Learning the ropes on a Murray Peterson schooner

By Dodge Morgan
Murray G. Peterson of South Bristol, Maine, was my introduction to the golden age of yacht designers. It was essentially through him that I met, or at least found myself in the presence of, Aage Nielsen, Fenwick Williams, John Alden, Olin Stephens, Ray Hunt, Bill Hand, William Tripp and Nathaniel Herreshoff.

Murray was above all an artist. His boats were a joy to row up to. He left after one year at MIT because he “wasn’t learning anything useful” (a similar decision was made by Olin Stephens) and joined the John Alden office in Boston, where he found himself in company with two other 20-year-old hopefuls, Aage Nielsen and Fenwick Williams.

It was the depth of the Great Depression, but the Alden office still found customers. These customers allowed the three youngsters to bond for life, to perfect their craft, to age into colorful characters and to individually and jointly touch the lives and please the eyes of sailors for decades.

My first “big boat” was Murray’s “first launched,” the schooner Coaster. I got her when both of us were just 30 years old. She was, is if she still floats somewhere on the West Coast, a 36-foot, 12-ton, gaff-headed marvel. Only much later did I realize she was also a double-hernia rig. At the time I was young enough to overlook this fact (you must recall that time of life when beer was food and we were omnipotent).

She was both a very forgiving vessel and a very demanding vessel, and therefore a fine teacher. For two and one-half years I sailed her and never slept ashore (OK, OK, I did pass out on land a couple of times). Some 26,000 miles of sea passed under us. We cruised from Maine to Florida, through the Bahama Islands, the Leeward and the Windward Islands of the West Indies, Venezuela, Columbia, the San Blas Islands, through the Panama Canal, Hawaiian Islands, Society Islands of the South Pacific and to Alaska.

Coaster brought me through a hurricane off the coast of New Jersey, of all damnable places, and taught me the fine art of “hove to” in the process. In the Intercoastal Waterway she taught me how to “kedge off.” Off Columbia in a storm on thin water and a lee shore, she taught me that the most effective bailing system is a scared man with a bucket. In Charlotte Amalie, Saint Thomas, where I ran bone dry of money and took a seven-month newspapering job, she stopped leaking and became my apartment.

Through the West Indies and South and Central America she taught me that the most precise fix came from rowing ashore and asking where I was. I learned life could be very cheap, six bucks for 12 quarts of rum and a canal transit that cost $11.53 plus lunch for the pilot.

The 4,763-nautical-mile great circle crossing from Panama City to Honolulu took us 49 days, just enough time for me to actually learn celestial navigation. (Note: The “noon fix” which takes only a six-line column of numbers to calculate, is all one needs. Look in “Bowditch” under “lifeboat navigation” or see the Blewitt book. Herb Payson said, “Learning celestial navigation was hopeless until Mary Blewitt.)

Coaster helped me locate women in Hawaii. She showed me that South Pacific Islands are beautiful but boringly all the same. She taught me that the Alaskan coast is astoundingly majestic but troublesome for a sailboat because the wind in the fjords is either dead ahead or dead astern and anchoring is impossible along shores with vertical walls 50 fathoms deep (you gotta find a river delta).

Everywhere I sailed, I was the celebration of the assembled fleet, proving that beauty is composed of universal elements. I could not count the hours that I, myself, spent feasting my eyes on Coaster in the particular and in the whole. My last view of her when I left her after selling her in Juneau was blurred by tears.