Old Schooners and the Scent of Bilge Water

When I was a boy of 7 in the summer of 1941, I visited my friend Joe Bartlett in Plymouth for a weekend. The highlight of the stay was being allowed to spend the night aboard his father's 42-foot Alden schooner, the Gurnet Light and to go for a sail aboard her the next day.

That night aboard Gurnet Light was my first experience aboard a "real" sailing vessel, and the strongest memory I still have from that magical night aboard is the sound of water gently lapping against the hull, and a rich aroma of mildewed canvas, sun-warmed varnish (none of that sissy polyurethane; this was the real tung oil and turpentine aroma), and a little bilge water thrown in. Even the thrill of sailing the next day couldn't match the magic of that smelly night aboard.


Over the last 50 years Joy and I have owned many wooden boats, and long after I've forgotten anything else about them all I'll have embedded somewhere in my brain the lovely, distinctive aroma of mildewed canvas, varnish, and bilge water.


When Salem's Peabody Essex Museum PEM had an exhibit a few years ago devoted to North Shore yachting, the centerpiece was a wooden Crocker Stone Horse sloop, heeled over as though on a beam reach. If you leaned over the lee rail and took a whiff of the cabin through the open companionway, you could smell a faint aroma of mildewed canvas, old varnish, and bilge water.


In the 1980s I helped on the restoration of the old Gloucester dory trawler Adventure. Mixed in with the faint memory of ten thousand pounds of haddock, cod and halibut brought aboard, cut, split and iced down in her holds over thirty years of fishing was that same faint aroma -- mildew, bilgewater and old "vanish," as they call it Down East, that makes a wooden vessel authentic.


Last week, 73 years after my last visit to Plymouth, Joy and I returned there for an overnight stay with a friend and his wife, and had lunch the following day with Joe's brother, who lives on the old Bartlett compound. There on the wall was this photo of Gurnet Light, booming off to windward in a stiff sou'wester. Brought it all back. 




Gurnet Light was designed by John Alden and built in 1924 at the C. A. Morse Yard in Thomaston, ME. Christened Panchara, she has criscrossed the Atlantic, and gone through half a dozen incarnations and at least as many owners in her 90 years, under the names Panchara, Roque, Gurnet Light, Gypsy, Killarney, and now Talisman.

 According to an ASA Newletter in 1972,



Whoever the "present owner" was in 1972 was, it was Charlie Bartlett, Joe's father, who acquired the schooner (presumably until then called Roque) after the 1938 hurricane, restored her,  renamed her Gurnet Light, and sailed her until World War II broke out.

Charles W. Bartlett (1905-1984), a well-regarded Boston lawyer as well as a good blue-water sailor, went off to war in 1942. After his return in 1945, he sold the vessel and acquired others (including a successor Gurnet Light II -- not, however, a schooner). He became a mainstay (and Vice Commodore) of the Cruising Club of America, and many a sailor to this day benefits from his often-updated Cruising Guide to Nova Scotia Waters. Used it myself to explore many a gunkhole and harbor between Cape Sable and Cape Breton.

I'd enjoy hearing from others who may know the history of this vessel in her many incarnations. Talisman's present owner, Bob Fitzgerald, keeps her in the Chesapeake. But what adventures (and mishaps) may she have gone through as Panchara, Roque (aside from her airborne hurricane experience),  Gypsy, and Killarney?  



Tom - Robert Fitzgerald was the most recent owner of record.  I e-mailed you his last contact information.



Thanks, Peter. I got the same

Thanks, Peter. I got the same from Al Bezanson