Sometimes one has to stumble onto something to discover new worlds that you never knew existed. Hey, have you ever been to Camden, Maine?
Now that is another world — for at least a week in late July, anyway. This scruffy old sailor was invited to join a racing crew for a three-day event called The Camden Cup Classic - it was an eye-opener, alright. Seventy-two gorgeous collector yachts gathered together at the Lyman-Morse boatyard the weekend before last to duke it out as the fastest gal in town. These classic, vintage, large boats are reminiscent of the boats of Carnegie and Vanderbilt from the gilded age. Some of them were literally from that age, the 1920s and ‘30s. Most of the boats are old but a few had been built “instant old” with modern race bottoms beneath classic, heavily varnished wood decks and below decks. Sixty to 100 feet long, there were some beauties that would take your breath away, even just sitting at the dock. And what a sight, seeing four dozen of them on the biggest main dock complex, tied in layers four deep, side to side. It was a thousand years of varnishing if one person started at one end and tried to do all 72 ships. Whew, makes me tired just thinking about it.
One realizes that probably antique luxury airplanes, cars, tractors, trucks, motorboats each had conventions like these, opening the door to private worlds that we don’t dream are out there. Imagine a Bugatti or a Bentley meet, where the cars were a million bucks plus. That’s what these boats were worth, the cheapest of them. It’s not for me to comment on who owned them and if they were worth the money or the disparity of wealth created by their presence. It was just to marvel at them and another era when they were created. It was a whole other world, set up for this one week in the most appropriate setting imaginable. The difference with the Bugattis or Bentleys is they don’t go out and race inches away from each other, again and again.
Camden, Maine, is almost too cute to be believable -- like Rockport on steroids. Surrounded by towering hills with amazing views, Camden Harbor is about the size of Smith Cove in East Gloucester. Into this small space is crammed the most well-organized fleet of interesting boats, sail and motor you could possibly fit — including large schooners — the Appledore, the Lazy Jack II, Surprise, Olad, the Lewis French and the Mary Day. Our own Adventure used to ply these waters in nearby Rockland, Maine, just down the coast. To watch the schooner tours threading the needle to get between all the extra moored boats in Camden Harbor was pretty impressive. The captains seemed to love missing the other moving boats by mere feet as they swept to their rendezvous points as if t’were a game they played every day, which, of course, it was.
Summer Camden itself was almost too crowded to venture into, as the parking -- free -- was long taken up, the traffic stacked. But there was a rampaging waterfall right at the head of the harbor that couldn’t have been more picturesque. Camden is definitely a “boat-obsessed” town. Every single person seemed totally taken by sailing in some form -- kids, grannies, old salts, young old-salts-to-be, everyone! I looked out the porthole at 6 a.m. to see an elderly couple weaving through the dawn harbor in their old sailing skiff without a boom. The woman diving was slumped in the back, happy as a clam and every time she jibed, the boomless sail crossed to the other side with barely a ripple or sigh. All the sailors seemed like they were doing it “their way” in their own original, distinctive -— not-necessarily expensive — way. Unlike Marblehead, Newport and other boat-obsessed burgs, their was no “de rigeur” boating etiquette, where things have to look a certain way. Camden was its own opera with differing characters singing many different roles. I’d fit right in, in my sunfish and survival suit. In winter, I’d hardly be the only one out there.
But back to the Classic Cup. Almost all the vessels had hired captains and professional crews. (We didn’t.) The starts were extremely close. Unlike most cruising boat and old boat regattas — where the drivers usually start slightly late to avoid getting too close to the competitors — these hired captains had the nose of the boat right on the line, bunched up with the other pros, side-by-side. It was some sight. The boats were divided into seven classes, around 10 boats each with similar names: Vintage Classic, Modern Vintage, Classic Modern, Classic Vintage, Spirit of Tradition, Modern Spirit of Tradition, etc. Hard to see the difference, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was to see these incredible “empire walkers” as they’ve been called, out pounding down the run with full spinnaker or skipping across Penobscot Bay on a broad reach in big packs. Unlike schooner racing, they don’t “dumb it down” by just reaching and running off the wind, as we do here in Gloucester on Labor Day weekend — no, there were the challenging upwind legs that separate the champions from the also-rans. Shifts, tides, strategy and tactics were hugely important. The start was also key, as in real racing.
Leave day was very sad as the fleet began to break up and depart Camden. The end of a dream weekend. The huge boats along the wharf pulled out, leaving holes and heartbreak to see them go. Some were heading for the Eggemoggin Reach, another classic boat weekend race event further up the line, but it was deflating to see the fantasy break up. Until next year, when the dream fleet will be recreated in Camden — all funds raised (around $30,000) to benefit the Lifeflight of Maine organization that medflights needy patients and others. Good for Lyman-Morse. Thanks for opening my eyes to another world.
Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.