She was a beautiful sight. At 325 feet long (302 feet at the keel), 48 feet at the beam, and weighing 2,970 tons, the six-masted coastal schooner, George W. Wells, was one of the largest wooden sailing ships ever built. Her frame was entirely of white oak; her six inch planking, hard pine. Her garboards (the first strake of planks laid next to the keel) were eight inches thick.

According to a contemporary account, “the six lower masts are splendid sticks of Oregon Pine, each 119 feet long…. The cabins and staterooms are finished in ash, sycamore and cherry, and supplied with steam heat, baths, hot and cold water, electric bells and a telephone line to the galley and engine house.”

The Wells, built for John S. Crowley’s Coastwise Transportation Company at the Holly M. Bean shipyard in Camden, Maine, at a cost of one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, slid down the ways and into the harbor on August 14, 1900 as ten thousand people looked on.

The George W. Wells:

The schooner was named for a fifty-four year old entrepreneur/investor who was born on a farm in Southbridge, Massachusetts. At the age of eighteen he had secured a job in the Robert H. Cole & Co. optical shop where he quickly distinguished himself as a mechanical genius. By 1869 he had advanced to partner. In that year he became one of the incorporators of the newly organized American Optical Company. Three years later he became General Supervisor; then Treasurer in 1879. In 1891 he was elected President of the corporation.*

George Washington Wells:

The ship’s christening ceremony was performed by George W. Wells’ daughter, Miss Mary Elizabeth, who “scattered white roses upon the bow of the vessel as she started down the ways, and at the same time let loose a flock of white pigeons.”

After the ceremony the young society women of Camden sponsored a dance in the Opera House.

Reports of the day indicate that “every arrangement aboard ship…[was] on an improved plan.” Both the captain’s cabin and the crews’ quarters were “models of neatness and comfort.” The Wells was constructed, as so many other coastal schooners, for hauling lumber, coal, and other merchandise. Sailors aboard employed modern steam machinery to hoist her cargo between ship and dock.

Before her commissioning, word spread among the sailing community that the traditional designations for the names of her masts would be replaced by numbers or days of the week. Her skipper, Captain Arthur Crowley, the owner’s brother, would have none of that. The Wells’ masts, he made clear, would be foremast, mainmast, mizzenmast, spankermast, jiggermast, and drivermast.

Old salts who had heard of the plans to build such a large vessel shook their heads and declared that she was doomed to failure. Too large and cumbersome, they thought, the Wells would be unwieldy in port and difficult to control at sea. They were largely mistaken. Nearly as fast as a coastal steamer, but considerably less expensive to operate, the George W. Wells, with twenty-eight sails, proved to be a formidable and economical vessel. One writer noted that “while she is a large vessel, she is also a handsome  craft being much the best looking of all the large schooners afloat. Her great length takes away every appearance of bulkiness, and so she looks like an immense yacht, with her sharp bows, clean run aft and graceful lines all over….”

Ironically, in June of 1901 the Wells collided with the Eleanor A. Percy (launched October 10, 1900 in Bath, Maine), at the time the only other six-masted coastal schooner. Neither vessel was seriously damaged.

For thirteen years the George W. Wells plied the Atlantic Ocean between ports as far north as New England and as far south as Cuba. On September 3, 1913, en route from Boston, Massachusetts to Fernadina Beach, Florida, the Wells was driven into the breakers on Ocracoke Island by hurricane force winds.

A Painting of the George W. Wells:

The storm struck the island just after daylight, roaring in from the southeast at 90 – 100 mph. Small boats, steamers, and sailing vessels were no match for the hurricane. The British steam ship, Glenaen, grounded in the breakers near Ocracoke’s south point. For two hours the crew of the Ocracoke Life Saving Station battled wind and tide to approach the Glenaen. After being forced to abandon rescue attempts by surfboat, Keeper Williams ordered horses hitched to the beach cart. Tide water swirled under the cart up to the axle. By 10:30 a.m. the tide receded, leaving the Glenaen “high up on the beach” and out of immediate danger.

As the life savers struggled to help the Glenaen they watched a water logged six-masted schooner being blown down the beach with distress signals flying. All of the George W. Wells’ sails had been torn away, and she was leaking badly where seams in her hull had opened.

Captain Taylor of the Glenaen decided that he and his crew of 23 would remain on their vessel, so Keeper Wiliams and his crew turned their attention to the Wells, and followed the schooner for eight miles.

As the schooner approached the shore Captain Joseph H. York ordered her anchors lowered, but the chains parted, and the Wells was driven onto the beach near the present day pony pen.

Surfman Roscoe Burrus at the Hatteras Inlet station had also spied the Wells. Well aware of the difficulty of attempting a rescue in hurricane force winds, Keeper Barnett requested assistance from Durant’s Station on Hatteras Island. Crews from all three stations arrived at the wreck between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Reports indicate that they participated in one of the most daring and courageous rescue operations ever recorded.

Surfmen from the Hatteras Inlet station had harnessed ponies to their beach apparatus cart which was heavily loaded with breeches buoy, pulleys, sand anchor, various sizes of hemp line, brass Lyle gun, and other equipment. The sea tide was rushing over the beach, inundating the cart as every wave passed by. After two miles the ponies balked and refused to continue. Without hesitation the surfmen hitched themselves to the cart and pulled their equipment the remaining six miles, often in water up their waists and through quicksand, to the site of the wreck.

Keeper Barnett’s first two shots from the Lyle gun fell short of the Wells. He fired five more shots, but none succeeded in getting the breeches buoy to the schooner. The last line parted as it was being hauled to the vessel.

Finally Captain York tied a line to an empty oil barrel and sent it adrift. After an hour the life savers were able to reach the barrel by wading into the sea up to their necks. Soon afterwards they were successful in sending the breeches buoy out to the stranded schooner. Captain York secured the hawser high up on one of the masts, and signaled that he and his crew and passengers were ready to abandon ship.

By 11 o’clock that night all 26 people (20 crew members, three women, and three children) and a large Saint Bernard dog were brought safely to shore. One of the passengers was barely able to keep his two year old child’s head above water as they were pulled to safety. Captain York was the last to leave his crippled ship. He carried the Saint Bernard and a red lantern, the latter of which he dropped into the ocean just before landing on shore.

Just over a week later the once grand George W. Wells was sold at auction for a mere $800. Shortly thereafter the Wells was set on fire and burned. For years, remnants of the George W. Wells were visible on the beach at Ocracoke. In recent times a section of a long ago shipwreck, more than 75 feet long and more than 15 feet wide, is sometimes exposed north of the pony pen.

The Remains of the George W. Wells?

No one knows for sure, but many believe it is the last of the George W. Wells, a silent reminder of the days of sailors and sailing ships, and the brave and courageous life savers who watched over our shores.


* George Washington. Wells’ three sons (Channing McGregory, Albert [A.B.], & Joel Cheney continued to manage the American Optical Company after their father died in 1912. Eventually the company was sold out of the family. Today the American Optical Company manufactures a superior line of quality sunglasses.

In the 1920s the three Wells brothers began collecting antiques. In 1935 the Wells Historical Museum, a non-profit educational corporation, was legally organized and established. Just one year later plans were drawn up for the creation of a typical New England village (1790-1840) on the site of George W. Wells’ home on Main Street in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. In 1946 the enterprise became “Old Sturbridge Village” and was opened to the public. Today it is one of the country’s largest living history museums. You can read more here:

Many thanks to Kathryn Wells for information about her husband’s family, and for the photos of George Washington Wells and the painting of the schooner George W. Wells.


By Rob Temple, April, 2010

Leave her, Johnny, leave her
Oh leave her, Johnny, leave her!
The voyage is done and the winds don’t blow
And it’s time for us to leave her!

—-An old sea chantey traditionally sung at the completion of a voyage.
When I sailed the Windfall from her homeport of Ocracoke up to Scott’s Boatyard in Buxton on Easter Sunday with my son and a couple of friends for annual maintenance and a Coast Guard dry-dock inspection, I knew I was in for some costly repairs to a section of the hull which had deteriorated from fresh water intrusion, but that was not so unusual for an old boat constructed mostly of wood planking, along with plywood, epoxy and fiberglass.

(Photo by Tom Borneman, courtesy of Captain RobTemple)

As the yard crew and I began to dig into the hull, it became apparent that a proper restoration would exceed the cost of a new vessel.  On Wednesday, April 7, I notified the Coast Guard that I planned to retire the Windfall and cancelled the scheduled inspection.  By the following week, I was in New Jersey looking at another schooner that may soon become Windfall II.

Some folks have expressed surprise at the alacrity of these events, but those who know me best were not surprised in the least.

Sailors have always imputed varying degrees of human consciousness to their boats.  The fact that boats are usually referred to in the feminine gender is evidence of a prevailing affection felt toward them. But, love them as we might, we guys can never be sure we understand our women. And, strangely enough, that’s a big part of what makes them fascinating to us.

With Windfall, I guess I always wondered which of us would survive the other.  If she’d held on six more months, we would have been together a quarter of a century!

(Photo by Tom Borneman, courtesy of Captain RobTemple)

And I must confess (rascal that I am!) that, suspecting that this time might come, I’ve sort of had my eye on another shapely creature. Couldn’t help but admire the “cut of her jib” as they say.  I’m sure my uncle Pem, who (inadvertently) taught me to sail long ago, is rolling in his grave.  He wasn’t a schooner nut like I am but he was a devotee of wooden vessels.  I remember a placard on the saloon bulkhead of his Dickerson ketch that said, “If God had meant for us to sail fiberglass boats, He would have given us fiberglass trees.”

Windfall II, although somewhat smaller and constructed of fiberglass, will (from a distance at least) look very similar to her namesake. Instead of 30 passengers, she’ll only be approved for six, but I’m not getting any younger myself and could use a change. The smaller capacity will require a price increase, but I don’t want to do that without adding value so I’ll be offering longer cruises where we can really do some sailing.

Of course, we’ll grieve for the old girl. In nearly 25 years of service, Windfall carried tens of thousands of passengers from all over the globe without a single accident. And she sure didn’t owe me anything.

For years, people who understand business (and especially the charter business) asked me why I didn’t sell her at the top of her game and buy a newer/bigger/better boat. From a business standpoint it only would have made sense.

But the fact is: I loved her. Every time I took the wheel of someone else’s boat, it only made me appreciate how much I enjoyed sailing that schooner.

(Photo by Kitty Michell, courtesy of Captain RobTemple)

Old gaff-rigged schooners are no longer considered competitive performers. That’s why the annual Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race is strictly limited to the schooner rig.  In 2008, five of us sailed Windfall up to Baltimore and took third place in our division.  She maintained speeds in excess of nine knots for most of the race and finished ahead of many of the much larger vessels. The vessel that will become Windfall II took second place in the schooner race in 2000, and I hope to take her back up there in the fall.

One of the boat yard guys said to me the other day, “Well, Rob, it’s the end of an era, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yes, and it’s the beginning of a new one.”

I’d like to thank all the people who’ve crewed on Windfall over the years and helped with her never-ending maintenance. Thanks, also, to those who’ve sailed with us and recommended us to others. Thanks for the photos and all the compliments about how pretty she looked with her red sails in the sunset.

But life goes on!  The new vessel should be here in the next few weeks, sailing in Windfall’s wake.

(Rob Temple lives on Ocracoke and has sailed the Windfall on charter cruises from Ocracoke and Florida ports for several decades.)


by Philip Howard

(This was originally published in The Washington Post, Thursday, April 29, 1976)


The old fisherman drew alongside in his crabopt-laden skiff. “Where are you from?” he shouted over the whine of his engine.

“Ocracoke!” we yelled.

Ain’t never seen a rig like that before,” he marveled. The “rig” was the Mary E., last of the Maine clipper schooners.

Actually the boat captain, and crew were from New York. On their way from Key West to Boston they had ventured into Ocracoke Island’s Silver Lake Harbor on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

As part of the Bicentennial Sail jointly sponsored by the National Park Service and “Sea Ventures,” a New Jersey-based educational organization, the Mary E. was being used as learning motivation for students in schools near various East Coast Parks. Bound for Manteo, farther north, the schooner made a stop at Ocracoke and was detained by bad weather for several days.

Schooner Mary E:

(Click to go to the Mary E’s official web site)

While on Ocracoke Meryl Silverstein, the onboard educator, first mate, cook and deckhand made arrangements for our students to inspect the ship. But instead of giving us the usual 20-minute program, Capt. Teddy Charles invited us to sail to Manteo, 70 miles north. Within two hours, 13 Ocracoke high school students, three adult supervisors, Silverstein and the skipper were sailing out of the harbor with excited and anxious mothers, friends and teachers waving.

The Mary E. is the only historically authentic vessel regularly sailing in New York waters. She was built of oak in Bath, Maine, in 1906. Her two big masts are pine. Originally she was a fishing vessel, carrying four or five dories; her hold, redesigned as a passenger cabin, once stored up to five tons of mackeral. In 1968 she was rebuilt stem to stern by W.T. Donnel. Capt. Charles bought her in 1974 as a passenger windjammer.

From the beginning our trip was a learning experience, one both students and adults were willing to accept with excitement.

“Stand by to raise the foresail!” came the order. “Untie the halyards! Ready on the throat? Ready on the peak?” In no time the foresail was harnessing the legendary winds of Cape Hatteras.

“Trim the sails! Secure the halyards! Secure the sheets!” With all sails raised and a good wind, the Mary E. could cruise at six to eight knots.

Our captain knew his profession. Patiently he and Meryl taught their novice crew the rudiments of sailing by insisting that we do what they could easily have done more quickly and efficiently. For our part we learned well. “David, take the helm. Steady on 045.” Each turn experienced the feel of the wheel. “Don’t oversteer,” he cautioned. “One or two spokes is plenty.” We sailed up Pamlico Sound.

Fifty-three feet long on deck, 72 feet overall, the Mary E. had looked small from the dock, but actually proved quite large. The 18 of us were divided among three watches: on-deck, below, and off.

Keeping on course by compass and “lines of position” from lighthouses and other landmarks, we sailed until 1830. Off Chicamacomico Channel  we dropped anchor just before dark. It wasn’t ideal. “Too open; no protection,” the captain said. “But it’s all we’ve got.”

We kept our eye on the anchor till dawn, making sure we were not drifting; rising winds could suddenly force us aground on one of the treacherous shoals so abundant in the area.

In the serene starlight we sat on deck with nothing to disturb the silence save the gentle splashing of waves against the hull and the rhythmic creaking of the rigging. While being rocked to sleep in our berths we lay rethinking the history, just as we had relived it earlier in the day.

The legendary iron fist with which many a captain ruled his ship may seem severe to 20th century city-dwellers. Undoubtedly it was often tyrannical, but the necessity for discipline aboard a sailing vessel was obvious to us after only a few minutes at sea.

Our safety and our lives depended on the skill and authority of our captain. His word was the law. Had we stopped to question, we might easily have been hit by a swinging boom or even entangled in the halyard. We learned the value of proper coiling of ropes, instant reaction to orders, and dependable recognition of water conditions.

We also discovered that mutiny is a very real possibility even today. That night in the focsle Capt. Charles told us of a near-mutiny aboard another of his vessels in the Caribbean several years ago. Out of sight of land the auxiliary engine died in a calm sea. Within a few days the drinking water ran low and the crew panicked. The captain averted mutiny only by the aid of the U.S. Coast Guard.

In 24 hours we learned that life at sea was far from easy. The Mary E. was built as a work boat and our quarters below deck were cramped with life jackets, bunks, stowage, ladders, a small head and the galley. A remarkable cast iron wood stove designed for wooden sailing vessels was used to cook all meals. Washing up and changing clothes was so inconvenient we slept in them, saturated though they were with salt spray and woodsmoke.

As sleep silenced our exhausted crew, I lay thinking of the long months at sea the early sailors endured and the kinds of men such a life must have produced. It was easy to understand their desperate pleasure-seeking in port.

At 0500 the first watch started breakfast; we were under sail in half an hour. A moderate  southwest breeze pushed us at nearly four knots towards Shallowbag Bay, abreast of Manteo on Roanoke Island.

As the Mary E. glided into the channel I manned the helm while others were aloft repairing shrouds. I imagined myself to be Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584, leading the ships that brought into these same waters the first white settlers of North America, the famous “Lost Colony.”

By noon we had docked and bid farewell to Capt. Charles and Silverstein and to the tantalizing segment of history they had shown us.

A seafarer lives in the heart of us all.