Under a cover: The Virginia, up close in Wiscasset

Ship’s volunteers may set sights on Windjammer Days
Tue, 01/24/2023 - 7:30am

    The Virginia the Popham Colony built in 1607, with Maine wood and the iron, ropes and sails the colonists brought over from England, was pretty much a UPS truck, created, like the colony, to make money, Rob Stevens explained. The Woolwich shipwright and fellow volunteers are working at Wiscasset’s waterfront this winter on a recreated Virginia. Stevens said this one, a project of Maine’s First Ship (MFS) in Bath, is 95% done, and has a different mission: Taking classes of schoolchildren out on it.

    This Virginia is about 20% bigger, to be able to take a class out and meet Coast Guard rules on square footage per passenger, he said. And it has a motor so the ship, for which 20-foot oars are being built, can stay on schedule regardless of the wind and current.

    After the colonists returned to England with furs and sassafras leaves on the 1607 Virginia, that vessel, built at the mouth of the Kennebec River, was sold to Jamestown Company and some of the same colonists sailed it to Jamestown, Stevens said. A written reference to “the boat built in the northern colony” proves the vessel made it there, he said. “After that, we lose track of it.” What happened to it finally, and when, are unknown, he said.

    Stevens and fellow white-bearded and other volunteers showed Wiscasset Newspaper around MFS’s Virginia Jan. 18. Earlier in the Bath-based project, a sign noted people could “come see men in white beards,” Brunswick’s Paul Cunningham said. Topsham’s Jim Amundsen, another with a white beard, used to volunteer for tall ship Delaware. He got involved with the Virginia more than three years ago, after wife Linda saw an article stating a couple of fallen trees at Bowdoin College were being donated to the project; he stopped by MFS and talked to volunteer Orman Hines. “I signed up, put two hours in that day, and was there ever since.”

    Another Brunswick Paul, Paul King, was still living in Connecticut when he helped restore the HMS Rose he said went on to be in the film “Master and Commander,” starring Russell Crowe. On the Virginia, King has enjoyed “working with these guys and accomplishing something,” he said.

    Sitting on board with a stein of Irish breakfast tea in hand Jan. 18 after having one of the cinnamon sugar doughnuts Fred Gosbee brought from Dot’s Bakery in Round Pond, bos’n and board vice president Jeremy Blaiklock of Arrowsic recalled he had not expected to be in charge of anything when he got involved with the Virginia. Smiling, he said about people taking on duties with the project: “Sometimes that happens.”

    Gosbee, a musician and Bristol resident, has a shorter drive to the Virginia while it is in Wiscasset. He made parts of the ship including the masts, the knight heads he topped with likenesses of Stevens and others, and the wooden part of the rudder.

    The Virginia is wintering here – and maybe will every winter, Stevens hopes – to avoid having big sheets of ice slam into it on the Kennebec; and the Sheepscot’s saltwater prevents wood rot; the Kennebec is somewhat freshwater, he said.  

    Stevens said the vessel may appear at this year’s Windjammer Days, probably as a dockside attraction only as the Virginia still needs its Coast Guard certificate of inspection, he explained. The ship, now under a plastic cover, still needs its sails added and some other work done.

    Stevens, husband of State Rep. Allison Hepler, D – Woolwich, was also shipwright on the Providence that wintered here a few years ago during its construction he said was not an MFS project, but had some of the same people working on it, besides him. The Providence is now based in Alexandria, Virginia, he said. What is the appeal of these projects? He said if he builds a yacht, he makes one family happy; if he builds something like those two ships, “I get to share it with hundreds and hundreds of people.” Some of them, he can see, are never going to forget it.

    Fred Bowers liked what he was seeing of it Jan. 18. The Alna man who built schooner Sycamore is a longtime donor to the Virginia project. He explained it meshes with his interest in history, particularly Maine seafaring history. “And it’s a good group of people.”

    If interested in volunteering to help with the Virginia – no skills “whatsoever” required, Stevens said, stop by on a Monday or Wednesday or go to mfship.org. “We wouldn’t want them showing us up and making us look bad, by showing up with skills.”