The saga of Bagheera

Motoring Bagheera in the Chesapeake with first mate Gus Karlsen at the helm. Photo by Albert Presgraves

June 2023

By Chuck Radis

As a brisk north wind rattled the windows in my living room, I watched a home-made video, “Bagheera Comes Home,” created in 2002 by high-school student Evans Huber, of Peaks Island, Maine. I paused the video and leaned forward as a truck trailer carrying the sleek, black-hulled 72-foot schooner backed down a boat launch into the Sassafras River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The footage was grainy and shaky, but there, above the rudder, I saw what I was looking for: a bronze propeller.

The Bagheera slides off the trailer and lines fore and aft cleat her to the marina dock. Capt. Twain Braden steps lightly onto the deck. Former Navy man, first mate and navigator Gus Karlsen salutes the camera. Johan Erikson and Albert Presgraves stow their gear below deck.

Two young men – Chris Mayo, ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips, and Brian McClellan, a novice boatbuilder – jump aboard. Evans turns the camera on himself and grins. He moves with the grace and balance of an accomplished lacrosse player, ready to turn on a dime, pivot and score. His enthusiasm is contagious.

When I interviewed her captain, Twain Braden, for this story, he said, “Of course, Bagheera took on some water that first day before her hull swelled. You expect that; all wooden boats leak when they’re launched. It gave us a chance to see how well the pumps worked.”

Evans’ camera captures the younger men as they set to work varnishing the hatches, applying it with long, even strokes. Sweatshirts and watch caps are replaced by sunglasses and T-shirts. Rock ‘n’ roll pounds the air. The next day, after the mast is stepped and rigged, and Twain is satisfied that the leaks have slowed to a trickle, the wind fills Bagheera’s sails, the crew turns to, and the schooner points toward Portland, Maine, roughly 500 miles distant. Evans pans the camera over a line of small white caps coming out of the northwest. The crew crab-walks on the angled deck.

Built nearly 100 years ago, at the Rice Brothers Shipyard, in East Boothbay, Maine, the schooner Bagheera raced in the Great Lakes, crossed the Atlantic, and sailed extensively in the Caribbean. During World War II, she was used as a training vessel and, later, sailed as far south as the Galapagos Islands in the South Pacific.

In the 1980s, she was sold to a charter company in San Francisco Bay, where she spent the next several decades catering to the tourist trade. Her name, Bagheera, is Hindi for panther. Similar to Rudyard Kipling’s black panther Bagheera, in “The Jungle Book,” she is black, sleek, cunning and bold. Her versatility has allowed each successive owner to place their dreams aboard her broad beam, which is where this story begins.

Peaks Island friends Twain Braden and Scott Reischmann dreamed of establishing a schooner tourist business out of Portland, Maine. On their island runs, the men brought complementary talents to the conversation: Scott knew a lot about business; Twain had skippered schooners out of Camden, Maine. One day, they saw an ad in “WoodenBoat” magazine: “For Sale: Bagheera Schooner, San Francisco.” They knew this was the one.

They had the fever, and, days later, they were on a plane for the West Coast. On a sail in San Francisco Bay, they were so taken by her sweet and graceful sheer line, her seaworthiness, and her Maine heritage, they agreed to the asking price: $150,000. Never mind the impracticality of sailing more than 5,000 miles south from San Francisco, through the Panama Canal, then north to Portland. Or that the asking price left them scrambling for home-equity loans.

Clearly, the only realistic way to bring Bagheera back to Maine was to haul her out of the water, unstep the mast, remove hundreds of shackles and pins and straps and stays and shrouds and lines, carefully pack the contents with instructions detailing how each item should be reassembled, and fill a tractor trailer with the contents. Another specialty trailer would carry the 72-foot hull and mast across the continent. The bill: $18,000. More debt. The two men finalized the sale and returned to Maine. That’s when things got interesting.

It’s not every day that a schooner sails across the Rocky Mountains, particularly a schooner with a beam of 14 feet 2 inches, and a draft of 7 feet 6 inches. Each state has height and width and weight regulations for trucking. And even if you want to chance it – pirate your way across, say, Kansas – the height of underpasses varies.

Seasoned truckers don’t like the idea of their truck beds peeling off like the lid of a sardine can. So, instead of a straight shot on Interstate 80 from California to Maine, Bagheera’s journey looked more like an Etch A Sketch, angling north here, east for a stretch, and then due south. It was not unlike the series of tacks sailing vessels make against a headwind. Life is not a straight line. Progress was slow. Expenses mounted.

And there was more bad news. New England was out as a destination. Maine was surrounded by states with highway restrictions, and most marinas didn’t appear to have the depth necessary to relaunch the boat. The closest Bagheera could get to Maine was Georgetown Yacht Haven, on the Sassafras River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The price for delivery rose to $27,000, and the trucking company said it would hold onto the anchor and chain until the bill was paid in full. More scrambling. More debt.

When Twain learned that Bagheera couldn’t be trucked directly to Portland – and that Scott couldn’t make the trip – he cobbled a crew together, bought a self-inflating life raft with an emergency beacon, attached it to the roof of a one-way rental van, and drove to Maryland.

On the trip down, to save money on hotel rooms, several men slept on roadside picnic tables, before a rainstorm swept in from the west. Back in the van, those who snored slept well. The next night, a single room was rented. This was marginally better. Arriving at the marina, they camped out in the rain and ate their meals on a single-burner stove. As the rain continued, and the trailers were delayed, the morale of the crew plummeted.

When the first truck arrived, it was discovered that half the identification tags on the pallets had blown off en route. Then Bagheera’s hull and mast arrived on a separate trailer. The more experienced of the sailors combed through boxes of hardware and matched screw holes to plates and lines to spars. The teenagers in the crew spent several days scraping four layers of white paint on the mast down to bare wood before slushing on an old-fashioned mixture of petroleum jelly and raw linseed oil. A professional rigger was hired to step the mast and finalize the rigging. This was money well-spent.

As the Bagheera took shape, first mate Gus Karlsen, a licensed captain in his own right, was aware that the schooner lacked critical electronics such as a GPS or depthfinder, although several of the crew had handheld GPS units. Twain had brought a sextant and nautical chart with basic parallel rules and dividers. Before they boarded, Capt. Gus said, “Twain, I am not going anywhere on this boat unless you get some basic navigational equipment.” A compromise was reached.

Under way, north into the C & D Canal to the Delaware River, and downriver into Delaware Bay and the Atlantic, Twain recalls, “We were feeling all chuffed.” It was coming up on Memorial Day weekend, a steady lifting breeze filled the sails, and the crew was divided into six-hour watches. A large sea turtle excited the crew. Twain took sextant readings and recalled, “Everything was going beautifully.”

Sixty miles offshore, they passed Montauk, Long Island, and came into Buzzards Bay. When they arrived at the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal, Twain was at the helm, and that’s when things got interesting. Sailboats must motor through the canal. Twain started the engine, threw the throttle into reverse, swung the wheel around, and nothing happened. Brian McClellan, the only non-Peaks Islander on the crew, held Twain by his ankles and dipped him over the stern. Twain, wearing goggles, confirmed that the propeller was missing. Despite a careful inspection of the Bagheera before she was launched, somehow it had spun off.

Chris Mayo, with Evans Huber – at 17, the youngest crew, and now a harbor master for Kennebunkport, Maine, recalls: “Twain is a good sailor, but I don’t think he’d taken a close enough look at the king nut. The nut looks like a crown and fastens the propeller to the shaft. Through it goes a cotter pin. When we went into reverse, the king nut must have shot off and headed to the bottom with the propeller.” Sea Tow towed Bagheera through the canal. More money. Chris Mayo recalls the tow this way: “It was an ominous sign.”

At the east end of the canal, a storm was brewing. The weather forecast predicted winds 20 to 25 knots. “Our sail track was roughly 30 miles offshore, within VHF distance,” Mayo remembers. “I wasn’t too worried; we were a good-sized heavy sailboat.” Capt. Twain added, “We’d be blown offshore, but as the wind shifted, we’d have a favorable wind to our starboard on the last leg to Portland. We were a sailboat; we should sail.” The vote was unanimous to proceed.

As darkness descended, the crew put a reef in the main and furled the jib. The wind unexpectedly rose to 30 knots, with gusts over 40. Worse, the wind remained northwest; they were being blown farther and farther out to sea. Bagheera plowed along, laboring in eight- to 10-foot swells; they were getting hammered. Twain, at the helm, recalls the bow dipping into a trough and waist-deep green water flowing across the deck. The wave picked up the life raft on the deck. Concern: A mechanism in the raft was meant to inflate the raft if it felt the raft was floating. A wave moved over the boat, and the raft remained uninflated.

More problems: The jib furling lines loosened, and the jib began to unfurl. Twain rigged a jackline and clipped in; Chris clipped in and went with him to the bow. “If I fall in, you pull me in,” Twain instructed. He straddled the bowsprit and wrestled with the sail.

In the trough of a wave, Bagheera plowed into the wall of an incoming wave and Twain disappeared, riding the bowsprit like a bull rider. “The bow recovers, and Twain is still trying to wrap the line around the jib,” Chris recalls. “Somehow, he gets the jib reefed. I pull him aboard. We went down to eat. Some of us were seasick. If I’d had more experience, I think I would’ve been much more frightened.” Twain, for his part, admits, “The boat was creaking and groaning. I wasn’t exactly scared, but I wasn’t feeling cool and confident either – I felt a profound shame.”

Even though Chris was the youngest crewmember aboard, his experience was crucial. He’d already spent several years working on lobsterboats and was a gifted tinkerer. At 11:30 that night, the lights dimmed. The compass light was fading. Chris went below to the head and saw water flooding through the floorboards. The pumps were straining to keep up, draining the generator. “With the pounding, we blew out a seam. We were slowly sinking,” said Chris, who was certain about one thing: “I got to get off this boat. If I make it to land, I’m walking home.”

Twain turned Bagheera around and headed to Gloucester, the closest port. The Coast Guard towed Bagheera the last several miles. Coming into the harbor, a small pod of porpoises crossed under the bow. Twain called his business partners, Scott and wife Michelle, who drove down to Gloucester with a new propeller. The Bagheera was hauled out, the new propeller installed. The leak was not serious.

Young Evans and Gus Karlson walked over to the Crow’s Nest, a rough-and-tumble bar memorialized in the movie “The Perfect Storm.” They may have passed the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, where the real-life captain and crew of the Andrea Gail, who lost their lives in that fateful storm, are remembered. The retired Navy man hoped the young college student had learned the lesson he’d learned over years at sea: Life can turn on a dime.

Later that day the wind slackened. The king nut and cotter pin were installed on the new propeller, and Bagheera set sail that afternoon for the final leg. True to his word, Chris Mayo returned by car to Maine. Scott Reichman joined the crew and couldn’t take his hands off the wheel. Capt. Braden remembers limping into Portland Harbor at 2:30 a.m. “Instead of the hero’s welcome we’d once imagined, we were greeted by darkness and silence, feeling every bit like the wreck of the Hesperus.” They tied up at the public float on Peaks Island and went their separate ways. Capt. Gus walked up Willow Street, where the porch light was on. His wife Ann was inside.

Back on Peaks Island, I finished the high-schooler’s video in my living room. Outside, it was blowing like stink and snow piled up against our back door. A rim of ice lined the high-tide mark on the beach. A tanker dropped anchor off Fort Gorges. In a few months, the schooner Bagheera would begin her 19th year on the waters of Casco Bay. Most of the men who brought her here maintain a connection to the sea. Twain Braden captained the Bagheera in her early years in Portland. He now practices nautical law and commutes from Peaks Island to Portland on the ferry Machigonne II.

Gus Karlsen, who also skippered Bagheera, lives on Peaks Island’s back shore. Johan Erikson studies snow depths and avalanche conditions in the White Mountains as a university professor at the St. Joseph’s College, a few miles northwest of Portland. He is one of the few people I know who is willing to swim in Casco Bay year-round.

Albert Presgraves has taken his own sailboat to distant shores. His daughter, Sophi, lived aboard a sailboat for several years in Portland harbor with her newborn son and husband. Bryan McClellan builds boats. Chris Mayo graduated from Maine Maritime Academy and worked on research vessels in Alaska. He is currently the harbormaster for Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Cape Porpoise.

Several years after filming the journey of the Bagheera, Evans Huber graduated from McGill University. I drove him and my daughter Kate back to school one fall. He sat in the front seat with me, and we chatted our way to Canada. For two summers he crewed on the Bagheera. Tragically, a few years later, Evans was struck by lightning while on a camping trip with his family in northern Maine. At his outdoor service that summer on Peaks Island, there was an outpouring of grief. We are a small community. He could have been our son. He is remembered by the crew as a good shipmate and friend who captured the spirit of a memorable voyage.

I rewound the tape and pressed PLAY. A breeze filled Bagheera’s sails. Her bow lifted and she pointed toward Portland. The crew was all chuffed out. Welcome home Bagheera.

For more than three decades, Dr. Chuck Radis and his family have lived on Peaks Island, commuting year-round on his boat, Dasakamo Ja, to the mainland. As a young doctor, he provided primary care to four year-round islands in Casco Bay. In addition to his clinic duties on Peaks and Chebeague Islands, he traveled year-round by boat to the outer islands and logged more than 100 annual house calls. Chuck’s novel about this experience, “Go By Boat: Stories of a Maine Island Doctor” was reviewed in Points East’s June 2021 issue.