The Schooner Bowdoin was built during the winter of 1920-21, but the idea of a sailing vessel that could successfully navigate dangerous Arctic waters was first born in the mind of Donald B. MacMillan over four years earlier.
In 1913, Donald MacMillan set out for the Arctic in command of the Crocker Land Expedition. He and the other members of the expedition became stranded and were unable to return home until 1917, when the third relief ship, the Neptune, successfully navigated the treacherous ice of Melville Bay. While he was waiting for rescue, MacMillan had plenty of time to think about the characteristics that a good, strong Arctic vessel should have. After he returned to the U.S. and served in the Navy during World War I, MacMillan began raising the money needed to build an Arctic schooner. He hired William H. Hand of New Bedford, Massachusetts, to design the ship to his specifications, and the Hodgdon Brothers of East Boothbay, Maine, to build it. In 1921, the Schooner Bowdoin, named after MacMillan’s alma mater, was launched.
At 88 feet long, 21 feet wide, and weighing 60 tons, the Bowdoin is the smallest vessel designed expressly for Arctic work, but also one of the strongest. The ship is a two-masted auxiliary schooner, double-planked, and double-framed with white oak. A five-foot belt, one-and-a-half inches thick, made of tough Australian greenheart, protects against ice, and the rudder is overly large for turning easily and quickly when working through narrow stretches of open water between ice packs. The Bowdoin’s propeller is deep under water to avoid damage, and the hull is rounded, designed to rise up out of the water when caught between ice pans or to crush ice blocking the way. A nosepiece of steel plate weighing 1800 pounds is bolted to the hull to aid in crushing ice and protect from collisions with heavy ice.
During the Bowdoin’s maiden voyage, over-wintering at Baffin Island in 1921-22, the design of the ship proved to be perfect for MacMillan’s Arctic work, and he sailed the Bowdoin more than 300,000 miles over 26 voyages through the frozen North in exploration and scientific studies. The Bowdoin was invaluable to Arctic research.
In May 1941, the Bowdoin was sold to the Navy for the duration of World War II. Under the command of Lt. Stuart Hotchkiss, the Arctic schooner helped to establish airfields in Greenland and perform hydrographic surveys. MacMillan bought the Bowdoin back from the Navy in 1945 at the end of the war and continued to sail North. Nine years later, in 1954, MacMillan and his beloved Bowdoin sailed the Arctic together for the last time. Today, after stints as a museum vessel at Mystic Seaport and as a charter ship, the Bowdoin is used at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine, for training runs to Labrador and Greenland. Once again, the Bowdoin sails the icy seas of the frozen North.
Virginia Thorndike has written a detailed biography of the Bowdoin entitled The Arctic Schooner Bowdoin (Maine: North Country Press, 1995). The National Park Service’s National Historic Landmark Study also provides biographical information.