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Who Needs Another Gundalow?

Gundalow AdamsHistory Matters

This was going to be a solid unromantic assessment of the as-yet-unnamed wooden gundalow that is nearing completion on the front lawn of Strawbery Banke Museum. It has turned out to be nothing of the sort. My reaction to the upcoming launch, now set for early December, is thick with emotion. I am amazed. I am impressed. I am proud. (Continued bleow)


I was among the bystanders who watched the launch of the Captain Edward H. Adams into the Piscataqua River in 1982. It was the most thrilling event I’ve seen around here in the last 30 years. It beats the supersonic Thunderbirds, in my book, and the parades of sail. It was more wonderful than gigantic colonial houses rolling down city streets, or even the slow beaching of our beloved whale USS Albacore. I have been inside the North Church steeple as the bell struck noon and ridden the middle road of Memorial Bridge as tall ships passed beneath. This was better.

Who knew that a flat wooden barge with a stump mast and a retractable sail could stir such feelings? I mostly remember the great oxen pressing ahead, pulling the massive wooden barge forward on log rollers as the drovers cracked their whips shouting “Gee up! Whoa!”  The lack of machinery, the primitive muscle power, the sense of danger, and the excitement of the launch was timeless. We could have been watching a gundalow hitting the river in any century. This was not a fiberglass boat or a carnival ride. It was real.

The gundalow looked too heavy to float, like an airplane seems too heavy to fly. But in a matter of seconds what had been so ponderous on land became buoyant. Just as it connected the past to the present, the gundalow suddenly became a space connecting the water with the sky. It became a floating platform, a portable stage, a moving classroom.

So why do we need another gundalow? Shouldn’t one suffice? Here’s my take:

Building the second gundalow in 2011/ Ralph MOrang photo

(1) We’ve lost our river sense.

The one good thing about the imminent destruction of Memorial Bridge is that we will be forced, temporarily, to respect and think about the river again. The Piscataqua can be a scary place. I’m told it is the third fastest navigable river in North America. Back when I was stupid the river took me and my small fiberglass rowing shell for a near-death adventure. I got the message.

The gundalow knows nothing of cars and roads. It has no respect for the bridges that make it lower its sail. If all the bridges in the Piscataqua went to dust, the gundalow couldn’t care. It runs on water and wind. Its flat bottom and sturdy hull are designed to navigate the salt water estuary that we scarcely see from speeding car windows.

Fly over this region in an airplane and you will see what the gundalow knows. We live along the shoreline, near beaches, by wetlands, beside rivers, on islands and peninsulas. From the air the Seacoast shimmers. This place is made of water and we forget that at our peril.



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Thursday, February 22, 2018 
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