The Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club hopes to see you on July 23 and 24 for the 48th running of the combined Shipyard Cup Classics Challenge/Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club annual Regatta! The enthusiastic response to the 2021 first annual event from racers, sponsors, and spectators’ points to an even more exciting experience this summer.
One of the many interesting vessels you will see is 92-year-old Blackbird, a proud survivor of the 17 famous Alden 309 schooners.
Blackbird was built by the Goudy & Stevens yard in 1930, for the price of $10,000, commissioned and delivered “on or before July 4” (according to the terms of contract with Alden) in Marion, Massachusetts, for Myron Arms. Myron “Mike” Arms, grandson of the original owner, came to visit her in 2010 and relayed some of the family history. Charles Arms, son of Myron Arms, still remembers the day of her arrival with the Alden provided Captain Mr. Jesse Brewer in full uniform and the cabin boy Edgar (“Egge”) dressed in his sailors’ cap and middy. They stayed on board for the summer. Blackbird was christened by Mrs. Arms on the mooring just of Barden’s Boatyard, with a bottle of bootleg whiskey provided by Mr. Barden, the local bootlegger. The time of the vessel’s building coincided with the Great Depression and the Prohibition in the United States. Consequently, her liquor cabinet was fashioned as a hidden door in the head of the centerboard trunk.
Myron Arms was not a sailor but purchased the schooner in the hopes of teaching his children to become yachtsman, in which he succeeded. Both his son Charles and later his grandson Mike Arms became avid sailors and have sailed extensively from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The Arms family owned a steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio and as the Great Depression worsened in 1930 and 1931, orders at the mill ceased, and the family was forced to sell their newly acquired schooner the following year. Her Carl Alberg designed rig and crew accommodations were highlighted in the Sparkman Steven’s listing in 1931, although the photograph was that of a sister ship. As the decline of economic activity continued, Blackbird’s ownership changed quickly; and after having been sold to Arthur Verseay of Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1931 for $10,000, she was sold for an undisclosed amount to Hubert Toppin, the commodore of the Essex Yacht Club (EYC) in Connecticut in 1935. Blackbird was Toppin’s pride and joy, sailing her to first place in EYC’s 1937 regatta.
Surviving the 1938 Great Hurricane of New England
In September of 1938, still under Toppin’s care and ownership, she rode the 140-mph fury of the Great Hurricane of New England secured to the yacht club pier. As the tale goes, only one vessel remained floating at Essex when the hurricane had passed. That vessel was an Alden on charter, whose skipper remained on board all night shifting anchors. A photograph of the devastation, taken by the skipper of that vessel the next morning and handed down by H. Littlejohn, shows only Blackbird’s masts above the flood waters, flying a tattered burgee, over the tangled wreckage of two other yachts which were thrown clear onto the club lawn.
Commodore Toppin had his schooner re-floated and repaired. Surprisingly, the damage was limited and only required replacement of a small section of the shear strake, and adjoining covering board, bulwark, and cap rail. Her lines retain a slight lift in her shear along the port side at the location of the main chain plates where she was battered against the piling at Essex. Several of Blackbird’s original Egyptian cotton sails, bearing Toppin’s name are still aboard and are still used, weather permitting. Toppin went on to sail his schooner another 12 years in Long Island Sound until 1950, when the boat was sold to Charles Phinney of Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts.
Many owners and always the same dedicated care
Since then, she has changed owners six times, being purchased by Joshua Spaulding in 1960, Stephen Parsons in 1963, and Charles Hamblett of Kittery, Maine in 1965 purchased her for $13,500 where she was a well-known landmark at Kittery Point. Larry Wheeler purchased her in 1983 for $44,000 and removed the centerboard. Wheeler sold the boat to Collin Eggleton in 1989 for $42,000 and she was finally purchased by her present owners, Sandy, and Peter Thompson in 1993 for $32,000. They recovered the old centerboard from a barn in Cumberland, Maine, in 1997 to use as a pattern for a new one, relegating the old one to a life as a garden ornament.
Over the years, the repairs on Blackbird included replacement of the stem (late 1960s) and center fastening of a majority of planks. In the early 1970s, Charles Hamblett replaced her centerboard and somewhere along the line the trunk was re-supported by cutting out the bottom corners of the floor timbers, sliding in rebar, and casting concrete around the base of the trunk and keel timber. While some may frown on such a repair, it did the trick for many years and provided a lot of longitudinal strength to the vessel. During his ownership he corresponded with Mike Arms who sought an opportunity to re-purchase the boat for his family. In the early 1980s, Larry Wheeler removed the board and plugged the trunk. In the late 1980s, Collin Eggleton removed the iron ballast keel, re-bolted the trunk area floor timbers through the keel timber, and reinstalled the ballast keel with galvanized steel keel bolts. Blackbird, to that point, had not spent a winter out of the water since at least the early 1960s.
Blackbird is known, and not surprisingly so, to a number of people up and down the New England Coast, and always enjoyed her annual romp with Sandy at the helm down the Maine coast to visit her former owner’s Charles and Eve Hamblett of Deer Isle, Maine. In 1995, Blackbird had the distinct pleasure of having Frank Eaton Jr. aboard at the Bucks Harbor Yacht Club; whose father once owned the sister-ship 309L, Nordlys, in the 1940s. Over the past years, Blackbird has introduced the current owners to many of her friends and acquaintances, which has been one of the great pleasures received in exchange for care given in the maintenance and restoration of this wonderful old cruising schooner.
Blackbird under Sandy and Peter Thompson’s committed ownership
In her 92nd year, Blackbird is a humble testimony to quality of the design, workmanship, and materials of her period. With good sensible care by many owners, she still retains all her original planking (except her garboards), her original rig, blocks, compass, chronometer, lamps, interior and most importantly her name. Since the schooner was in an exceptionally good shape for her age when Sandy and Peter Thompson purchased her, they got married on her and continued sailing her out of Freeport, Maine, for eight years, until they decided to haul her out for a substantial restoration at the end of 2001.
The philosophy of this work has been to rebuild the vessel as closely as possible to her original construction at Goudy & Stevens. This will allow the next restoration to preserve in all facets, the originality of 309Q. Thus, under her owner’s dedicated ownership, Blackbird has had replaced her horn timber, sternpost, keel, refastening and refurbishment of her iron ballast, centerboard trunk and centerboard, frames, and floor timbers, and has remaining to complete her deck, and coach roof canvas. In every sense of the word, she has been fortunate enough to remain, faithfully in originality and appearance, one of the ruggedly built, 43-foot Alden cruising schooners.
Excerpt from the book, “Great American Schooner Yachts” by Rudolf Arp, Schiffer Press, 2012.