Popularized in song by the Beachboys, the sloop “John B” probably sailed from a Maine port.
For a time during the late 19th century, Maine shipbuilders dominated the nation’s shipbuilding industry. Even as steamships sounded the death knell for commercial sailing vessels, Maine shipyards continuously launched one wooden hull after another.
The state’s affiliation with ship construction dates to 1607, when English colonists fed up with a harsh life in Pemaquid launched a 30-ton pinnace and sailed away. Maine residents subsequently launched thousands of sailing ships, particularly during the 19th century, when an expanding national economy fed the demand for overseas transportation.
The earliest sailing vessels built in Maine resembled ships constructed in England. Most colonists coming to Maine were farmers, unused to the sea or to shipbuilding. For them, what easier way was there to construct a ship than to follow a tried and true design?
By the American Revolution, Maine shipbuilders developed their own designs, usually sloops, schooners, and brigs used for purposes like fishing or hauling cargo. Perhaps the prettiest vessels were the two-masted brigs, the equivalent of the modern working freighter. Laden with ice, lumber, fish, and bricks on outbound voyages throughout the world, Maine-launched brigs returned with those materials needed in New England, but only available elsewhere.
As international trade expanded, the need increased for larger and faster vessels that could carry more profitable cargoes. Maine shipbuilders responded to the need by constructing different designs, including packet ships, clipper slips, and the famous Down-Easter, the last commercial sailing ship built in significant numbers in Maine.
The packet ships sailed on scheduled passages between North America and Europe, carrying cargo and passengers in both directions. The three-masted packets — utilitarian in design and nothing really beautiful to watch while under full sail — became the transatlantic “airliners” of their day. Their numbers increased until steamboats gradually dominated the North Atlantic.
In the movie “Top Gun,” Tom Cruise echoes the jet pilot’s comment, “I feel the need, the need for speed.” During the mid-1800s, many ship captains expressed a similar desire, to sail their vessels faster than any vessel had ever sailed.
Of all the sailing ships that ever slid down the ways in Maine, clipper ships met that need for 19th-century sailors.
When trade routes reached California and the Pacific Ocean in the 1830s and 1840s, East Coast merchants recognized the potential markets for their goods. With overland transportation to the West Coast almost non-existent, sailing vessels provided the best way to ship freight halfway around the globe. Those ships that arrived the fastest at their destinations could command the higher freight charges, so ship designers devised the clipper.
In their heyday, clippers captured the romance of the sea as did no other sailing ship. Spreading its canvas like angel wings, a clipper towered across the skyline as its hull sliced through waves. Built with a rakish hull that severely limited its freight capacity, a clipper required many men to handle its sails.
Maine shipyards launched 83 clippers. Clippers reigned supreme for about 20 years, until sturdier vessels with deeper hulls and holds swept the queens from the sea. Among the sailing ships that overhauled the clippers was the Down-Easter, a square-rigged freighter built in large numbers during the last four decades of the 19th century.
Equipped with three, four, five, or even a rare six masts (photographic evidence suggests a seven-masted wonder that probably proved impractical to operate), the Down-Easter dominated Maine shipbuilding during those 40 years.
Black-and-white photographs surviving from 100 years ago show many Down-Easters being launched or under sail off the New England coast.
Technology bypassed the commercial sailing ship, however, and the state’s shipyards gradually went out of business or switched to building private yachts and pleasurecraft. Not limited by vagarious winds, steamships chugged directly to their destinations, cutting by days and weeks the time required by sailing ships.
By the early 20th century, commercial sailing vessels all but disappeared from the Maine coast. Today, their memory lingers in the windjammers that sail from Camden, Rockport, or Rockland and in the photographs and paintings shown in maritime museums.