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At Maine Maritime Academy, the best classroom might be a century-old schooner

“I feel like a tall ship is the place I’m meant to be,” one Maine Maritime Academy student told 207.

CASTINE, Maine — What is Maine’s official state dessert? Official state tree? State soft drink? 

Even if you didn’t actually know the answers, you could probably fall back on the skills that got you through high school and fake your way through with some educated guesses, provided you have some familiarity with Maine. If you guessed blueberry pie, white pine, and Moxie, you just went three for three.

Here’s where the quiz gets more challenging. What is Maine’s official state vessel? Hmmm. Not so easy, eh? You can’t just guess, you have to know it.

The answer is the schooner Bowdoin, a vessel built 100 years ago in East Boothbay for Arctic explorer and researcher Donald MacMillan and now part of the fleet at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, where it serves as a floating classroom. When students come aboard the Bowdoin they’re taught the time-honored skills that sailors have learned for centuries—how to raise and lower sails, how to read the wind and steer accordingly, how to give and take orders and work with fellow crewmembers. It’s all refreshingly low-tech, even no-tech.

“A 100-year-old vessel takes a lot of work,” Captain Will McLean said. “So they’re learning the skills to maintain a vessel. They’re learning the importance of caring for your vessel. They’re learning the attention to detail that it takes to keep this vessel looking great even after 100 years.”

The Bowdoin carries a rich history. Specifically designed for voyages above the Arctic Circle, the ship sailed more than 300,000 miles on 26 research trips to the north. In some ways, its mission endures. 

“This boat goes out with students in the same way that Donald MacMillan went out with young people who were looking to explore the world and learn new things about what was beyond the far horizon,” Chief Mate Sara Martin said.

The students realize that every moment spent aboard the schooner is one to be savored. After graduation, the joy of hoisting sails will not be found in their new careers on tugs and tankers, and container ships. 

“I love going aloft,” student Sandra Loughlin said, looking up to the rigging overhead. “I’ve always loved heights, and I feel like a tall ship is a place I’m meant to be.”

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