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From the pilothouse

Jan 1, 2003

When a sailor chooses to come ashore and embrace at least part of what that means — job, house, community — he knowingly gives up a measure of freedom and its attendant delights. The benefits of a regular paycheck, a warm and stable shelter and the connection with a single place are sought in favor of the sensual pleasures of travel and adventure. You create friendships that last more than a few weeks, neighbors know your kids, and you know the local librarian by name. Sooner or later, though, the breeze will blow just right and a spark will be fanned to a flame. So it was, then, that my jogging partner, Scott Reischmann, called me up in early April and told me of a particular boat lying in San Francisco Bay that was in need of an owner.

She was schooner-rigged, built of oak and longleaf yellow pine in 1924 in East Boothbay, Maine, 56 feet in length (72 feet overall), and certified to carry 48 passengers on day sails. She was called Bagheera, named for the velvety black panther who saved Mowgli from being eaten by the nefarious tiger in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Was I interested?

When I was considering, in the 24 hours between the time the idea was first hatched and when we put in an offer, whether buying a 78-year-old wood boat could be deemed anything other than folly, I called on a few friends, people who know wood boats and the business of running them as commercial vessels. After listing some of the potential problem areas in old Aldens, my friend Alan Lord, who runs a wood-hulled ferry to and from Monhegan Island from the Maine coast year round, summed up his feelings this way: "No matter how well they built that boat, none of those guys, who in 1924 were driving around in Model A Fords, could have anticipated that in the year 2002 some guy named Twain Braden would want to haul the boat across the country, from San Francisco to Maine, on a truck," Lord told me.

There is something about a schooner that makes even the most sober sailor's heart leap: the rakish profile, coupled with long overhangs and a subtle sheer, takes on a spirit's form as the boat shoulders its way through a fresh breeze, knifing the waves, spray flying. But the boat needed to earn a living, I thought, support itself in the fickle business of taking passengers for joy rides around Casco Bay. If the summer business works, then Bagheera might become a vehicle of pleasure — perhaps as a floating winter home in the Caribbean, as it had been for several owners over the course of its nearly 80 years of service. Reischmann crunched the numbers I offered from the scant knowledge I had of the charter-boat trade and presented them to the bank for approval.

The numbers must have worked since, as I write this, Bagheera is rumbling down from the Wyoming high country into Nebraska and due in Georgetown, Md. — we couldn't get the road permits to bring the 26-ton boat into New England on short notice — by the end of the week. Our hastily assembled crew is composed of the people in our community who, after a long, wet winter, needed an adventure right now: a physics professor, corporate tax auditor, burnt-out postal worker (really), another writer (and his bloodhound, since his wife wouldn't agree to keeping it home), a pair of strong, earnest youths, and a database administrator who had to threaten his boss with quitting in order to get the time off. We'll rig the boat, blast it with scrapers and sanders, and dress her in new varnish and black paint, before heading to Maine.

Once in Portland, I'll run the boat (with my new partner) and continue serving the readers of this magazine as contributing editor, assembling each issue's Chartroom Chatter (as I've done since 1995) and editing the annual American Yacht Review. And maybe this winter, or the next, Bagheera will be fitted for sea service, loaded with all the kids my wife and I have accumulated during our time ashore, and have its slender nose pointed at the horizon.