Abandons Career in Finance for Life Aboard Schooner : For Maine Skipper, Every Day Is an Adventure
James W. Sharp never dreamed that he would become Captain Jim, getting up each morning and going where the wind would take him, through soupy fog and chilling rain, the kind only the coast of Maine can cough up.
Nor did he imagine skipping along at 14 knots as the captain of the Adventure, the queen of the Maine windjammers, through the brightest and most sparkling days as osprey fished alongside, an occasional dolphin surfaced and seals dove for fish.
As the day ends, Captain Sharp skippers the Adventure to one of the many island harbors for the passengers, kind of dude ranchers of sailing, to admire the beauty and maybe go ashore for a lobster feast.
The dream came late, as did his love affair with the Adventure, the second largest of the Maine windjammers. She is also the fastest and the last survivor of the dory trawlers that sailed out of Gloucester and Boston, braving fierce winter storms to get to the fishing banks off the northeastern coast.
“I know it sounds awfully corny, but I count my blessings every day,” Sharp said.
“I have no idea where we’re going in the mornings. There are just so many places to go. I just go where the wind takes me. There is no direction, no itinerary. We don’t do the same thing every week. If you’re going to do that, you might as well run a ferry boat.”
Sharp was a Philadelphia boy who entered the finance business that he inherited from his father. His nautical experience was limited to small craft that he sailed off the shores of New Jersey.
He first met the Adventure in 1957 as a paying customer on a cruise, and he never dreamed that someday he would own this 121-foot schooner, with a history that aptly fit her name.
Business in Bahamas
Sharp had a yen for the sea long before he became captain of the Adventure. Four years after his windjammer cruise, Sharp gave up finance and went into the charter business in the Bahamas with a 45-foot yawl.
“It was then that I learned the captain can do as he durn pleases. That’s what I wanted.”
He then took a summer job working on two other Maine windjammers, the Mattie and the Mercantile. He couldn’t wait to get back to the Bahamas.
“I thought then that anyone who lived north of the Mason-Dixon line must be crazy. But that winter after I got back to the Bahamas, I started missing Maine, the islands, the trees. Maine is a way of life. It’s a psychological place. I realized then that Maine had gotten under my skin.”
Sharp admired the Adventure as she sailed through Penobscot Bay off Camden and longed to own her. In 1965, he was able to buy the Old Lady of the fishing schooners.
“I bought her for the proverbial song,” he says. “She was basically sound, but she was in terrible shape. I had to chop ice to get below and once I got her up, she sailed like a toad swimming in a bucket of tar.”
As she was being towed to port, he took off the aluminum storm doors a former owner had installed on each cabin and chucked them overboard. He replaced them with wood doors, then restored the rigging. The Adventure sailed with only 2,900 square feet of sail when Sharp bought her. Today, she proudly flies 6,000 square feet and the largest mainsail in the United States, 3,150 square feet.
“I’ve sailed some 8,000 people on her in 20 years. That’s a lot of lobsters to burn, but I’ve loved every minute,” Sharp said. The 51-year-old captain has never missed a day, working with broken ankles and kidney stones in the winter. In the off season, Captain Jim is still at the wheel, as a free-lance tugboat operator.
Sharp, a man with bright blue eyes and a pronounced limp left over from a childhood bout with polio, says he has made many friends over the years as Adventure’s skipper. Many come back year after year. In two decades, he’s only had to put five people ashore--people more interested in booze than sailing.
“When they got to be a liability aboard, I’ve had to put them off. You can drink in a bar. That’s not what the Adventure is for,” he said. He’s had only one passenger he never wants to see again.
“She complained from the moment she boarded. The food was terrible, the accommodations were terrible, the weather was terrible, everything was terrible,” recalled Sharp, who takes off each Monday morning and returns the following Saturday to the home port of Camden.
The next year, she asked to come again. Sharp told her all 37 berths had been booked that week. “She inquired about the next week and the week after that. I just told her we were booked all summer.
“The next thing I knew she got her lawyer after us,” he said with a laugh. “I couldn’t believe it. The woman who hated everything was willing to take legal action so she could spend an entire week complaining.”
The captain of the sea remained firm. He kept her off.
Sharp has performed 18 marriages aboard the Adventure but one ceremony he does not plan to conduct there is his retirement.
“I don’t think I could stand on the dock and watch her go out with someone else at the wheel, someone else who would be sailing her when she starts hopping along.
“There were many boats I have known over the years that I would like to hold hands with, but there was only one I loved--and that was Adventure.”