When it comes to Maine’s maritime heritage, the life and career of Jack Crowell is one of the more exciting. Born at the end of the 19th century, he spent an inordinate amount of his life on the waters of the world, including the dangerous Arctic ice. When asked how he could venture north for the first time with little navigational or weather equipment to help him, Crowell responded, “What’s to stop ya?” The statement summed up the man.

Born in Gloucester, Mass., John T. "Jack" Crowell, when not at sea or in the polar regions, resided in Maine. He and wife Alice Cain Crowell lived on Kimball Island, Isle Au Haut, in the house he built.

Jack Crowell died in 1986 at age 88 and was buried in Sedgwick. Alice had passed away two years before him. Their grave is in his wife’s family plot, lots of Cains going back deep into the 19th century.

Jack came of age just as America entered World War I and, being from Gloucester, felt the need to go to sea. From 1914 to 1916, he was a cadet aboard three-mast auxiliary steam barkentine Ranger, where he learned basic seamanship. Upon graduation, he sailed aboard SS Dakotan, hauling coal for the American Hawaiian Line from South America to the American southeast.

Once America entered the conflict, he served as first-class boatswain’s mate aboard armed U.S. Navy cargo ship USS Westover, ferrying war supplies to France. Crowell’s ship was torpedoed and sunk in outer Bay of Biscay, July 11, 1918. Suffering from burns, he still helped evacuate the ship. They then sailed five days in a lifeboat to Brest, a distance of 360 miles.

In 1919, he sailed aboard transport Arizonan bringing troops home, then worked as able-bodied seaman aboard full-rigged ship Brynhilda. Crowell next worked aboard 130-foot ocean-racing sailing-yacht El Fay. Throughout the 1920s, he worked aboard cargo ships like S.S. Mineola, S.S. West Keene, and S.S. West Lashaway. He also sailed the four-masted schooner Blanche C. Pendleton out of Portland.

His adventurous life then turned even more so in 1926, when he agreed to work with polar explorer Donald MacMillan. MacMillan, after service with Robert E. Peary’s North Pole expedition as well as his own four-year foray into the far north, envisioned building a wooden schooner capable of sailing Arctic waters. By the 1920s, his vessel Bowdoin took paying students on northern adventures.

MacMillan wanted Crowell to accompany him and Bowdoin as master of 80-foot auxiliary schooner Sachem. The two schooners visited Labrador, West Greenland and Baffin Island. The following year, Crowell agreed to carry supplies for MacMillan aboard 120-foot schooner Radio. On this adventure, as MacMillan stayed busy in Labrador, Crowell mastered Bowdoin from Anetalak Bay to Frobisher Bay and its return to Labrador.

He then became chief mate aboard a world scientific cruise of hermaphrodite brig Illyria and sailed from Italy to Bermuda and then New York. Crowell next was master of Gadfly II, a 125-foot schooner also built for research.

During the Great Depression years, he returned to the Arctic with MacMillan aboard Bowdoin in 1930 and 1931, as well as 1934. His only break from Bowdoin service was as mate and navigator in California aboard fishing schooner Oretha Spinney for the filming of the Spencer Tracy movie Captains Courageous.

But Crowell’s 1937 voyage with MacMillan to Frobisher Bay aboard Gertrude L. Thebaud changed everything. The voyage nearly ended in disaster as the ship lodged on rocks and was nearly lost in Griffin Bay. They managed to refloat the vessel and Crowell was stunned when MacMillan expressed desire to continue northward with the strained and damaged vessel. Crowell reluctantly agreed but the voyage ended at the first sign of ice and they judiciously returned. This ended their working relationship; Crowell never sailed with him again.

At the outbreak of World War II, Crowell was in Houlton, running an Army winter survival program; they used terrain around Mt. Katahdin for training. Crowell then helped establish weather stations and facilities at Frobisher Bay, where Gertrude L. Thebaud had nearly met its fate. After the war, in the early 1950s, the Arctic called again as America’s cold war began. Crowell helped establish Thule Air Base in Greenland as well as other Distant Early Warning line installations across northern Canada.

By the early 1960s, Jack Crowell worked for the National Science Foundation developing the Eltanin research ship. He then helped survey the Antarctic peninsula sites for soon-to-be U.S.-established Palmer Station. He was instrumental in the design and construction of the NSF’s wooden research vessel Hero. It was Jack Crowell in 1968 who drove NSF to agree on such a wooden ship and to have it built in South Bristol.

Crowell rented a small house in South Bristol, where he could easily access Harvey Gamage shipyard, where he wanted Hero to be built. Harvey F. Gamage was an old-school wooden boatbuilder and icon of Maine maritime history. Hero would be one of his last wooden vessels built. More on Harvey Gamage later!

According to University of Maine marine biologist John Dearborn, Crowell and Gamage were two of a kind. Gamage, the old wooden shipbuilder, would confront NSF Washington bigwigs who descended on his yard with constant demands and suggestions to the project. In his thick Maine accent, Gamage was often heard to say “That doesn’t make any sense” or “You can’t do it that way.”

Jack Crowell oversaw the vessel’s construction and even accompanied Hero on its shakedown cruise in fall 1968 to northern New England waters. They sailed northward until encountering some ice for what Dearborn called "beauty" photos for NSF publicity.

Between Crowell and Gamage, Hero was pretty much the last of its kind. The sturdy little wooden research ship served for years along the Antarctic Peninsula and then ended its days on the West Coast. Sadly, last reports suggest it has been holed and sits in mud near the Oregon and Washington state line, a navigational and environmental hazard.

Hero was Jack Crowell’s last official professional project. After the shakedown voyage, Jack Crowell fully retired and lived with Alice on Kimball Island, Isle Au Haut. Luckily, he was not forgotten. Two enterprising mariners themselves interviewed Jack Crowell and recorded the many exciting events of his life.

Recorded by Capt. Jim Sharp of Rockland, and compiled and edited by Spencer Apollonio, they produced the enjoyable and readable autobiography entitled “I Loved This Work…I have been delightfully busy: An autobiography by John T. Crowell, Master Mariner, at Sea and in the Polar Regions” (Penobscot Books, 2010).

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through Historypress.com.