lubec.
Today’s post-secondary students might not favor the amenities and lifestyle of the WCVTI boatbuilding program. Instead of centrally heated dormitories, it was home boarding, wood-heated camps and houses (some lacked running water), and abandoned, unelectrified artist studios. One student temporarily slept on a dentist office floor. Cutting, splitting, and carrying firewood provided fitness. Surely today’s students would balk at punching a time clock going in and out of class, when one unexcused absence or five latenesses could mean expulsion. Tuition, though, was only $450 for the first year, $350 for the second; work-study could offset costs, and paying over $50/month for housing was unusual. Audio-visual entertainment was a Canadian TV station and WTOS-FM booming from Sugarloaf Mountain. And who could forget the cantankerous surplus Navy school bus (with an alarming tendency to lose its engine hood enroute) that ferried students 40 miles daily from Eastport to Quoddy Head? In short, it was just about perfect.
Whether at one end of Cobscook Bay or the other, the real secret sauce of the school was its remarkable staff. In many ways, the school was Otto “Junior” Miller’s baby. He was all about education and economic development of eastern Maine. From running Southwest Boat, he knew that trained marine mechanics didn’t grow on trees and old timers’ “trade secrets” were job security they were reticent to pass along. But without such knowledge, no young employees could join the business. Junior knew how to make deals to get a new enterprise up and running at the lowest cost possible. The school would be good business for the region, so he wanted to train good employees and even shop owners – hence the time clocks, rigid on-time demands, keeping track of hours, requiring students to work in real-world shops, and getting the job done. If he liked you, Junior was your greatest champion; if not….
Ernest M. Brierly, N.A., formerly of Southwest Boat and the U.K.’s Vospers Shipyard, was a gregarious designer of motor torpedo boats for the Royal Navy, avid fisherman, and driver of rusted-out International Scouts. He held us to the same standards as British naval architecture apprentices, with our ever-smudging mechanical pencils on vellum and cursedly cranky ink pen on mylar, and scale rules, ship curves, splines, drafting ducks, third-angle projection, the mysterious area measuring planimeter, and piles of erasers. We rendered seemingly endless versions of the Whitehall tender – lines, construction plans, details, half model, construction model, and lastly, the lofting, to familiarize us with the minutia of vessel construction.
Instructors included indomitable Island Falls Canoe founder Clint Tuttle and Midwest/Swedish veteran builder and pickled herring entrepreneur Carl Felix, in his long lab coat and pipe, reminiscent of a cross between Santa Claus and the Swedish Chef.
In those first months in Lubec, they turned our rudimentary woodworking skills into passable boatbuilding joinery, ensured we didn’t cut off our hands, and revealed the comparative qualities and mysteries of woods, glues, and fastenings as we built complex structures like hatch covers and coamings. (Fun fact: pipe smoke can be blown through the open grain of red oak.) We cut test stems and rabbets, and rendered dovetail joints. Individuals became team players – not always easy. Clint once used a fire extinguisher on an obdurate student’s cigarette after repeated entreaties to snuff it out.
September 1978 brought second-year students back from work co-ops and us all together at the not-quite-completed Eastport facility: Whitehall- building freshmen on one side with Carl, and seniors with the Buzzard’s Bay and Clint on the other. Classroom logistics were still in flux, building leaks needed to be fixed, hand tools unpacked, power tools tuned, and then the welcome discovery that the new steam box could cook hot dogs and kielbasa.
Thus began the classes at the Marine Trades Center.