Ninety years ago this April, the schooner Bowdoin slid down the ways of an East Boothbay boatyard. The story of Bowdoin is intertwined with that of Admiral Donald MacMillan. What is most impressive about the schooner, however, is the incredible loyalty and devotion the ship has inspired in almost everyone who has come in contact with her.

In 1908, at the age of 34, MacMillan joined Robert E. Peary’s expedition to the North Pole and began his passionate life-long career in Arctic exploration. Between 1921-54, MacMillan would sail Bowdoin over 250,000 miles on 26 voyages of Arctic exploration.

Designed expressly for working in the Arctic, the two-masted Bowdoin is 88 feet long, 21 feet wide and has a 10-foot draft, which allows her to work close to shore. Bowdoin is double planked for added strength and has an auxiliary engine. The hull is rounded, which allowed the ship to rise out of the water when caught between ice floes. An 1800-pound steel nose plate is bolted to the hull to help Bowdoin in her passage through heavy ice.

Bowdoin’s maiden voyage (1921-1922) proved to MacMillan that he had an ideal ship for Arctic exploration. With poor or non-existent charts, the schooner survived encounters with ledges and icebergs and crossed the Arctic Circle on August 23, 1921.  Bowdoin spent a long winter at Baffin Island where she was frozen in for 274 days. Numerous scientific and meteorological observations were made from their position, including a low of minus 50 degrees on February 10, 1922.

For the next fifteen years MacMillan made repeated voyages to Labrador, Greenland and beyond, surveying, mapping and collecting hundreds of botanical, zoological and geological specimens. In addition he studied Inuit (Eskimo) life and language and established an Inuit school in Nain, Labrador.

In 1935, sixty-year-old Dan MacMillan married twenty-nine year old Miriam Look, the daughter of his closest friend.  MacMillan had never had a woman on board and it was three years before Miriam was able to persuade her husband that she was up to the rigors of an Arctic voyage. “Lady Mac” as she was called, proved to be a “good scout”, according to crewmember, and she accompanied her husband on Bowdoin’s next nine voyages.

In 1941 Bowdoin was sold to the Navy for the duration of World War II. In May 1942, Lieutenant Stuart Hotchkiss took command of the schooner and for the next year and a half the vessel was assigned to the South Greenland Patrol. This involved setting up air bases on Greenland, performing hydrographic surveys, mapping shorelines, taking soundings-all the while avoiding German U-Boats. In 1943, Bowdoin was taken to Boston where she was decommissioned for the rest of the war.

In 1945 70-year-old Admiral Donald MacMillan bought his beloved ship back from the navy for $4,000. Starting in 1946 MacMillan resumed his scientific expeditions to Arctic waters. He made his last trip in 1954 at the age of 80. 

Over the years, MacMillan’s expeditions made extensive contributions to our knowledge of Arctic regions. In addition to scientific studies too numerous to mention, MacMillan demonstrated that airplanes could be used above the Arctic Circle and that short-wave radio provided effective communication with the rest of the world.

By the mid-1950s, MacMillan was no longer able to take Bowdoin on Arctic expeditions. Accordingly, he began looking for a suitable port. Finally, in 1959, a home was found at the Mystic Seaport Museum, which had recently opened an Arctic exhibition. In her book, The Arctic Schooner Bowdoin, Virginia Thorndike writes,”It seemed like the perfect home for the schooner.”

Less than 10 years later, a new director with different priorities decided to dismantle the Arctic exhibition. The vessel was permanently closed and sheathed in plastic. Bowdoin’s plight did not go unnoticed by Admiral MacMillan, who was appalled by her condition. In 1968 MacMillan went public and announced he would give Bowdoin to anyone who could care for her. At this point, Captain Jim Sharp stepped forward and agreed to tow the vessel back to his dock in Camden, Maine.

At about the same time, a number of people who had sailed on the historic schooner formed the nonprofit Schooner Bowdoin Association. Long-range plans were vague, but the idea was to save Bowdoin from further neglect. After some negotiations, Jim Sharp leased Bowdoin for a dollar a year from the Bowdoin Association with the understanding that he would begin repairs on the historic old vessel.

Over the next several years Bowdoin was largely restored by Jim Sharp and a dedicated volunteer, John Nugent.  A new foremast was stepped, planks were replaced, paint was stripped and years worth of barnacles were scraped off the hull.

One of Sharp’s first objectives was to sail Bowdoin to Provincetown to show her to MacMillan, while the old admiral was still alive. When they arrived in the fall of 1969, the MacMillans were in tears, Jim said. “Before long half the town was on the boat. We had to stop people from coming on board to keep it from sinking.” Less than a year later MacMillan had died.

Following an extensive rebuild in the 1980s, Bowdoin finally found what appears to be a permanent home. In 1988, Kenneth Curtis, then president of the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, heard that the Schooner Bowdoin Association was interesting in selling Bowdoin. He raised the money, realizing the potential the vessel had both as a student training ship and for public relations.

Bowdoin long ago achieved celebrity status. Everywhere she goes the ship is greeted by adoring crowds. On August 4, 1988, the schooner was designated Maine’s official state vessel, and in 1989 she was made a National Historic Landmark.

As a training ship, Bowdoin is a hands-on classroom for specific academic courses. At the same time, Captain Eric Jergenson takes students on longer trips to Labrador and occasionally to Greenland. As an ambassador for Maine Maritime, Bowdoin is made available to community organizations whenever possible. Wouldn’t Admiral MacMillan be pleased with the many ways his historic old schooner works her magic?