The Little Schooner That Could                                       

The Little Schooner That Could.

By Daniel Noyes

(November 2007 issue, Vol. 25, No. 11, Messing About in Boats)


I’d seen it there before, lying under the pines in a shady corner of the yard. Peeling paint, gaping garboards, a sorry sight so far from the sea. It was the history that first captured my imagination. 19’4” at the rail 15‘ on the bottom straight out of Gardner’s pages. It was a big Lowell’s built two man Banks Dory. What’s more at the time I was part of a two man crew building dories for Lowell’s, the very shop where this boat was built. The dory was in tough shape. 10 yrs after it’s construction it was little more than a pile of peeling paint and tired planks…just the sort of boat to inspire an adventure!


 I began dreaming and drawing almost immediately. My wife Lauren wanted a small boat to camp cruise in but finances were tight on a dory builder’s salary. I also knew that Ray Pike the harbormaster in Salisbury was looking for a few good boats to use with his youth sailing program. Maybe a design could fulfill both these needs and satisfy my long time desire to skipper a schooner in the famous Governors Cup Schooner races held over Labor Day weekend in Gloucester Massachusetts!


The Dory was owned by the Rings Island Rowing Club (RIRC) an organization in Salisbury, Massachusetts dedicated to introducing youth and adults to the use of traditional small craft, especially Banks Dories. 100 yrs. ago these dories were carried on the decks of the famous Gloucester fishing schooners. These Schooners were amazing craft, some over 120’ in length, they braved storms, fog, calms and fast moving ocean liners without motors, radar, not even radios. Banks Dories, with their seats removed, were stacked one inside the next, on the Schooners deck. When far out to sea on the Grand Banks or other fishing grounds the Dories were lifted over the side and men set out in these tiny boats to catch cod, halibut, hake, haddock and other denizens of the deep.


If the Rowing club did not have a fishing schooner to enter in the Gloucester races what better boat than a Banks Dory rigged as a schooner? This would be a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the sea keeping abilities of a Banks Dory and the versatility of the Schooner rig. As an officer in the R.I.R.C. I felt encouraged to take on the project of readying this old boat for sea. The challenge was to make the dory float, design and build two sets of mast steps, partners, a bulkhead, a rudder, hardware, masts and spars and sails. All in my spare time and for under 100 dollars. We would then sail the boat from Salisbury Ma. On the north bank of the Merrimac River, south to Gloucester, and compete for the Governors Cup!


I knew that if the dory was to sail in the Governors Cup schooner races Id’ need a little help getting her seaworthy. The first job was to get the dories’ hull ready for the open ocean. Cracked garboard planks, calking, and stemming the onslaught of rot were first on the "to do" list. Some of the gaps between planks were five ft. long and large enough to fit a finger in but; plenty of cotton and calk would make the dory tight as she swelled in the salt water. I scrounged and scraped together materials on a short budget. The dory would have to be made seaworthy, painted, masts, spars, sails and rudder built. What could have been a job that ran into the thousands I hoped to do for fewer than one hundred dollars!


The Dory was at the Twomblys’ family home and they gave me free use of their tools and time, feeding me supper when I was working late into the evening. Friend and fellow adventurer Joel Peck helped out with the dirty work, reefing the seams and filling them with new calking. We worked in the sweltering July sun. After the calking there was painting, first a good soaking of cooperis-oxide to kill the mold or rot, then a fresh coat of primer and white topsides. Lauren with the help of five year old Ethan Twombly gave the rails and hardware a good coat of black working trim paint. Thanks to a team effort this Banks Dory was beginning to look like the no nonsense working craft it was.


As work progressed on the hull I spent evenings sketching sail plans. The rig would be entirely my own design. I grew up on the river and my first boat was a sailing dory. Six years at the Pert Lowell and Company builders of the famous Town Class sailing dory gave me a solid understanding of how to make a dory perform at her best under a cloud of sail. Now the challenge was to take a tired old hull with no keel or centerboard and design a rig to be handled by two men at sea. I decided to stick with the tried and true, a spritsail schooner rig.


The sail rig would have to be low, with all the spars able to stow under the thwarts for rowing the boat. The schooner rig would be ideal, spreading a large amount of sail with minimum heeling effect, and it would give us the ability to shorten sail in a blow. I settled on a 13½’ mainmast with a sprit sail and boom a 12½’ fore mast with a loose footed sprit sail that overlapped the main by 3ft or so. I built the masts of 4x4 pine roughing them out with my draw knife and tapering them to 1½ inch at the top. I cut the sails from a huge worn out jib donated to the cause by Ray Pike and his 60’ ketch Misty Isles. To raise the sails the sprit pole is used to push the sail up the mast. The uphaul runs through a dumb sheave at the mast head and simply serves to secure the sail once it is up the mast. The sprits are tensioned by looping their snotter line over thumb cleats on the mast. The sprits for fore and main are on opposite sides of the sails giving the craft a balanced look. For the races we would carry a short bow sprit and a jib to be set flying. A bobstay led from the end of the sprit to a towing eye in the dories cut water at about water level. The bobstay would counter act the upward pull of the jib. The bowsprit would be used for the trip to Gloucester and the races, but would not be for general R.I.R.C. use.


My biggest design concern was our little schooners lateral resistance; she had no centerboard, no keel, no leeboards, not even a skeg. To reduce side slip I specified 20 4½ gallon plastic jugs to be filled with sea water and carried on the bottom and amidships. The weight would be enough to set our dory almost two planks down in the water (she is a four plank boat) and steady her considerably. I also designed her rudder to be large and carry as much weather helm pressure as possible. The rudder would be hung on hardware I bent up from some galvanized bar stock. Two straps bent 180 degrees around a pipe and set an inch off the front edge of the rudder received a galvanized rod which also passed through two galvanized eyebolts, one at the top of the transom and one at the waterline, this configuration was bomb proof and held the rudder firmly in place. To ease the job of the helmsman I designed and built an oak tiller over 7ft long. The most important consideration in my design choices was simple strength. Everything must be designed for simple, sturdy construction and failure free operation. Nothing could be weak complicated or jury rigged, one failure could derail our bid for the Governors Cup and possibly put craft and crew in danger. We worked in our spare time with the help of friends to build the myriad parts and pieces that would ready our schooner for sea. All the components were built quickly, simply and cheaply but rock solid, ready to face the open ocean.


            Thursday afternoon dragged on minute by sweltering minute. Time generally passed quickly while I was working for Lowell’s, not that hot August day. I was one of two employees working for Lowell’s Boat Shop and the summer of 2006 was an especially busy one. We had more than enough work for three more of each of us, some boats were months behind schedule and we were booked solid with no end in sight so I was especially glad for the help of the Lowell’s volunteers. Marshall, a regular volunteer at Lowell’s, was in the shop helping me put the finishing touches on a dory. Marshall is an interesting guy and I enjoyed chatting after work, but when he suggested he could close up shop I jumped at the offer and went running out the door as the clock struck 4. I knew Joel and the schooner would be waiting at the old ferry slip in Salisbury. I had to hurry; time and tide would not wait for me.


The old Banks Dory was now a real honest to goodness Schooner! Our entry form had been approved (after some good natured scrutiny) by the Schooner Commission in charge of the Governors cup. Our schooners name was listed as Banks Dory, a tribute to the tens of thousands of unnamed dories used aboard fishing schooners for nearly 100 yrs. We were the smallest schooner qualified to race for the Betty Ramesy Trophy (19’-40’ long schooners). Our class would cross the starting line just minutes after the Esperanto Cup competitors, these are the big boats each one over eighty feet on deck!


Joel had agreed to help me sail the dory schooner from Rings Island to Gloucester where we would meet up with Rings Island Rowing Club members for the schooner races on Labor Day. By the time I had retrieved the oars from the R.I.R.C. boat house Joel had the schooner ship-shape and packed with our provisions for four days on the water.

3 gal. water (1 frozen)

½ gal. milk (frozen)

6 gal. sports drinks

1 doz. Eggs

1 lb. thick sliced bacon

1½ lb. bone in ham

1 lb. hot dogs

3 cans Boston baked beans

1 can clam chowder

4 packs dry ramen noodles

10 granola bars

and various other sundries.


We packed the dry goods in a five gallon bucket and bungee corded the lid. The perishables along with the frozen drinking water and milk went into our small cooler, no room for ice. The rest of our water and sports drink would make the trip chilled by our schooners ever-present bilge water. Even with close to 700lbs. of water ballast in the bilge, 200lbs. pounds of rig, gear, equipment and provisions, and 375lbs. of crew our dory was still floating high and dry, two planks showing, and ready to set sail for Gloucester.


Joel made a quick run to a local sub shop for our supper while I raised the sails and hung the rudder. Lauren stopped by to see us off and we embraced, this would be only our second night apart since our wedding one year previous. High tide was around six pm and the Merrimack ebb had really begun to run. We lashed the tiller, ran out our oars, waved good-by to Lauren and pushed out from the slip at Rings Island. The river was glassy flat, our schooners sails hung limply as we rowed between the moored boats. The many Steeples of Newburyport’s churches glowed a brilliant yellow in the red sunset. I rowed down river through the anchorage and down along Joppa on the Newburyport side, still not a breath of air; we tied the sails back to the masts and glided on under oars. When Joel had finished eating his sub sandwich he took a turn at the oars. I sat back enjoying the sunset and supper.


Joel and I had elected to chart our course through a back water channel called the Plum Island River rather than taking our schooner out through the narrow and notorious Merrimack River mouth. The Plum Island River is little more than a tidal creek, about 60 ft. wide. It connects at one end to the Merrimac and the other to the Parker River and Plum Island Sound. We rowed for the dark outline of Woodbridge Island and the lights of the Plum island river bridge which shone clearly over the marsh. About a half hour after dark we had passed Woodbridge Island and reached the bridge. It is a draw bridge but from the light of its two red signal lamps we could tell our masts would clear by three feet or more. The out going tide was racing against us so I hauled hard on the oars and Joel held us straight with the tiller. The hull was buffeted by the strong eddies around the bridge and after reaching the slow water on the other side it was time for the first of many bailing sessions.


The Plum Island River was as flat as a sheet of glass, the occasional traffic noise of cars on the gratings of the bridge faded as we rowed on by moonlight, deep into the marsh. About half way through the river is a point where the water splits, some running into the Merrimac and some into Broad Sound behind Plum Island. The area is known to locals as the “Hackus” a shallow maze of little grass islands, mud banks and narrow creeks. The out going tide was so low here that our oars were dipping into the mud. It was nearly 10 pm and with the tide still falling we decided to put up the boom tent and turn in for the night. The tent was a contrivance we had arranged just the week before and was yet untested. To rig the tent we ran a cord through the grommets in a 12x 8’ polly-tarp and around the gunnal of the dory. We used one of the sprit poles as a ridge pole tied between the two masts. With all the lines drawn tight the tent provided a relatively snug and weather proof shelter to keep us dry should a shower blow through during the night. We removed the rudder, brushed our teeth with salt water, made sure the anchor was holding, then into our sleeping bags…still not a breath of air.


I woke the next morning to the gentle chortling of ripples against the Lapstrakes of our hull. As the sun rose over the sand dunes the wind rose with it. We bailed out our schooner. Joel got about the business of getting our little schooner shipshape while I snapped a few photos. With high tide around 6:30 am and the breeze blowing toward Gloucester we decided to raise the jib before making breakfast. The Hobo stove (coffee can with paraffin and cardboard wick) I had brought along did a fine job of frying eight strips of bacon and six eggs which Joel and I agreed tasted especially good when cooked aboard our own schooner. As we were finishing breakfast Joel pointed out a white speck of spray up the Parker River. As it came closer I recognized it as my father Bert in our aluminum boat. Lauren was with him! They were coming out to see us off and deliver a bottle of Tylenol. I passed Lauren my camera while Joel and I raised the fore and main sails and readied our little dory for sea. While we made breakfast we had covered nearly a mile just drifting with the tide and breeze. With the jib already up and our schooner running before an 8-10 mph breeze it was no trouble pushing the other two sails up the masts. Lauren tossed me back the camera and Joel and I waved good-by as we hauled in on the sheets and headed off down the sound. The Dory Schooner was sliding along nicely. We passed Grape Island and then Pavilion beach in Ipswich by 9:00 and rounded the tip of Plum Island, now we were headed for the open sea.


Off the mouth of the Ipswich River our schooner began to rise to the first ocean swells. I was surprised how steep the waves were. Just then a large wave broke off our lee bow. All along its crest raged white water. I glanced under the sail to see the surf of one of Ipswich’s famous “breaking bars” only a hundred feet to leeward! The beaches around are littered with water worn lumps of coal and brick, cargo of the unfortunate ships that ended there days on these treacherous shoals. We tacked on the spot and ran out a pair of oars just as an incredibly steep wave came rushing at us. Our schooner sails full and drawing and Joel pulling at the oars, smashed its way through the wave throwing spray head high. A few more steep crests and we were back out into deeper water. Several more short tacks saw our little schooner safely out into Ipswich Bay.


Ipswich Bay is not sheltered water. More like a dent in the shore line than any protected bay, it is completely open to the sea from the New Hampshire coast to Cape Anne Massachusetts. Our objective on this leg of the trip was the Anisquam River. The Anisquam cuts deep into the base of the peninsula that is Cape Anne. Following the river will lead you to an ancient canal that empties into Gloucester harbor just a stones throw from the famous Gloucester Fisherman’s Monument. While crossing Ipswich bay we would be exposed to the Atlantic and navigating the mouth of the Anisquam could get exciting in a breaking sea. Full sized ocean swells regularly break on the bay’s most sheltered beaches. I was under no delusions; we were on the ocean in an open boat.


Out on the bay the breeze was blowing 12-15. We were sailing close hauled beating our way into a steep 3’ chop. I kept our bow pointing for a headland on Cape Anne known as Halibut (originally Haul About) point or “the rock pile”. The point is the site of an old granite quarry dating back to pre colonial times. Joel dropped the jib, because it was causing our bow to fall off the wind. We needed to keep pointing high, clawing our way to windward trying to stay clear of Steep Hill beach. We got the dory organized and settled onto a long tack. We would stay on this same tack and heading for more than three hours. Joel was trimming the fore sail while I tended the main and handled the tiller. The banks dory had no centerboard or keel, not even a skeg, just the rudder, the weight of ballast and gear, and her hard chine to keep her from slipping to leeward. To sail up wind we let the dory heel until her lee rail was nearly touching the water. This put her chine down deep and gave us our best performance to windward. There was a little leaking as our Schooner shouldered through the sloppy 3-4ft. chop. We took spray over our weather rail occasionally but our schooner kept us dry. The sprit sails set smooth and pulled consistently, they were hardly affected by the bounding of our schooner in the short, steep seas.


The hours seemed to drag on. We were pinching our dory as close to the wind as we dared, bucking up and down off the mouth of the Essex River. There were no boats about, save a large trimaran with a monster sized sail that passed within a quarter mile of us doing over 10 knts. Joel went for the camera to snap a few photos but started to feel queasy in the stomach. We opened sports drinks and tried to keep hydrated in the noon day sun. The southeasterly wind continued building to a steady 15 mph and with it the chop. We were in for a bumpy ride. Finally around one thirty pm. we eased off the wind. The entrance to the Anisquam was now only a few miles off on our starboard side. The river mouth showed as a break between the long sandy stretch of Wingasheek Beach to the north and the stern rocky shore of Cape Anne. Joel took the tiller and I climbed out to the bow and hoisted the jib up. We were now on a broad reach and churning along. Our sails strained and a huge bow wave rolled out along our lee side. The stern wave hissed just inches from the rail and the chop was steep and breaking in our wake. I perched high on the weather rail tending the main and fore sheets while Joel made good use of the seven foot tiller keeping our dory steady, roaring, toward the mouth of the Anisquam. Now we were making time, spray flying, we were grinning from ear to ear as our schooner “brought us the horizon”.


With the wind over our transom we came in through the chop off wigwam point light, continuing up the Anisquam passed Babson point and the through the fleet at the Anisquam Yacht Club, right up the river leaving the lush grassy expanses of Pearce Island and the West Gloucester marshes to starboard, finally passing under the route 128 bridge under sail power only. I dropped the anchor in a shallow back water just south of the bridge. Joel broke out our can of Snows’ “New England Clam Chowder” while I lit a fire in the hobo stove. After a late lunch brailed the sails to the masts, lowered the jib, up’ed anchor, ran out the oars, and pulled for the railroad bridge and canal beyond. Once we were under the R.R. bridge Joel and I could see the final obstacle between us and Gloucester harbor, the rt. 127 draw bridge over the canal.


For Joel and I to have taken our schooner out and around cape Anne would have meant many more hours tacking into a head wind out on Ipswich Bay. The canal is a narrow channel dug through the mud, gravel and stone of Cape Anne connecting the Annisquam River with Glousters outer harbor. It empties into the harbor beside the Fisherman’s monument. We rowed up the canal to with in a few hundred feet of the bridge. I pulled on the oars as Joel at the tiller fought the swirling eddies and raging current for control of our dory. We were barely able to hold our dory steady against the current, there was white water under the bridge its self, the tide must have been racing at 6-7mph against us. We knew rowing our heavily laden dory against that tide would be next to impossible. Resigning our selves to the fact that we would have to wait for the tide to turn we prepared to return down stream to the bridge and spend several hours at anchor. As we were about to shove off a siren sounded behind us, it was the Gloucester harbor master. He kindly offered us a tow through the draw. The harbor master radioed the tower and as the bridge began to open we roped along side his boat and were towed through the raging current out into Gloucester Harbor.


With a grateful wave to the Harbor master we cast of our line and sheeted in the sails. They filled with a beautiful easterly breeze pulling nicely. We tacked our schooner a hundred feet from the beach and set a course for the inner harbor. Now we were moving, our rail just inches from the water, bow wave throwing the small, foot high, chop to leeward with a regular rhythm. Joel and I relaxed. The dangers of open water, the questions about or schooners up wind performance, the concerns of navigating the canal, they were all behind us. We were in Gloucester harbor charging passed ten pound island with a bone in her teeth. Ahead were the masts of Bluenose II and many other schooners rafted up in the inner harbor. We had completed our voyage, we had made it to Gloucester harbor and we were ready to race for The Governors Cup!


(images coming soon)

Image 1 loading supplies Thursday evening at the Ferry Slip in Salisbury Ma.


Image 2 morning behind Plum Island. tent rigged on sprit pole, cooking on the hobo stove.


Image 3 hoisting sprit sails on broad sound


Image 4 Gloucester bound. Sail raised and ready for sea


Image 5 two miles off the Essex River on Ipswich Bay


Image 6 entering the Annisquam past Wigwam point light


Image 7 the docks in Gloucester