This Issue's Featured Article Sept 2017

Launching Centennial

By Pike Messenger

This Water Closet is about family and friends who gathered at the Newbury, MA landing on the Parker River at high tide on the morning of July 4 to watch the launching of builder Dan Noyes’ copy of a famous sailing dory, Centennial II. The original Centennial sailing dory was built by fisherman Alfred Johnson in 1776 and then sailed by him across the Atlantic to England. His story at left will fascinate you.

Six-year-old Coral Withe, leaning against Centennial II on Fourth of July, said, “This is beautiful.” Assembled family and friends gathered for the launching of builder Dan Noyes’ copy of a famous sailing dory, agreed.

Last year Dan and this old Closeteer visited the first Centennial at Cape Ann’s lovely museum near the city hall in Gloucester. In 1776 patriotic fisherman Alfred Johnson built her and then sailed her across the Atlantic to the country we had broken away from a century before. Dan carefully took the measurements off Johnson’s still intact 20’ dory while the Closeteer roamed the museum admiring other boats and fishing schooner models of note, and especially Fitz Henry Lane’s well known paintings of Gloucester harbor in the days of sail.

A year passed as Dan’s new Centennial II, still not yet named, took shape in his small boat shop. Finally when almost finished she was launched at high tide the morning of July 4, 2017, 241 years after our nation’s independence had been so bravely declared. Dan left her in cord grass at the old Newbury Landing on the Parker River as the water slipped away. In spanking new red, white and blue paint she would lay until Dan returned at high tide in the evening to anchor her just off the river channel.

On her second night on the water he would sleep on the narrow floor between centerboard and side planks where Johnson had slept, or tried to, for 52 days in the summer of 1876. Enroute to England, the Centennial swamped twice in storms, was righted in warm Gulf Stream water and bailed out. The renowned Centennial voyage averaged 70 or so miles per day under three sails, a large main and two foresails and oars now and then. Dan has no plans for crossing.

Since Johnson’s, the first recorded crossing sailing in a dory alone, a dozen or more solitary rowers and sailors have followed in small boats. No radios or other modern safety devices helped the early fishermen who toiled in thousands of dories without even lifejackets.

We are now eager to see her 21st century replica under sail. Dan, who is currently dealing with sailmakers, has plans for several hundred pounds of ballast on the keel. Johnson had successfully designed his for quick righting if tipped over at sea. What the Closeteer temporarily calls Centennial II may have a name by her first sailing, the builder has solicited suggestions. The Closeteer has put forth Togetheragain, thus celebrating not rebellion but a team of stalwart allies in the two world wars and beyond.

This year under new administrations, a Brexit one in Great Britain and a Make America Great Again here, there have been strains. We wonder how Johnson’s arrival seemingly celebrating separation was received upon arrival in Abercastle, Wales, on August 12, 1876 and in Liverpool on August 21. Togetheragain, Britain-America, like Sevenovus, a name given Dan’s great grandfather Henry Woodard’s new fishing boat, out of Rings Island in the 1940s, has a positive message. Henry’s daughter Ruth named her dad’s new boat for the seven members of her family. Abercastle, where Johnson safely landed on British soil, is being mulled over along with other names by Dan.

Whatever her name, she, as little daughter Coral Withe from a boat building family of six exclaimed, is a beauty. Her low-key launching by family on the Parker’s lovely summer bank was in the Closeteer’s opinion a better Fourth than ones with patriotic speeches, gun salutes or fireworks displays. The ebb quietly flowed over her new planks painted with our colors and via the Gulf Stream will follow in Johnson’s wake to England our mother country. It’s too bad the late John Lennon from Liverpool isn’t around to write a song about her.

The Original Centennial
From Wikipedia

Alfred "Centennial" Johnson (1846–1927) was a Danish-born fisherman from Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 1876, in a 20’ (6.1m) sailing dory, he made the first recorded single-handed crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, landing at Abercastle in west Wales as a celebration of the first centennial of the United States. Local author Rob Morris has also written a book about the crossing called Alfred "Centennial" Johnson.

Johnson's dory, Centennial, is now in the collection of the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It is frequently displayed alongside Howard Blackburn's sloop Great Republic, a vessel which was also used in a single-handed trans-Atlantic crossing.

Alfred Johnson (sometimes spelled Johnsen) was born in Denmark on December 4, 1846. He had run away to sea as a teenager, and after working on sailing ships eventually ended up as a fisherman in Gloucester, Massachusetts. One day in 1874, he and some friends were playing cards and discussing the possibility of a single-handed Atlantic crossing, when Johnson declared that not only would such a crossing be possible, but that it could be carried out in an open dory and that he could do it. When his friends scoffed, Johnson set out to prove them wrong.

Johnson planned to carry out his voyage as a celebration of the first centennial of the United States; his aim was to sail to Liverpool, hoping to make the 3,000-mile journey in under 90 days. He bought a 20’ (6.1m) dory, named her Centennial, and prepared and provisioned her for sea. She was fitted out with a centerboard and three watertight compartments which would help her float if capsized, until she could be righted.

The Voyage
He sailed on the crossing on June 15, 1876. He stopped briefly in Nova Scotia to make some adjustments to his ballast, then set off into the open ocean around June 25. He was sighted by several ships along the way, most of which attempted to rescue him, only to be astonished when he refused. At one time, he received a gift of two bottles of rum from a passing ship.

Johnson managed an average pace of about 70 miles (110km) a day, quite respectable for such a small boat in the open sea, and survived a major gale which capsized the boat. Against the odds, he finally made landfall at Abercastle, a small port in Wales, on Saturday, August 12. After two days' rest, he finished his voyage by sailing into Liverpool on August 21, 1876, to an enthusiastic reception.

Johnson received some attention for his feat, and his boat was exhibited in Liverpool for several months; he was thereafter known as Alfred "Centennial" Johnson. When asked late in life why he had done it, he said "I made that trip because I was a damned fool, just as they said I was."

Johnson's voyage was the first recorded single-handed crossing of the Atlantic, and perhaps the first major single-handed passage carried out in the spirit of adventure.

Editor Comments: Both of Pike’s essays first appeared in The Watercloset, the online journal of the Middleton (MA) Stream Team, of which Pike has been a long time member and motivator. We first met Pike ever so many years ago during his Ring’s Island Rowing Club days when he used his then teaching position at the Triton Regional High School to introduce students the rewards of building and rowing traditional dories.


By Pike Messenger

As much of the Wisconsin continental glacier turned to liquid water, the rising ocean moved up the valleys and around the hills and mountains of Maine. Their tops became islands and peninsulas, their valleys bays. After the ice was gone plants and men populated the rocky land. This happened in the past 15,000 years, no time at all to geologists. In the last few millennia people have been “messing about in boats” along these salty shores. The Indians did so in birch bark and dugout canoes until gutsy fishermen and colonists from afar arrived in sailboats to take over the seas and shores. No fair wind did these newcomers bring to the Indians who were soon gone from their summer playgrounds by the sea.

Fast forward 300 years to the last century. Since childhood many of us have been told stories and later read yarns, many false, about those early days with colonization and Manifest Destiny in mind. As kids we built rafts and little boats. Occasionally we recovered one freed from its mooring by a nor’easter. The old Closeteer's first boat was a skiff found in a post storm driftwood line. He named the river-worthy boat the Whistler after the Golden Eye Duck, also called Whistler. Thus he, like many near water, became a boat enthusiast. There are thousands forever hankering for a time away on water even though they no longer need to be for a living. It is fun, interesting, and challenging.

Some have formed groups of kindred souls, many who build their own boats in cellars, garages, and sheds. One organization here on the Yankee coast and beyond is the Traditional Small Craft Association (TSCA). Their boat fever has been exacerbated over the last four decades by the fancy magazine WoodenBoat, and the unfancy, but comfortably homey, Messing About in Boats magazine, the latter sometimes mentioned here in the Stream Team’s weekly Water Closets.

Tom Jackson, “Currents” Editor of WoodenBoat, long a leader in all things in wooden boating, helped organize a gathering of tiny yachts called the Small Reach Regatta (SRR). For the past twelve years the regatta has attracted small vessels from up and down the coast and even inland lakes. Owners, many their builders, gather on Maine’s rockbound coast among long ago immersed hills now islands showing nice green tops where ledge and salt spray allows. The hardscrabble farms are gone as is most of the fishing. Lobsters and tourists are now the targets. Old tourists still passing north are reminded of the “Keep Maine Green” signs that greeted them at the border mid-last century. The tourists soon learned the request had two meanings.

Serious boat builder Dan Noyes, once a student of the Closeteer’s and a young member of the Rings Island Rowing Club on the Mighty Merrimack, invited the old timer to crew in his spanking new Centennial II at the TSCA’s 2017 annual soiree. The first Centennial, a 20’ Gloucester dory, was sailed across the Atlantic by Alfred Johnson alone in 1876 to celebrate our country’s hundredth birthday. Dan launched his red, white and blue copy appropriately on July 4th (see preceding article). He then rigged it in time for the Small Reach Regatta (SRR) held July 18 to 23 in the cold waters around way downeast Brooklin, ME.

In Brooklin about 90 boat devotees arrived along with 58 small motorless vessels for three days of sailing, rowing and happy boat talk about ballast, trim, sail rigs, boat finishes, glues and a hundred other boat topics. The Closeteer no longer felt so old, a good two-thirds of the participants looked like grandparents and some even great grandparents. In and around their vessels they moved like teenagers, albeit a little slower. Many joyfully lent helping hands when lugging boats around. Even the old Closeteer scrambled in and out and about Centennial II with renewed vigor hoping Captain Dan wouldn’t think him a malingerer.

Enthusiasm and good cheer were the orders of the day. Even heads hits by shifting booms managed smiles. Passing on either land or sea most of the sailors and rowers greeted each other heartily. In the evenings around the campfire sailor-musicians played several instruments and sang chanteys and salty ballads. All learned that mosquitoes like music. Kindred souls all as happy as could be, as befits Kenneth Grahame’s famous words in Wind in the Willows by River Rat to Mole, “There is nothing… absolutely nothing… so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

The Closeteer, long a rower, quickly learned there is nothing “simple” about today’s small craft and their modern gear when added to the numerous variables of sailing. Many of the gung-ho skippers had twenty pieces of equipment aboard their small craft. The days of the basic fishing dories without life jackets are long gone. Visit a boat store and you’ll see what is meant. Bring plenty of money.

What Mole and Rat couldn’t have known was the number of boats made by different hands over the centuries that would evolve. There must have been twenty species each with several subspecies at the regatta. Well represented was the dory with a half dozen types made of different materials, heavy and light. Some TSCA purists, who pride themselves on wood, frown on molded plastic but still kindly allow them in the SRR fleet. Here are at few types and rigs Dan named for the new-to-the-scene Closeteer: duck punt, peapod, melonseed, Swampscott dory, pearl, lug, ketch, yawl, lateen, Marconi rig, sprit rig, sloop, Beetle cat, sandbagger and on and on.

Once underway, more or less together at first, the vessels showed their stuff in various winds as the ever more spread out fleet threaded its way among lobster buoys. It must have amused the lobstermen to have so much non-working company. They motored from pot to pot among us providing gentle wakes, well knowing we might buy lobsters.

Long ago when the Indian and Colonial children picked up lobsters from low tide pools life was much harder but perhaps more rewarding to those who earned their living from the sea. They paddled and sailed at the mercy of the gods. The Indians, long integrated with their surroundings gave thanks to the animals, plants, and rocks they saw as kin. The Colonists built churches on the ledges and gave thanks to God.

Each early morning in first light, after rolling from his tent, the Closeteer hiked a mile up an empty highway to admire the vegetation that richly populated the hard land with little soil. The rising sun reflected off blueberries, spruces, firs, bayberry, and lichens, the latter covering exposed rock. On a gentle rise he found a Spartan looking church, one of two in sparsely populated Brooklin. This church, called Rockbound, no denomination noted, had a sign up announcing: “Hymn Sing, All Invited, July 27.”

What events those must have been in the days before radio and TV when spread out neighbors in a beautiful hard land gathered to gossip, sing and pray. The Closeteer bet much of the talk year round was of boats and gear as it was back at the SRR camp. The difference is that those talkers of old wouldn’t be leaving after a week of play.

Three of fifty eight boats at the Traditional Small Craft Association’s Small Reach Regatta (SRR) held in the waters off Brooklin, Maine in late July. The red, white, and blue dory at the left is Dan Noyes’ replica of Alfred Johnson’s Centennial that he sailed alone across the Atlantic in 1876. Centennial II’s maiden voyage was on July 27 at the regatta.