The schooner Bowdoin, which has a prominent place in early Amateur Radio history, will be relaunched this spring. The vessel relied on Amateur Radio operators for communication during explorer Donald B. MacMillan’s Arctic Expedition of 1923 and on the MacMillan-McDonald-Byrd Expedition of 1925. Now it’s undergoing extensive renovation and refitting in Maine. Named after MacMillan’s alma mater, Bowdoin College, the Bowdoin today is the official vessel of the State of Maine and the flagship of Maine Maritime Academy’s Vessel Operations and Technology Program, which readied the vessel for refitting last year.
According to an article in the February 25 edition of The Ellsworth American newspaper, work is underway at a Camden, Maine, shipyard on the deck and hull of the 95-year-old schooner, built in East Boothbay, Maine, in 1921. The vessel’s diesel engine — a later amenity — is being rebuilt by Maine Maritime Academy students. The Bowdoin is set to relaunch around June 1.
In 1923, MacMillan had turned to the ARRL for help in outfitting his expedition with better wireless gear, and, as Michael Marinaro, WN1M, explained in his June 2014 QST article, “Polar Exploration,” that help “was enthusiastically provided. Hiram Percy Maxim and the Board agreed to furnish support as well as recruit an expert operator to accompany the expedition. Donald H. Mix, 1TS, of Bristol, Connecticut was chosen for the task.”
League Board member M.B. West custom designed the equipment, which was built by radio amateurs at his firm, Zenith Electronics. The transmitter operated on medium-wave frequencies with a power of 100 W and used the call sign WNP — for “Wireless North Pole.” As Marinaro explained in his article, with Mix as the ship’s radio operator, “WNP transmitted weekly 500-word press releases and listings of stations worked and heard. Once received by amateur stations, these reports were delivered to local affiliated newspapers of the North American Newspaper Alliance; from there, they were distributed syndicate-wide by telegraph.”
In 1925 the Bowdoin headed to Greenland. “The outstanding accomplishment of the expedition was in the sphere of radio,” Marinaro wrote. “Utilizing short waves, the expedition was in consistent contact with the outside world throughout the journey, to the delight of the amateurs who were able to work them. The phenomenal success proved to the Navy that short waves were definitely superior to the long and ultra long waves on which the fleets had been relying.”
The Bowdoin renovation is being paid for through the Bowdoin Centennial Campaign, which, according to The Ellsworth American article, aims “to keep the schooner exploring, sailing, and training for another century.
The August 2008 QST “Old Radio” column, “Where in the world is the Bowdoin?” offers additional details on the venerable vessel and its activities that have extended into the 21st century. A June 1959 QST article, “The Bowdoin’s Last Voyage,” told of plans to permanently park the vessel at the Mystic Sea Museum in Connecticut.