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March/April 2015 Issue 224: Blue water coaster

Feb 27, 2015
Before he was captain of Mystic Seaport’s schooner Brilliant, “Biff” Bowker sailed aboard the lumber schooner Alvena in the Gulf of Maine.

Before he was captain of Mystic Seaport’s schooner Brilliant, “Biff” Bowker sailed aboard the lumber schooner Alvena in the Gulf of Maine.

Courtesy Mystic Seaport

Long before he was known as the skipper of the schooner Brilliant, Captain Francis “Biff” Bowker had served his time aboard the last of the coasting schooners carrying cargo along the East Coast during the 1930s.

Bowker did not come from a seafaring family, but was raised in an upper middle-class family, with maids, private school and summers on the Cape. The Depression wiped out all that. Influenced by the writing of Alan Villiers, by age 15 Bowker was ready to join a Gloucester fishing schooner. 

Bowker finally landed a job as crew aboard Peaceland, a three-masted schooner that carried lumber. Bowker went out to sea on a six-week trip to the Bay of Fundy at only 16 years old. “It was tough work,” he writes. “In port we handled lumber nine hours a day. At sea we stood the old-style watches, four hours on, four hours off, around the clock. I had my bouts with seasickness and had my troubles learning the ropes.”

The next ship Bowker found was Alvena. Not an A-list vessel, the only reason we know anything of Alvena is because Bowker, who sailed on the vessel in the late 1930s, recorded his memories in a book, Blue Water Coaster, published by International Marine. By 1937 when Bowker joined her, Alvena was “an old, tired vestige of the handsome craft that had slid into the waters of Fairhaven, California, in 1901.” 

Alvena’s keel was laid down at the yard of Hans K. Bendixen in 1901, and was 772 gross tons and 186 feet long with a 39-foot beam. Alvena was designed to carry about a million board-feet of lumber. Eventually, Alvena was brought to Boston.  

The vessel carried lumber from Maine and the Maritime Provinces to Boston and New York. Despite her age, Bowker writes, “Except for her aging timbers, which gave her a tendency to keep the pumps working all the time, she was an ideal vessel in which to sail.”  

Bowker had this to say about why he always chose to go to sea in sailing ships and not motor vessels: “It was not love of the sea that attracted me to these schooners. Rather, it was love of the vessels themselves. The sea is nothing but a waste of water, which often displays great beauty but also professes a vile temper.”

Let’s join Bowker on board Alvena on a passage from Portland, Maine, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in February. The day is the 25th and Alvena is somewhere in the Gulf of Maine harassed by stiff nor’westerlies and miserably cold weather. We are taking a sun line to get an idea of where the ship is compared to the DR. The DR at the time of the sight is 44° 05’ N by 67° 25’ W. The height of eye is 20 feet, and Bowker is taking an upper limb shot of the sun. The time is 1420:15 GMT. The Hs is 28°10.8’ (we’ll use the 2015 Nautical Almanac for this problem). 

A. Find the Ho. 
B. Find the assumed position. 
C. Find the intercept, then plot and compare to the DR.     

Answers:
A. The Ho for upper limb shot of the sun is 27° 48.7’. 
B. Assumed position is 44° N by 67° 47.9’ W. 
C. Intercept from Volume 3 HO 249 is 5.7nm towards.

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