2022 Maine Windjammer Association Lifetime Appreciation Award
This year’s Maine Windjammer Association Lifetime Appreciation award was awarded to Captain John Foss, former captain of both Schooner American Eagle and Schooner Lewis R. French. After over 40 years working on the water, Captain Foss retired after the 2021 season. Captain Barry King of the Schooner Mary Day presented the award after the Great Schooner Race acknowledging John’s contributions not only to the Maine Windjammer fleet but to the preservation of historic tall ships and maritime skills as well.
Said Captain King, John Foss was “a mentor to all of us”. “To stand next to John at the wheel is to get an education in all things nautical.” He was always ready to share with his guests and crew his unparalleled knowledge of schooners, the coast of Maine, and nautical history. And as a colleague, Foss always exuded “a sense of leadership and a sense of dignity and a sense of calm.”
Captain Foss’s love of Maine’s nautical history and ships started at a young age. How appropriate that he would have a family legacy in Maine dating back to 1638 when his forebearers first came to the pine tree to build a sawmill at Great Falls. Named after his great uncle killed at Little Round Top during Battle of Gettysburg, he’s always been a man of many grins. That affable, easy going, kind, and brilliant approach he’s had since he was a boy – not to mention his interest in maritime history – was present on every trip he captained.
Captain Foss grew up on the water in South Freeport, Maine. Always fascinated by boats, he worked at the local boatyard during breaks at Bowdoin College where he competed on the sailing team. After graduation John spent a summer sailing as deckhand and sometimes mate on the schooner Adventure out of Camden. He was sworn into the Coast Guard in Rockland, rowing ashore from the schooner in a dory.
John served as a deck officer on weather cutters, visiting such far away ports as New Orleans and Cuba in the summer and Newfoundland in the winter.
Always fascinated by historic preservation and maritime history, John’s career as a windjammer captain started in 1973, when he found the Lewis R. French in Lubec, the last Maine-built schooner from the 19th century. Over the better part of the next three years Captain John rebuilt and restored the Lewis R. French, removing the gear and rig, replacing frames, planking, and decking, building new masts, and recommissioning the windjammer from a coasting vessel to a passenger-carrying windjammer for sailing trips along the Maine coast.
As if one rebuilding project wasn’t enough, during this time John joined forces with friends and fellow windjammer captains, Doug and Linda Lee (formerly captains of Schooner Heritage, and the 2020 Lifetime Appreciation recipients) to create the North End Shipyard on Rockland Harbor. Together, the team restored the marine railway that local windjammers still use annually for spring hauling and inspection. The French was the first vessel hauled out for rebuilding at the North End Shipyard. Through her rebuilding process in partnership with Doug and Linda Lee, the French once again became a working sailing vessel.
After ten seasons operating sailing trips on Penobscot Bay aboard the Lewis R. French, the lure of restoration kept John on the lookout for new projects. In 1984, Captain John bought the American Eagle, the last fishing schooner built in Gloucester, MA. Pretty much down at the heels after 53 years of hard work, the American Eagle made it to the North End Shipyard and over the next two years, John joined forces with five other schooner captains to completely restore her. Three weeks into her first season the American Eagle participated in “A Salute to Liberty” in New York Harbor. In 1991 she was named a National Historic Landmark.
One of the things Captain John loved most about being a windjammer captain was providing a sense of place for a new group of guests each trip throughout the season, He made longer adventures to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Mystic Seaport, and Tall Ship Festivals in New York, Boston, and Portland. As a testimony to his love of maritime history, Captain John carried a full library of hundreds of books on board the American Eagle about Maine and maritime stories. One of the signature features of a cruise aboard the American Eagle was John’s bedtime stories where he entertained guests of all ages. Many an American Eagle passenger has shared that this single feature was their favorite part of the cruise.
You can still find Captain Foss at Northend Shipyard, tinkering on his own boat projects, maintaining the shipyard’s equipment and visiting with the captains and crews that come to the Shipyard to maintain their own vessels. He will be missed on the water but his legacy live on.
Contributors Marti Mayne and Jenny Tobin
Photo credits from top to bottom:
Caroline Ridout, Carol Lee, Skip Brown