Designing the Super Gundalow
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


Portsmouth’s little tall ship is now 25 – and expecting a baby. The gundalow Captain Edward Adams will continue sailing the Piscataqua, but plans are on the drawing board for a new wooden ship that will carry Seacoast passengers.




Mother Nature does not recognize man-made roads. She does her traveling now, as always, on currents of air and currents of water. From the air, the Piscataqua region is more blue than green. Water connects everything in this small network of tidal rivers, bays, marsh, ponds and streams, all backed up against a vast shimmering ocean. If you want to know the real future of the Seacoast’s fragile ecosystem, don’t travel by car – take a gundalow.

gundalow01And that’s exactly what the Gundalow Company plans to do. With its existing gundalow, The Captain Edward Adams, now celebrating its 25th birthday, plans are on the table to build a second very special craft. The new improved gundalow will carry passengers into the past, to view life along the river as it appeared centuries ago. But the new gundalow is also very much a 21st century vessel. Passengers aboard the floating school will learn to test water quality in the Cochecho River, observe blue heron and bald eagles off Adams Point, plant baby oysters in Great Bay, map the swirling tidal currents, and re-enact life aboard the flat-bottomed wooden vessels that built this region. Along the way, students who join the program will become leaders, learn self-reliance, practice teamwork and master maritime skills that are fast fading in these high-tech days.

There was a time when almost everything around here, from bricks and lumber to farm animals and freight, came and went by water. Gundalows by the score sailed up and down the Piscataqua, their sturdy construction and shallow draft made these lumbering craft the ideal vehicles to navigate the dramatic tides, that shifted daily from perilous waters to a mucky low ebb. The arrival of trains, trucks and trolleys killed off the gundalow business. The last commercially run gundalow was built in 1886.


For many Seacoast residents, 5 P.M. on June 13, 1982, ranks among the most stirring moments in Portsmouth history. Ten gigantic oxen, one weighing thirty-eight hundred pounds, hauled the Captain Adams along on wooden rollers from Strawbery Banke Museum to the Piscataqua River in the pelting rain. A full day passed as over three thousand onlookers urged the gundalow team ahead. Historian Richard Winslow captured the splashdown in his book "The Piscataqua Gundalow:

"Gee up! Gee up! Gee up!" the drovers yelled frenziedly, cracking their whips on the backs and shoulders of the oxen. The beasts dug their hooves into the turf. They plodded forward. The cable pulled taut. The gundalow slid ahead on its log rollers. "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" the drovers yelled as the gundalow approached the edge of the logs. With tongs and peaveys the crew brought the rear logs to the front in preparation for another pull.



This was truly maritime history come alive. Modern viewers saw first hand what was once a common sight along the Piscataqua—a ship taking to the sea. The crowd roared its approval when, after a last tug, the first gundalow successfully launched in a century slid down the embankment toward the river. The crowd groaned in unison at the crunching sound of wood against wood as the heavy ship veered suddenly, crashed into the pier. and ripped out one of its sturdy pilings, then settled back peacefully in the waves.

A quarter century later, the Captain Edward H. Adams still plies the waters, but this authentic reconstruction was not designed to sail free. The original plan was to use the vessel as a floating maritime museum. It was to remain tied up to the dock across from Strawbery Banke where it was built. In recent years, the Gundalow Company, formed as a separate nonprofit agency, has been towing the Captain Edward Adams from town to town, reaching more than 10,000 visitors and school children annually. Those valuable programs will continue aboard the Captain Adams that has been towed each year along Mother Nature’s highway from Portsmouth to Newington, Durham, Stratham, Newmarket, Exeter, Dover, Kittery, York, and South Berwick.


But times aren’t what they used to be. To bring passengers aboard a floating gundalow, Coast Guard regulations mandate a host of safety regulations and an onboard engine. The new gundalow, like modern reconstruction’s of historic tall ships, will be adapted to meet those Coast Guard rules.

As last week’s tall ship visit proves, people love sailing ships. Thousands of visitors fought the traffic and walked a good country mile to tour aboard the Pride of Baltimore, The Prince William and the Spirit of Bermuda. But with the exception of these rare visits, Portsmouth’s memory of the Age of Sail is fading. Unlike many of its sister seaports from Providence to Plymouth and Boston to Salem, Portsmouth has no tall ship of its own. Well publicized attempts to reconstruct the Raleigh (seen on the NH state seal) and the Ranger (made famous by John Paul Jones) and other historic ships have, so far, failed. The cost is high, many millions of dollars, but the return is great.

Right now, Portsmouth has the Captain Edward Adams, and soon, a second flat-bottomed sailing vessel that will go boldly where no gundalow has gone before. The more historic sailing ships we see along the Piscataqua, the more the memory survives. And by keeping a close eye on our rivers, this little ship will help keep our Seacoast ecosystem alive and well.

FOR MORE information and to support this project visitthe Gundalow Company web site.  Quotation from The Piscataqua Gundalow by Richard Winslow III, recently published in paperback by Peter E. Randall.

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is the editor and owner of the popular regional web site