Somewhere beyond the sea

We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea - whether it is to sail or to watch it - we are going back from whence we came.

John F. Kennedy

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Maine's Maritime Story

Give or take a few liters, the earth’s surface is 70% water. That’s a lot of water for a single species to navigate. Especially one whose primary mode of movement is walking. But that didn’t stop us. Why? Because at heart we’re all explorers, adventurers. And there’s usually a swashbuckler or two in every family.

What is it that fuels our maritime pursuits? Two words. The horizon. That faraway edge of the world we connect with every time we look out, in a flat trajectory, toward the sea. Of course, it was the flat trajectory that suggested for a long time it was the actual edge. So how much raw courage or deep faith did it take for all those human beings to venture out there?

The one thing all explorers had in common was that at some point they decided there was something worth finding on the other side of the horizon, somewhere beyond the sea. And the one thing at least some of them had in common was that at the far end of the sojourn was a special place that would one day be called Maine.

That special place was still a long way from getting its name when the first native people went beyond the horizon to harness and harvest the powerful and plentiful Maine coastline. Using dugout and birchbark canoes, the Wabanaki people would ply the local rivers and bays and even travel up and down the coasts.

When Europeans landed on the Maine coastline, they found bays and inlets and harbors so numerous and maritime-friendly it was almost as if the rough-hewn hands of nature had designed it for that purpose. They also discovered nature had seen fit to stock the waters with an all-you-can-eat bounty of fish, shellfish and crustaceans. And on the land, Maine’s vast forests had the primary resource needed for boatbuilding. At first, the boats were used by local families to fish the coastline. That led to a burgeoning fishing trade. The boats got bigger. And bigger.

In 1607, Maine shipbuilding officially made the world map with the launching of the first English ocean ship built in America – the Virginia. Once that ship had sailed, more would come. In fact, they would never stop, from the fishing and freight-carrying wooden schooners and clipper ships of the 18th and 19th centuries to the massive naval ships being built in Bath, Maine today.

Amy Lent, Executive Director of the Maine Maritime Museum offered this assessment: “You cannot overestimate the importance of Maine shipbuilding to American industrial growth and the global impact of the United States in the world. There were more ships being built here than anywhere.”

Through all that time, Maine’s maritime development wasn’t just feeding the coastline. As Steve Bromage, Executive Director of the Maine Historical Society explained, it was also connecting Maine’s interior with the rest of the world. “The fact that Maine had the rivers and harbors and ships and the connection to the ocean was really important to Maine's economy in the 19th century. It was Maine trees and lumber that were building the east coast cities.”

In the years after the Civil War, things began to change. Steam power was replacing wind power on the seas. Economic expansion moved west with the building of railroads. Maritime Maine would be changing course as well.