Not every parent would set sail for months along the eastern seaboard with both of their preschool aged children and a crew of juvenile delinquents aboard, but Nobleboro resident J.B. Smith did in 1991 without concern.
“A lot of those kids didn’t have families so they kind of adopted our family,” Smith said of his problematic crew. “Everybody is looking out for our kids, especially the crew.”
Sailing off and on throughout 1991 for a company called Vision Quest, Smith would command a crew of at-risk-youth, offering them a chance to learn teamwork and gain hands-on skills. To Smith, being able to bring his 3-year-old daughter Nell Smith, 6-year-old son Nathan “Zeek” Smith, and his wife at the time, Wendy Smith, along for the ride was an awesome perk of the job.
“We homeschooled our children, so they were able to come with us,” Smith said.
The positive relationship Smith and his family formed with the crew was evident as they celebrated his daughter’s fourth birthday aboard his ship, Bill of Rights. Smith laughed as he recalled the scene of his daughter, gleefully sitting in front of her large birthday cake surrounded by the crew of adjudicated delinquents wearing celebratory headgear.
“Under certain circumstances if you didn’t know any better you wouldn’t cross the street at the sight of these guys,” Smith said. “And there they were surrounding a newly 4-year-old Nell all wearing birthday hats.”
After two years of sailing with Vision Quest, Smith continued to build relationships with younger generations at sea as he joined Gamage Foundations, a nonprofit that offered accredited sailing programs to high school and college students. Shortly after Smith was hired, the foundation changed its name to Ocean Classroom Foundation.
As an employee, Smith would captain one of three schooners, commanding approximately 20 high school and college students and an experienced crew of 8 including himself.
“Over time as the students gained knowledge and experience the crew onboard would gradually step back until the students were running the ship by themselves by the end of the trip,” Smith said.
When not learning how to sail, the students would take history classes about the region they were sailing through. Throughout the program Smith would mentor students on how to navigate by using the stars, moon, and sun.
“I would give them a speech and say you never know when your battery might die or a big wave might fall on your electronics,” Smith said.
While attempting to motivate students to learn celestial navigation, Smith would try to appeal to the teenagers’ sense of independence.
“This is a good opportunity for you,” Smith said he would tell the students. “You want to go sailing around the world? You can say screw the man. All you have to do is find a good time, get a sextant, and some books.”
Starting in the mid 1990s Smith would spend the next 20 years sailing with students along the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean, before the Ocean Classroom Foundation ran into financial difficulties in 2014.
It is expensive to maintain a boat, especially wooden boats that essentially need to be reconstructed over time,” Smith said.
Smith’s relationship with the sea began as a young boy sailing along the gulf coast on a small sail boat while growing up in Northern Florida.
While attending Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg, Fla. in the 1960s, Smith decided to embrace his passion for sailing and joined the sailing club with his school, racing off the shore of Saint Petersburg and in the Great Lakes off the coast of Chicago.
“That is really were the passion took off for me,” Smith said.
Smith said his love for sailing comes from the relationship he forms with the world around him. “You are part of the natural realm,” Smith said. “Especially sailing, you are using the natural forces to get you from A to B. There is a certain oneness when you are sailing.”
Smith also said the relationship he forms with the ship itself and the crew manning the ship repeatedly draws him to the ocean.
Smith originally attended Eckerd with the intention of becoming a medical student but realized he wasn’t suited for the line of work. “I quickly learned I didn’t want to be pre-med,” Smith said. “I didn’t like the sight of blood, for one thing.”
Shortly after graduating from Eckerd in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Smith joined the U.S. Navy where he would receive his first paycheck as a sailor. Smith said he joined the Navy before he could be drafted.
“When it was time to be done with college there were a couple of choices you could make before it was made for you, during the Vietnam days,” Smith said. “Guys that got drafted got to explore the swamps of Vietnam.”
Serving from 1967 to 1970 Smith spent his service sailing between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean regions and never entered an active warzone.
Smith moved to Washington, Maine from Vermont in 1986 in order to be closer to Boston, where he was working at the time. He moved to Nobleboro in 2011.
Her currently volunteers in Boothbay at the Costal Maine Botanical Gardens and with the Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway in Alna.
“What else am I going to do,” Smith said. “I can’t sit and stare out the window all day.”
Smith said he doesn’t consider himself retired as he continues to captain boats around the country every few months as he is needed.
“I do not use the R word,” Smith said. “Right now I simply work at my leisure.”
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