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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.



Gundalow under construction at Strawbery Banke in 2011 / Ralph Morang photo


(2) Wooden boats have souls

I was an early member of the Ranger Foundation that tried and failed to build interest for a $10 million replica of John Paul Jones’ historic sloop of war. We barely collected enough to build the captain’s ketch. Other groups have tried to raise a tall ship for Portsmouth, but they always aimed too high.

Only the gundalow builders hit the mark. In true Yankee fashion they attempted the attainable, muscled ahead against all odds, and built the Captain Adams. Now the Adams is old by wooden boat standards, not too old to work, but still tethered to the dock. The re-invigorated builders of the Gundalow Company are pushing the limit with their new $1.2 million boat, but this one can carry up to 49 passengers. It’s a new boat for a new era.

But it’s a wooden boat all the same, made from living material and crafted by lively workers. Paul Rollins and his skilled crew are showing us how it all came together hundreds of times along the river.  But this time we can watch them work on the Internet in daily time-lapse movies, popping up and down like whack-a-moles as the “super gundalow” take shape.


(3)  Gundalows are us.

When it comes to familiar symbols, Portsmouth has the North Church steeple, the tugboats, our bridges, our lighthouses, our historic houses -- and the gundalow. The clippers and frigates and sloops of war are gone, but the gundalow sails on, reminding us that this was an important American port in the Age of Sail. And while other towns have steeples and tugs and lighthouses, the Piscataqua gundalow is distinct.

There are gundalows elsewhere. I photographed a small Chezzetcook gundalow in a museum while on my honeymoon in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But it was a very different-shaped craft, more like a flat-bottomed Strawberry Bank dory that could be piled high with hay. Gundalows along the Merrimac and North Shore were square scows, without cabins, attached rudders, transoms, or sails, and they were propelled by poles and oars. Virginia gundalows were designed for one-way travel. Thousands of them were quickly made and did their work along the Shenandoah River, then broken up and the wood recycled.

The Piscataqua gundalow evolved to suit the unique 1,000-square miles that include the six rivers in New Hampshire and Maine. It was designed to work its way to the Little Bay and Great Bay and survive the rushing current that funnels through the narrows at Portsmouth en route to the sea. Again, to know the gundalow is to know this region.

Look up “gundalow” on Google and you will find us. The Gundalow Company has appropriated the word. Their Web site is Your search will turn up their movies and articles and photographs everywhere. The second reconstructed gundalow promises to change the definition entirely, adding 21st century relevance to an honorable, but almost-forgotten vessel.


(4) Our kids need this boat.

These are not complicated craft. If you ever stuck a pencil in a bar of Ivory soap and Scotch-taped-on a paper sail, you’ve got the idea. The beauty of the gundalow is its pure utility. It carries stuff from Point A to Point B and back. Gundalows carried crops and cows, lumber and bricks, fish and furniture. They took their own sweet time, but they could get stuff from South Berwick to Exeter or from York to Durham.

The Captain Adams has been trekking from coastal town to town by river for almost three decades now teaching children. It’s a true replica of the hand-hewn craft that was indispensible to this region from the 1600s. But it does not meet modern Coast Guard standards, so it has to be towed.  The new one will have a 200 horsepower engine, so it can move with the tide, like its forerunners, or take on the tides under its own power. Currently three trips are planned daily for locals and tourists. The size of the new gundalow is perfect for classes of students, many of whom have never seen this region from the river that sustains us. Students will test the water and report back.  Kids will learn to care.

If our kids don’t know the river, according to Gundalow Company executive director Molly Bolster, how can they care about it?  She wants to create the next generation of river stewards.  If they don’t step up, the river might not survive.


(5) The gundalow could save the Seacoast.

The new gundalow has a mission and a motor. It can get places faster and it can carry more people. It can carry scientific equipment. Whether you know it or not, our river is in tough shape.  Storm water runoff, salinity, septic systems, fertilizers, development, erosion, sedimentation, and pollution are taking their toll. Of the 12 environmental  indicators that scientists use to measure the health of our rivers, the Piscataqua is in the danger zone on 11.  The precious eel grass is fading. The oysters are all but dead. Our river has been declared officially “impaired.”

“If you live here, but you never actually SEE the river you live near,” Molly says, “if you never get exposed to it, then how can you be expected to care? We want you to get your hands wet. We want you to fall in love with the river again. Only then will you take care of it. That’s the mission of the new gundalow.”

I couldn’t have said it better. We lead busy lives. The river seems a distant thing, and our attention is focused elsewhere. We don’t seem to understand that just as rivers live, rivers die. If these rivers die, we won’t have to worry about our property taxes or having too many tourists. If the river goes, nothing will matter.

The new gundalow will be our watchdog. It doesn’t have a name yet. (I suggested “River Quest” because “Piscataqua” always sounds a bit off-color to me.) If you have an idea, send it along fast. The last plank will be installed this week at a Shutter Plank party. The launch is expected in December and the gundalow begins its work next spring.

The gundalow-without-a-name is still $300,000 in the red. I mention that only in passing. You don’t have to donate. You don’t have to rediscover the river. But please take a moment to attend the launching. Bring your kids. It may rain again or snow this time. It’s bound to be cold. But in Portsmouth, when a wooden ship is launched, everyone shows up – and no one ever forgets.


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s column appears in the Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His most recent book is Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection, available locally and on


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