Aboard Frances, Captain Megan Jones honors Portland’s sailing heritage and her personal story.
Sailing Frances through the pass between Little Diamond and Peaks islands, Captain Megan Jones heads into the wind to slow the vessel and issues firm yet friendly orders to her crew. Asher Heaney, a student at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, and Kyle Magaliff have already loaded bags of produce and cartons of eggs into Pushy, Jones’s apropos name for the aluminum-hulled boat with an engine that accompanies the sail-power-only Frances. The young men hop in and cast off, heading for the Trefethen-Evergreen Improvement Association on Peaks Island’s northwestern shore. This is the fourth summer Frances has delivered CSA shares from Cultivating Community’s Fresh Start Farm to islanders on Peaks; the weekly, three-hour sail is one of several regularly scheduled trips offered by Jones’s business, Maine Sailing Adventures. “I enjoy this weekly trip particularly because Frances would have been a cargo vessel, and helping Cultivating Community aligns with our mission to serve Portland,” she says.
Frances was built to recall a British pilot cutter, the first type of working vessel that sailed out of Portland between 1790 and 1810. Seventy-four feet long and just over 18-and-a-half feet wide at her beam (the center), the exceptionally stable sailboat can carry up to 42 people on her sparkling, white-painted deck. With a sure hand (or sometimes a foot) on the wheel, Jones sails Frances like an experienced rider who knows her horse’s every move—boat and captain are closely connected, and not just because they have been sailing together for 12 years. With her late partner and friend, Hasket Hildreth, and their friend Wallace Soule, Jones built the Frances: welding the steel hull, laminating the mast and boom, designing and installing the traditional standing rigging. The trio launched and sailed Frances—named for Hildreth’s eldest daughter—in the summer of 2004. Maine Sailing Adventures was launched two years later, with Frances docked at the end of the Maine State Pier.
From June through mid October, Frances takes passengers out for day sails, sunset sails with acoustic music, and wine sails with sommelier and wine educator Erica Archer. Pushy guides the boat off the dock into the bay, where the crew raises the sails by hand, reaching overhead and hauling hard on the lines to lift them up the 80-foot main mast. Once under sail, Frances is swift and comfortable; there is plenty of room for passengers to mill about. “Her design is essentially to carry cargo and lots of it, which totally translates to people,” says Jones. “We can put a full bluegrass band on this boat.”
When Jones met Hildreth, soon after she graduated from Bates College, he was starting to think about building a traditional sailing vessel. “He enjoyed sailing, but the process of building was really the thing that he loved,” she says. She had grown up on sailboats, cruising with her family and spending her summers at the Southport Yacht Club on the Sheepscot River. Hildreth, Soule, and Jones built the Frances over the course of nearly three years, starting at the Portland Company. “Every part of it came in pieces that had nothing to do with what it was going to become,” Jones says. All the steel for the hull arrived on a truck from the Midwest. Hildreth, an engineer, had calculated the measurements so precisely that “after a year of cutting and tacking and welding we loaded the scrap waste into the bed of a small Toyota Tacoma,” she says. While at one time, sailing ships’ masts were made of straight, strong, old-growth eastern white pine (also known as king’s pines for the British crown’s attempt to declare ownership of them in the late seventeenth century), there are few of those trees left. To make the mast for Frances, Jones and Hildreth first tried to replicate the dimensions of the king’s pine masts. After realizing that trees from centuries before were significantly stronger, they engineered a mast, laminating together planks of Douglas fir from the Pacific Northwest. The exceptional height of the mast means Frances carries especially large sails, and despite the boat’s simple, clean lines, she tests Jones’s well-honed skills. “This is a particularly challenging vessel to operate with her sail area, namely controlling her 45-foot long main boom,” she says. “But I’m out here every day and I might potentially get bored if it wasn’t a challenge. This is the nature of good sailing.”
The Frances was the boat of Hildreth’s dreams. After his death in the winter of 2008, Jones learned he had been drawing and painting it since he was a boy. “In many ways still, I’m shepherding Hasket’s project,” she says. “He loved to share his knowledge and he wanted a vessel that would be for the people of Portland.” The paying day sail passengers and private charters help fund nonprofit work, such as the CSA deliveries and fall sail training programs with Portland middle school students—Jones estimates that she will have taken 1,000 Lyman Morse Middle School students sailing after this fall. “One of the beautiful things about boats is that you realize that if you’ve got a good boat you can go anywhere in the world,” she says. “That’s super appealing to me in many ways. I get to go sailing all over the planet in the wintertime on other boats, and I know I will own another one that will take me further than coastal Maine. I know Hasket wanted Frances to be in Portland doing what it’s doing. That’s what has kept me rooted and grounded here—each summer returning home.”