Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Captain John Foss

From Windjammer Association Newsletter:

Meet Captain John Foss of the Schooner American Eagle

Anyone who knows Captain John Foss will surely remark on his most recognizable trait: his sense of humor, which fellow captains and loyal passengers call “dry,” is infamous among the fleet. But to spend time with John Foss is to know why passengers come back to the American Eagle year after year, and the wisdom he possesses makes him a most respected sailor.

Captain Foss spent winters in New York City until he was twelve, although his Maine roots run deep. His ancestors settled here in the seventeenth-century, and he is named for his great uncle who was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg while serving in the 20th Maine under Joshua Chamberlain. A tall man with a wry wit and an easy grin, Captain Foss spent summers and school vacations in Maine working in boatyards and on schooners. After graduating from Bowdoin College (where he majored in art history) and serving a “surrealistic” stint as a deck officer in the Coast Guard, Captain Foss bought the Lewis R. French and in 1973 set up the North End Shipyard in Rockland with Captains Douglas and Linda Lee. In the years since, most of the windjammer fleet have come to look upon the shipyard as a resource where schooners are rebuilt and repaired to keep them in service.

In 1984 he purchased the American Eagle, the last fishing schooner built in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The American Eagle is the second vessel that Captain Foss has rebuilt to be designated a National Historic Landmark. The schooner has now run voyages for 21 seasons with cruises from Lunenburg Nova Scotia to New York and Boston for tall ship events as well as hundreds of cruises in mid-coast Maine.

Unique among Maine windjammers, the American Eagle holds an international certificate and most seasons sails to Canada, “where it seems every year some nice Canadian rows out from shore to bring us fish – a schooner is a rarity there.” A cruise aboard the Eagle is a good balance between adventure and relaxation; and is also a platform of opportunity to observe nature and to sail a big vessel. The ship’s library has hundreds of books, mostly on how these schooners were used: the captain can quote from most of them The American Eagle sails to her old home port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, every year to take part in the annual Gloucester Schooner Race. She's won seven times.

Captain Foss has great respect for his many repeat passengers, who make up half of his passenger manifests. “We’re a business because of the people who come sailing with us and for no other reason. That’s who pays the bills, and that’s who’s preserving these vessels.” His favorite time aboard the schooner – “When we leave the dock” – can only be bested by “the dynamic of people from all over the country, all sorts of lifestyles, coming together – there’s nothing like it.”

In the off-season, Captain Foss spends time with his wife Kathy who is a school librarian and their two children, now in college. Besides restoring a 1935 wooden tug boat, he is active in coastal conservation groups. Also, thanks to his 500-ton ocean license, he works two weeks a year as an officer aboard the Elissa, an 1877 iron barque out of Galveston, Texas, with two other Maine Windjammer Association captains, Kip Files of the Victory Chimes and Barry King of the Mary Day. “We’re a very close group,” he says of the Maine Windjammer Association captains, noting that his daughter recently went to the prom with another captain’s son. “And despite the uncertainty and frustrations that sometimes arise from caring for a 19th century vessel in the 21st century, it’s certainly better than being ashore.”

To find out more about the American Eagle, call 1-800-648-4544 or visit their website.

17 comments:

Richard T said...

In 1979, I was fortunate to be hired by Capt. Foss to work for the summer. I had no experience, in much of anything that was required of a messmate, deck hand and helper. To say he had a dry sense of humor is an understatement. He enjoyed cold pancakes and sausage leftovers in the mid morning while trying to see through the smoke of Maggie's insistence to keep the wood stove burning (he put an end to that to the degree that he was able) But he also had great patience and understanding. One day, in spring, he asked me to take apart an old smoke house. I thought that meant knock it down. He meant disassemble it so the wood could be salvaged. I pretty much destroyed the whole thing. He was mad, frustrated but never said an unkind thing about my lack of common sense. He taught me many things; how to coil a line (not a rope) tie knots, and while it was fun, that sailing was not for me. I did major in Industrial Arts however, and I attribute that decision to the work I did that summer.
While the experience of sailing with John makes for a great vacation, imagine working for eight months with John on a schooner.
For the eight months, I never worked harder in my life...or was paid less for my labor, but then, I had a place to sleep and ate well. I look back to that summer as one of the very best in my 54 years.

Melvina said...

You write very well.

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