Maine yacht had many lives

Posted Wednesday, April 27, 2011 in Features

Maine yacht had many lives

by Steve Cartwright

SPRUCE HEAD — At the far end of Spruce Head Marine’s boat yard lies a vessel with a lot of peeling paint. It hasn’t moved in years. You might guffaw, and wonder how long till this old hulk is a pile of firewood.

But this is not just another abandoned fishing boat, hauled ashore for good. This is all that’s left of what was an opulent yacht, replete with bright work and hired crew, as it steamed across Penobscot Bay to the owner’s retreat at Great Spruce Head Island.

The Hippocampus — Greek for seahorse — is not abandoned. Not yet anyway. The vessel’s 95-year-old white oak frames and cypress planks are weary but not rotten.

Maybe this aging veteran will actually sail once more. Hippo’s current owner is 28-year-old Ellic Mottram, who grew up in Waldoboro among fishermen and served a hitch in the U.S. Navy. He plans to rebuild the Hippocampus from the keel up. His late father built boats; his mother, who lives in Addison, is a game warden. From boyhood, Mottram has clung to his dream of one day restoring the Hippocampus, at one time a tuna boat operated by his older brother Donny Boynton.

toy sailboats

This venerable vessel has already gone through several conversions, including World War I submarine patrol boat — it didn’t find any subs — then Penobscot Bay mail boat, and finally commercial fishing vessel. For fishing, its ducktail stern was lopped off, shortening the boat from 53 to 48 feet.

In high school and afterwards, Mottram spent summers working aboard the Camden windjammer fleet. He graduated in 2008 from Maine Maritime Academy, where he majored in small vessel operations. He works on an oceangoing tug plying the Caribbean, and hopes to use his time off to work on the Hippocampus.

Hippocampus has had some close calls since her launching in 1913 in New York. In the 1980s she was almost scrapped. Early in her life, the Navy sank her by failing to close seacocks. Another time the boat was given away — to the brother of this writer, in fact.

Later, Boynton gave the boat to his brother Ellic.

The Hippocampus, reinvented several times, racked up an impressive history of service. Originally 56 feet long and designed for pleasure cruising, she belonged to the Chicago-based Porter family, summer residents of Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay. James Porter, nature lover, real estate tycoon and architect, bought the entire island as a family getaway. The Big House, still there, has a dozen bedrooms. 

Hippocampus

One of the boys who grew up with the Hippocampus is the late photographer Eliot Porter, author of a classic book called "Summer Island," and photographer for the book "In Wildness is the Preservation of the World." His brother is the late artist Fairfield Porter.

In "Summer Island," Eliot Porter recalls his first Maine summer aboard the Hippocampus: “I had hardly been on a boat before, and never one like that. The polished brass, bright varnish, and compact cabin, the ropes and helm and winch and anchor, and all the rest of the nautical paraphernalia were new, exciting and unbelievable.”

Porter studied medicine at Harvard, but at 29 realized that photography was his true calling, and he forsook his research and teaching post at Harvard Medical School for a Leica camera. His close-ups of birds and other aspects of nature are famous.

In 1917, the Navy commissioned her as USS Hippocampus, and she patrolled the bay looking for enemy submarines, although there weren’t any in these waters. She was under the command of Capt. Monte Green, who skippered the Hippo for the Porters and was their caretaker. He simply joined the Coast Guard. A ton of cement was added to the boat’s ballast to make her more seaworthy, and it was never removed.

A machine gun was mounted on the bow but never used. The war didn’t reach Penobscot Bay but Porter writes that some local people suspected his family might be German spies — they built a tennis court and maybe that was secretly a platform for big guns.

The Navy returned Hippo to the Porters a couple of years later, but not before officials let her sink. That happened in Boston Harbor when she was re-launched in a hurry. The Navy tried to pay off the Porters but the family insisted on repairing the boat. The Hippocampus was remodeled with open decks for day trips rather than a bigger deckhouse for overnight cruising.

In 1932, the Porters sold the boat to Capt. Arthur Ladd, who used her to ferry Islesboro mail for 20 years. The Hippo had a brief role as a research vessel for the University of Maine.

Hippo mailboat

In 1987, Fern Carter, Ellic’s father, rebuilt the Hippo for fishing with Boynton. Now it appears it’s the next generation’s turn to re-launch the legacy.

If anyone can resurrect the Hippo, it’s Mottram. He seems to have the self-confidence, particularly when it comes to boats and the sea. He has seen windjammers rebuilt that were in very tough shape.

The Hippocampus quietly awaits the rest of the story.  

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