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'A Rockport Institution,' Heron returns for 16th year

By Gabriel Blodgett | Jul 02, 2019
Courtesy of: Mike Leonard The schooner Heron sails past Indian Island Lighthouse.

Rockport — Sometimes it pays to get a late start.

Twig Bower came to the Midcoast after a tall ships race from the Caribbean during which one boat sank in a microburst and another, American Eagle, now of Rockland, lost a mast. Bower’s ship, which started after most of the fleet, made it to Quebec unharmed, and on his way back down the East Coast, he stopped in Camden, where the first person he met enlisted him to build a wooden boat.

That first gig led to a boatbuilding shop where the current Rockport harbormaster’s office stands, and eventually to cruises out of Rockport Harbor.

Bower and his wife, Bonnie Schmidt, who came to the area from Wisconsin at the age of 20, have now been taking trips out of Rockport for more than a quarter-century, the last 16 years of which have been on Heron, the 65-foot schooner they built over 18 months at their house on Molyneaux Road in Camden.

They have become “a Rockport institution,” said Harbormaster Abbie Leonard, who, for her entire tenure, weather permitting, has watched the boat take three daily trips out of the harbor from mid-June through the end of October.

“We go home to mow,” Bower said.

Since 2005, they have also sailed to the Caribbean for the winter, a month-long trip each way, meaning the majority of the year is spent at sea.

While keeping a primary residence on a boat does have its challenges, including dependence on the weather, according to Schmidt, it also teaches a lot about critical thinking and how to live with limited resources.

A large part of the allure of wintering in the Caribbean was the ability to homeschool the couple's two girls, an experience that Bower said “made the whole lifestyle worthwhile.”

Along with the educational opportunities, it has provided the family with a range of unique experiences, from visiting volcanoes to sailing with Johnny Depp for the filming of “The Rum Diary.”

While they offer a variety of sailing opportunities in the Caribbean, including regattas and charters, in Rockport, Bower and Schmidt prefer shorter trips. As opposed to more immersive overnight trips, Bower said, the shorter voyages allow them to engage with a broader range of people and provide a memorable experience while still leaving people with plenty of time to explore all that the Midcoast has to offer.

“People have fun and it’s contagious,” Bower said.

This summer they have added an evening Happy Hour Cruise to the morning and afternoon Eco-Tours, which Bower calls “educational narratives” where they teach passengers about the history of the harbor, including the lobster and lime industries and the dispute over the Goose River Bridge.

Schmidt said much of their accumulated knowledge has come from local residents, many of whom are regular visitors to the Marine Park, enthusiastic to share their memories of the area.

“They light up when they tell you their stories,” said Schmidt, who over the years has also become a particular expert on harbor seals. Wind permitting, many of the tours make it out to Robinson’s Rock, to the north of the harbor, where seals are often sunbathing and pups can be seen playing in the water.

Although Schmidt said they mostly ignored the story of Andre for a while, they have found that locals and tourists alike have a deep appreciation for it.

“The town votes for a seal as townsperson of the year,” said Bower jokingly, which “says a lot about them.”

Accordingly, the couple have collected a number of stories about the famous seal highlighting his aptitude at moving between species.

While all wooden boats typically require a large amount of work and general upkeep, the relative newness of Heron compared to most schooners means that aside from a spending a week or two when they return north painting the bottom and varnishing, very little maintenance is required.

“It’s a practical boat,” said Bower, who added that in the process of building they avoided complicated equipment that can often lead to costly repairs in modern vessels.

When asked whether after 26 years they get tired of spending so much time at sea, Bower laughed. “Try commuting to the city for 25 years. Who’s crazy?”

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Comments (2)
Posted by: wende newton walsh | Jul 06, 2019 11:44

Such a wonderful experience to go out on the water on the Heron that I try to go out at least once a summer to treat myself.  The Heron is such a fabulous asset for the town.  Loved the article.


Posted by: RALPH WALLACE | Jul 03, 2019 09:13

Thoroughly enjoyable article. As a Rockport resident, I was unaware of the history of the "Heron." Here's to a quarter century more.

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