MYSTIC SEAPORT, Conn. — A 60-foot Eastern dragger named Roann, a living example of Vineyard maritime history, was relaunched under sunny skies here last Saturday.
The Roann is the last of an era. No one makes fishing boats like this anymore.
The restoration of the Roann cost $1.2 million, lasted three and a half years, and involved a team of 50 boat builders, aided by another 50 volunteers. Mystic Seaport Museum, the owner of the Roann, organized the restoration of the vessel at its on-site shipyard.
A crowd of 500 people, including a number of Vineyarders, turned out for the relaunching.
Roann was built for the late Capt. Roy Campbell of Vineyard Haven when he was a young aspiring fisherman. He wanted his own boat and he wanted it built right.
The Roann was built and launched May 21, 1947, at Roy Wallace and Herbert Newbert’s shipyard in Thomaston, Me. Albert E. Condon designed the Roann to meet Captain Campbell’s needs.
Roann, an eastern-rig, diesel-powered, wooden fishing boat, is significant in maritime history beyond its Vineyard connection.
When built she was part of the era of change, a shift from faith in sail to a faith in diesel. Prior to her era, fishing boats were schooners. Fishing boats only gradually were making a transition to the power of diesel.
Boat designers were conservative in those times, too. Why change a design if it worked?
So for many years architects remained loyal and respectful of that sailing era even though the vessels now were powered by engines. Nets went over the side of the boat in those days as they had for years before. Pilot houses in those days were at the stern, obviously because that is where the wheel and the rudder were located.
When compared to today’s deep-sea fishing boats, the Roann is handsome, rounded like the bottom of a sailboat.
When the boat was built, Captain Campbell spent days in the yard watching her and participating in her construction. The boat’s name is a merger of Mr. Campbell’s first name with name of his wife, the late Annie Francis Campbell.
Captain Campbell fished the Roann through big and small swells. When he hauled back the net he brought home cod, yellowtail flounder, winter flounder, summer flounder, haddock and even pollock, at a time when fish were plentiful and profitable for a small-boat captain. He fished for swordfish with her, too.
Saturday’s relaunching was an opportunity for fishermen and friends to gather to celebrate the history of the boat.
They included charter fisherman Everett (Porky) Francis, 68, of Edgartown. Mr. Francis was a nephew of Captain Campbell.
While awaiting the relaunch, he and his wife, Carol Koser, swapped 50-year-old black-and-white photographs back and forth of the boat and of his uncle.
For a long time, Mr. Francis held in his hand a picture of himself aboard the boat. The photo showed him helping his uncle with a swordfish.
“I was 15 or 16 years old,” Mr. Francis said. “I lived with them in the summertime,” he said of his uncle and his wife, when they lived on Hines Point in Vineyard Haven.
In those days, after weeks of fishing, Captain Campbell would take a break and gather the whole family for a day of swordfishing off Noman’s Land, Mr. Francis said. In those days swordfish were plentiful. They swam not far from shore in the waters just south of Squibnocket.
“On a good Sunday we would have a day on the boat,” Mr. Francis said. “Roy would take his friends out on Roann to the backside of Noman’s Land for a picnic. They would harpoon swordfish. He didn’t have a stand. You could just go up to the bow with a harpoon. Then we would get in a dory and go out and pick up the fish.”
When out on fishing trips, the Roann handled rough seas well like those old Gloucester schooners of old.
A Vineyard Gazette article published August 18, 1953, tells the story of the Roann being rolled by a rogue wave on the southeast corner of Georges Bank.
“With no warning, a giant sea rose on the beam, a corresponding trough yawning alongside, and the vessel rolled into it, falling on her beamends. In the next instant solid water swept over her, covering the entire hull, filling the pilot house, pouring down the fo’castle smokestack and hurling the men around like dice shaken in a cup.”
The impact was so significant that when the vessel was righted, the otter-trawl net was dangling amid the vessel’s two masts and the crew aboard was beaten up, bruised and feeling grateful.
“We just thought that it was the end of everything,” crewmember George Alley Jr., said at the time. “It just didn’t seem possible that there was any hope at all,” he said.
The article continued: “Yet the vessel righted herself, suffering no apparent damage, and although there followed a stiff breeze, nothing alarming occurred after that terrifying moment.”
Captain Campbell, who owned the Roann for 14 years, went on to run a research tugboat called White Foot. He died in 2003.
The second owner of the boat was Capt. Chester (Chet) Westcott of Point Judith, R.I., who bought the boat in 1961. Like Captain Campbell, he dragged for fish with her and also went swordfishing.
In 1981, Captain Westcott sold the boat to Capt. Thomas E. Williams, also of Point Judith, and he fished the boat with his son Tom Jr. He sold the boat to Mystic Seaport in 1997.
Captain Williams said Saturday that the Roann was one of the best-handling boats he’s known. “She was a dream. I’ve never handled such a great boat.”
Among those attending Saturday’s event was Raymond Wallace, 75, of Thomaston, Me., the son of Roy Wallace, the Roann’s builder.
Mr. Wallace could claim to have been at both launches, the first when Roann was christened by Mrs. Campbell and this one. “I had just turned 14,” Mr. Wallace said of that first launching.
Standing at the edge of the crowd, amid the noise of so many people, Mr. Wallace was smiling and quiet as he watched the boat go into the water. Plenty of thoughts ran through his mind, including of the old boat and what Mystic seaport shipwrights had done.
“They have done a wonderful job, it was just like it was when it was brand new,” he said. “They did a beautiful job.”
Vineyarders who went to the relaunching included James and Roberta Morgan, John and Barbara Armstrong, Louis S. and Mary Larsen, all of Chilmark, and Frank Raposa of Vineyard Haven.
“I worked with Roy Campbell on the White Foot,” Mr. Raposa said. “I know how well Roy would keep his boat up. I think he would really appreciate the quality and the amount of workmanship that went into the restoration. Most commercial fishing boats don’t get a chance to be restored.”
For Walter Ansel, a shipwright at the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard at Mystic Seaport seaport, Roann was the center of his boat restoration world.
“We started taking her apart late in the fall of 2004,” Mr. Ansel said. “She was hauled in December of 2004 and brought into the shipyard’s huge barn in February 2005.
“The first spring was spent disassembling and documenting. We didn’t start putting new wood into her until late spring 2005,” he said. “She was built with a mix of red and white oak,” he said. Now she is 80 per cent white oak, which will give her even greater longevity.
John B. Snyder, one of the many workers on the vessel, recalled participating in the removal of 12 tons of concrete used as ballast on the vessel. They used hammers to break apart the cement and chunks of iron.
“I would come home after work smelling of fish,” Mr. Snyder said. It seems that when the vessel was used to harvest menhaden, the oil from the fish penetrated the cement and hull below. “I would come home and sit down to dinner with my two kids. They’d say: ‘Dad, you stink.’ You know I couldn’t get the fish smell out of the clothing.”
Ninety per cent of the boat has been replaced.
“She is an interesting boat,” Mr. Snyder said. “One of the first things Walter Ansel had me do was put together the boat’s history. You couldn’t help but fall in love with her. I appreciate work boats a lot more than yachts. It’s all about function and I think they are handsome.”
For three years, he would commit 12 hours a day to the project. He would wake up at his home in Westport at 4:45 every morning to get to work at 7 a.m., work until 3:30 and be home by 5 p.m.
“The part that really meant something to all of us was finally making of pieces of wood to put back into her. I was heavily into reframing her,” Mr. Snyder said.
At the formal ceremonies Saturday, Richard Burroughs, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and a visiting professor at Yale, spoke of the fishing boat’s future.
Mr. Burroughs, who has family roots in Edgartown, said the Roann soon will have a new mission. When completely restored, she will travel the waters again. She won’t be fishing with nets, she’ll be fishing with stories and educational programs for the young.
He said the Roann will be used to share stories, science and history with coastal communities: “Let’s look at the possibilities. Roann can become an operating museum ship that through her heritage carries forward centuries of traditions of the offshore fisheries.”
He said the vessel can travel up and down the coast, visiting communities, taking students out on trips. “She will bring with her the human story of the fisheries and serve as an ambassador for all the vessels in this great fleet,” he said.
Efforts to restore and maintain the Roann will continue long after the launch.
“There continues to be a fund for maintenance and a separate fund for the endowment of the Roann to see her continued operation,” said Matthew Stackpole, major gift officer of Mystic Seaport and former executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
With fair winds and tides and a continuing and expanded mission Roann again may visit the Vineyard, as she did not too long ago.
Contributions can be sent to the Mystic Seaport, Roann Endowment Fund, P.O. Box 6000, Mystic CT 06355.