Remembering Captain Roger Taylor
By Art Cohn, Director Emeritus
On February 1st of this year (2022), as I was writing an email to Captain Roger offering to help him illustrate his “Captain’s Logs” written during his tenure aboard the Lois McClure, I was shocked to receive a phone call telling me that my friend, mentor and shipmate had passed away at age 90 while playing tennis. Roger was athletic, tall and resilient and it was easy to confuse him for a much younger man. I was not prepared for the sudden loss or the intense sadness it initially triggered. However, as I began to reflect on Roger’s exceptional life, and particularly his profound contribution to our programs, my sadness gave way to gratitude and celebration.
Roger was a Renaissance man born into a family rooted in the maritime world, so boats early on became a foundation of Roger’s life. From naval officer to world-class sailor, Roger also had a deep literary talent which he practiced at the Naval Institute Press and as founder of International Marine Press. Roger’s books include his classic Elements of Seamanship, the four volumes of Good Boats, and, recently, a two-volume biography of L. Francis Herreshoff published by Mystic Seaport Museum. During Roger’s tenure at International Marine Press, he published books about wooden and traditional boats which are now standard references: works by John Gardner, Phil Bolger, Pete Culler and many others.
I met Roger during the winter of 1990 when I was driving the Maine coast and stopping in seaport towns, searching for local mariners to help us with a challenging but rewarding maritime project. We were in the final stages of constructing a replica of the Revolutionary War gunboat Philadelphia and planning its launch and on-lake tour the following year. I was in search of a special person, a Coast Guard-licensed Captain who was experienced enough and crazy enough to take command of this new replica, which we named the gunboat Philadelphia II.
The Philadelphia II was an exact replica of a vessel built in 1776 and fought under the direction of General Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island on October 11, 1776. The original Philadelphia, wrote Arnold in retreat, “…was hulled in so many Places that She Sank, About One hour after the engagement was over…” She remained underwater until 1935 when she was recovered by historian and salvage engineer Colonel Lorenzo Hagglund. Some three decades later, Philadelphia was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution where a dedicated team of curators and historians, including Dr. Philip Lundeberg, installed the gunboat in the new National Museum of American History. In a remarkable effort led by Howard Hoffman and assistant Harold Ellis, they created a set of plans detailing every aspect of the gunboat’s construction. It was with the Smithsonian’s endorsement that we were able to use these plans to create a totally faithful clone of the original.
Our commitment to build an exact replica made this new vessel an extremely effective interpretive exhibit – and a dangerous sailing ship. I knew that the person who took the helm of this time machine would need to be both an accomplished master mariner and a very special person. Captain Roger Taylor proved to be the perfect choice, and he brought with him his life-mate Kathleen with a wide range of her own talents.
Roger, by his own account, drew from his remarkable lifetime of maritime experience from small boats to Naval warships, and wove the green but enthusiastic crew into a talented band of mariners that could respond to commands and safely move the gunboat. The vessel was an awkward, flat-bottomed, top-heavy, sailing gun platform, and for two seasons Roger and the crew traveled the full length of Lake Champlain from Whitehall in the south to Saint-Jean-sur Richelieu, Quebec in the north, and dozens of ports in between. At each port, Roger and the crew hosted the public and used the replica as an exhibit platform to interpret Lake Champlain’s rich history. Roger and the crew accomplished this without serious mishap and while keeping an ambitious schedule that permitted thousands of people to come aboard to learn about her contribution to creating the new Nation. During those two years Roger mentored the crew and defined himself to all who got to know him as a world-class and gifted mariner.
The Philadelphia II experience created lasting relationships with Roger, Kathleen, and the museum crew. Roger contributed to a new museum publication The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776, which Dr. Philip Lundeberg, Curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution had produced to showcase the history of the original Philadelphia when it first debuted at the Smithsonian. The new edition of the publication expanded the story to now include the three-year construction of our new replica, its launching and travels. In the years that followed, I made every effort to identify projects that would bring Roger and Kathleen back to the museum. Roger’s extraordinary maritime skills made him an asset to any program we could design, and Roger and Kathleen’s growing love of Lake Champlain and the museum community made this a mutual benefit.
Then Mac and Lois McClure and their family offered the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum an extraordinary opportunity, the result of which would forever tie me to Roger.
The longstanding philanthropy of the McClure family – headed by Mac and Lois – has nurtured and empowered social service, museum, and cultural institutions around the community, including the Vermont Medical Center, Hope Lodge, and the Vermont Respite House. One day, quite unexpectedly, Mac McClure called me with a challenge to propose a project that would accomplish three principal goals; benefit our museum, enrich Burlington, VT, and reflect Lois’s lifelong love of Lake Champlain.
With Mac McClure’s challenge on the top of the yellow pad, I began to outline a project that I hoped would meet the donors’ goals and the museum’s mission. Our first replica projects taught me that the public loved to watch the wooden boat building process that naturally stimulated discussions of history and archaeology; or as Dr. Lundeberg counseled, “build it slowly and interpret its history as you build it.”
Which vessel to replicate? I had developed a fondness for nineteenth century canal boats, workaday boxy vessels that carried cargo, towed by horse and mule through the northern canals and in groups on Lake Champlain. Yet it was a forgotten class of these that came to mind for this project. Based on the discovery of the shipwrecked General Butler, we learned that some were designed to sail on broader waters. This 1862-class 88-ft wooden “Lake Champlain sailing canal boat” is the vessel I wanted to recreate – and it would prove to be the most ambitious project we had ever undertaken. Over the next few months, I worked out as many details of this complex project that I could – construction, launch, operations – to present to the McClures for consideration, and, hopefully, their approval. But before I presented the plan to Mac and Lois, I needed to run it by a penultimate mariner, renown captain, and a friend – all of whom happened to be the same person …
I called Roger and he agreed to be a sounding board. I recollect that my proposed project outline took more than an hour to deliver and, when I was done, I took a deep breath and asked Roger for his thoughts – and to be brutally honest about the flaws and weak points. The long silence on the line led me first to conclude that I had missed the mark and that Roger was searching for the right words to tell me without hurting my feelings. It seemed like a very long time before Roger spoke, and when he did, he went down a list of plans, timetables, budget estimates and critiqued it as only Roger could:
“Your concept to build a full-sized working 1862-class canal schooner modeled after two sunk in Burlington Harbor …. very good concept.“
“Your suggestion to build it on the Burlington waterfront, in close proximity to the two shipwrecks being documented…good idea.“
“Your plan to have a public launching in Burlington … that where the people are … good idea.“
“Your suggestion to name the new boat Lois McClure, to meet Mac’s wish to honor Lois’s life-long affiliation with Lake Champlain… great idea.“
“Your concept of traveling the completed replica to New York City to recreate the first documented voyage of a Lake Champlain Sailing Canal Boat in 1823… very interesting idea.“
Roger’s feedback was soft spoken, as was Roger’s way. He never raised his voice, never got flustered, always kept smiling, which was a core lesson preached to his maritime disciples. His remarks were thoughtful, insightful and reassuring – until we got to the end. After a brief silence, Roger told me he had been holding back an important observation because, to his surprise and disappointment, I had made a potentially fatal miscalculation that could bring the whole well-meaning project to ruin.
I pondered Roger’s words and searched my mind and my yellow pad for what I had overlooked. I was on the verge of being shattered – I had been working on the project outline for many months and now I could tell Roger was searching for words to try and let me down easy. He continued,
“I’ve always liked the idea of building a non-military vessel, and your proposed sailing canal boat has a number of interesting storylines and is probably a strong choice.”
” But the one fatal mistake you have made is the oversight of not inviting me to be the Captain.”
As I absorbed Roger’s comment, I began to realize he had been leading me on and in fact was validating the project plan. His observation that I had not officially made part of the outline the desire to ask him to return to the helm had, of course been contemplated from the beginning, but I had felt it was better to separate it from the project review. Roger’s concurrence was the final review I needed to move forward.
Roger’s genuine enthusiasm gave me the confidence to believe that we had designed a replica project rooted in the community’s benefit and the museum’s mission. When I presented the proposal to Mac and Lois McClure (not to mention our Board of Directors) adding that our master-mariner and friend Captain Roger had agreed to command the new replica alleviated any concerns about the on-water operations.
On July 3rd, 2004, the new replica was christened the Lois McClure, by the beloved Lois McClure herself. Over the years under Roger’s leadership and bolstered by Kathleen’s cooking, this enthusiastic crew became a community of first-class mariners, guiding the new replica to New York City, Buffalo, Quebec City and Ottawa, and dozens of historic ports in between. and sharing with hundreds of thousands of visitors our stories of history and shipwrecks. To Captain Roger’s and the crew’s great credit, we carried on this complex effort without a serious mishap or accident to either boats, crew or visitors.
Although I found myself a participant in several intense and dynamic on-water episodes, I concluded that the difference between a serious maritime incident or just a good story, was having Roger Taylor at the helm. The combinations of Roger’s lifetime of experience and innate skill had transformed him into a true “mariner’s mariner” whose judgement and action, when things got complicated, was a joy to experience. Our potentially dangerous moments always resulted in a good story.
I am so grateful to Roger for his early and constant encouragement, without which the Lois McClure program might not have happened. Roger’s depth of experience and skill as a master mariner, a firm but steady leader, and a friend to all, made it possible for us to achieve the highest level of effectiveness.
Roger’s passing leaves a large devoted crew and family who learned about seamanship – and life – from a very special man we all came to love and respect.
Dear Roger, thank you for the contributions and wonderful memories you leave in your wake.
If you have your own memories or stories of Roger Taylor, please share them in the comments below. Please enjoy this collection of photos of Roger over the years from our team at the Maritime Museum: