Sailing aboard the Lewis R. French

Home & Family, Outdoors, People, Sports
on April 15, 2001

When he purchased the schooner Lewis R. French in 1986, Dan Pease, at 27, became skipper of the oldest continuously registered, working commercial vessel in the United States. He also became the youngest captain in Maine’s windjammer fleet—vessels from the early age of sail which now serve as charter boats.

The French was built in Christmas Cove, Maine, in 1871 and plied the waters from the Maine coast to Boston, carrying everything from granite to lumber and groceries as a “coaster,” the ocean-going, semitrailer truck of the pre-highway system era. After many metamorphoses, she was restored to her original schooner rig in 1976 and joined the vacation charter fleet now sailing out of picturesque Camden (pop. 4,022).

The French is one of countless vintage ships sailing out of towns along both of America’s coastlines. Moreover, on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, steamboats still ply the rivers, and a number of the country’s lakes and waterways provide charter opportunities on vintage vessels. But for sheer romantic adventure, it’s hard to match a voyage aboard a schooner, where the wind meets the sea.

Pease grew up in Wicasset on the Maine coast, messed about in boats from grade school days, worked high school summers at the local yacht club—and dreamed always of being the master of his own vessel. Two years at the Coast Guard Academy taught him he wasn’t cut out for military life.

“I had to be my own boss,” he says. To that end, he got a degree in business administration from the University of Maine, worked summers aboard schooners, then winters building and fitting them out. It wasn’t long before he was part owner of the French.

“I was always a saver,” he says, explaining how he was able to make the purchase. In the Yankee tradition of a smart young seaman’s rapid rise from crew to officer to owner-master of a ship, the next step was inevitable.

“Haul away together!” Pease sings out as eager passengers line the deck to raise the mainsail for yet another adventure among the spruce-clad islands of Penobscot Bay. “Halfway there!” comes the good-natured cry of encouragement, familiar to the repeat sailors, who can’t get enough of this exciting vacation.

Neither can the captain, who obviously enjoys himself as much as his passengers. Even in foul weather, when he exchanges his usual shorts and T-shirt for oilskins and stands at the helm, wind whipping his long beard, any resemblance to Captain Ahab is betrayed by Pease’s irrepressible grin. At the same time, he is an experienced commercial captain who handles heavy weather with reassuring calm. It’s rumored Pease can turn the 65-foot schooner around on a dime to pick up a wind-blown hat.

Captain Dan is also a romantic—no different than those who sail with him. People come from all over the country to turn back the nostalgia clock to the historic days of sail—and Pease’s wife, Kathy, was one of them. She arrived one summer with friends from Wisconsin to sail on another schooner, but through a fortuitous mix-up, found herself aboard the French, instead. It was love at first sight for the captain.

Kathy was recruited as fill-in cook, and the romance blossomed. She’s still a regular substitute for absent crew members. Two summers ago, Kathy returned as full-time cook, joined by their seasoned young sailor sons, Joe, 11, and Billy, 9. School and summer activities now keep them ashore, where Kathy serves as soccer mom, business manager, ship’s chandler (in charge of supplies), and harbor pilot.

When asked about a typical destination for the schooner, Captain Dan answers, “Wherever the wind blows.” Sometimes it can be as far east as Mount Desert Island 35 miles away. The French has even joined tall ship events in Boston.

One certainty of any cruise on the Lewis R. French is the ritual lobster bake on some quiet, offshore island. No matter the weather, Pease can find a sheltered beach.

Another thrill is sailing under the Deer Isle Bridge, which arches 95 feet over the channel at Eggermoggin Reach. From below it always looks as though the topmast won’t clear. On the quarterdeck, the captain, a superb yarn-spinner, keeps up the suspense, arguing on the radio with an irate (and imaginary) “bridge keeper.”

The French sails on four- and six-day cruises from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day. In winter, Pease builds boats and repairs gear in his barn. For a winter vacation, Dan, Kathy, and a few other schooner families take a seafarer’s holiday, sailing in the Caribbean—on ships similar to their own.

And what will Dan Pease do when he retires from the windjamming business, years from now?

“Go sailing,” is his instant reply.