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A Growing Museum in Rockland Stands Out From the Crowd

Museums don’t have to be sleepy places packed with dull and dry history. In fact, the Sail Power and Steam Museum on the waterfront in Rockland is anything but quiet. “We’re like an octopus,” founder Captain Jim Sharp said, “there’s just so much going on.”

Sharp and his wife Meg started the Museum in 2007 on property abutting the Rockland harbor, once owned by the Outward Bound School. The two had amassed an extensive collection of maritime items gathered over years of sailing and operating four schooners out of Camden. In fact, the collection was getting a bit too large for comfort, according to Meg.

“We were driving around and saw the Rockland property. I knew the property [once the site of the famed Snow Shipyard] was hallowed ground, part of Maine’s maritime history and Rockland’s,” Sharp recalled. The couple purchased it and began to consider opening a museum fueled by their varied collection of maritime objects. But both were retired. “I was 75 years old. We tossed a quarter, heads we do it, tails we don’t. It came down tails, a definite NO. But what does a quarter know?” Sharp said.

The Museum, a registered 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, opened quietly in 2007. Meg recalls going around to yard sales to buy display cases and other furnishings for the collections. “It’s a down home museum,” she said. “Nothing fancy, just cozy and personable.”

In the famous words from the movie “Field of Dreams,” if you build it, they will come. And they did. People came to see the collection of engines, sextants, ship models, gear and memorabilia and to listen to Sharp tell stories about everything in the building. Some visitors would mention to him items they had stored in the attic at home, or out in the barn or the boat shop.

“They would donate them or loan them to us. We have so many more artifacts now than when we started,” Sharp said. Among those is the 1801 backstaff used by the renowned navigator Nathanial Bowditch, author of The American Practical Navigator, for his navigation calculations (a backstaff uses the shadow of the sun instead of a direct view of the sun to obtain altitude).

The Museum's sailing program is free for children ages 8 to 14. SPM photo.

As the Museum’s collections have grown, so have its programs. Throughout the season, local and world-renowned musicians hold concerts of traditional music. Each Sunday afternoon since the Museum opened local musicians have gathered there for a musical jam. “I used to sing and play the guitar on the schooners,” Sharp said. “I love music. So every Sunday afternoon we have music. It’s often twice as many musicians as audience but that’s alright. It’s fun, it’s a social thing. Some people never miss it.”

The Museum’s property includes a waterfront dock and floats as well as a small sandy beach. “It’s a good waterfront, it should be used,” Sharp. Board member Bob Williams came up with the notion of a free sailing program for children. “I’m an old Scotsman and I wasn’t so sure about something free,” Sharp laughed. “It is a good idea, though, and connects children to the water.”

Sail Kids For Free (SKFF) teaches children ages 8 to 14 each week throughout the summer how to sail using Optimist prams. More than 150 children take part each season. There are also sailing lessons for individuals or groups, a sailing club for women, and afternoon youth sailing lessons. There are even plans this coming year to add a Classic Charter Club, which will allow people to sail classic boats owned by the Museum.

The Museum now has quite a fleet. In addition to its prams, sunfish, catboats, and Herreshoff 12-1/2’s, a local resident donated the unfinished Friendship sloop Persistence in 2011. During the next three years a dedicated band of volunteers carefully finished the vessel. A second Friendship sloop, Black Jack, soon followed. The Black Jack was built by Wilbur Morse of Friendship and launched in 1900. Volunteers also rebuilt the 40-foot vessel and launched her with a team of oxen in 2018. She is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jim and Meg Sharp. Photo courtesy of Courier-Gazette.

Over the years the Museum has created a Heritage Tour for the increasing numbers of cruise ship passengers who stop in Rockland during the summer and fall months. It all started with a giant donated tent and the smaller cruise company American Cruise Lines, which had begun to call in Rockland. “The cruise line was looking for something to do in Rockland. We had the tent and a guy had a gas-rigged lobster cooker. So we invited them to come for a tour and a lobster lunch under our tent,” Sharp said. “And it worked!”

Since that first visit, the tours have continued to evolve. Passengers arrive at the museum to learn about Maine’s maritime heritage with a museum tour. Afterwards, they head down to the beach to watch preparations for a traditional shoreside lobster bake. During lunch they are entertained by traditional music and Sharp speaks about Maine’s sustainable lobster industry and its importance to the state. “Last summer, we had 35 Heritage Tours, perhaps 4,000 people altogether,” Sharp said.

Boats old and new fill the Museum's fleet. SPSM photo.

“Beyond our active waterfront programs and museum, we host talks throughout the year,” said Museum executive director Robin McIntosh. “Boat Talk has been our most recent addition — a series of talks designed for local boaters on subjects like sails and rigging, composites, buying and selling a boat. Captains’ Quarters has been running since the start of the pandemic when we introduced online talks, which are now available for viewing on our website. That series covers historic vessels of interest as well as topics as diverse as the weather or cruising around the world. And during the summer, we host Museum Mondays with movies and speakers on topics of interest to both visitors and residents alike.”

“As a nonprofit, we have an active board of directors, and much of our funding comes from donations and memberships. We are a community resource, and we count ourselves lucky to have such strong community support,” she added.

It’s all part of the Museum’s educational mission — To celebrate, honor, experience, and share the story of Maine’s maritime heritage. “Yes, we’ve got the tiger by the tail now,” Sharp laughed. “Meg and I say we flunked retirement.”


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