By Ted Scull.
George Freeman Coughlin has been sailing as a small ship cruise captain for many years, working for Coastwise Cruise Line, Exploration Cruise Lines, Clipper Cruise Line, Cruise West, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic, Alaskan Dream Cruises, and UnCruise Adventures.
Traveling as a journalist, I first met Captain George in May 1986 aboard the Colonial Explorer, a replica steamboat (now SS Legacy for UnCruise Adventures), for a week’s cruise in the Chesapeake Bay. Then I met him again two months later as a lecturer (at his request) on the same ship for the relighting of the Statue of Liberty over the July 4th weekend. It was a Smithsonian charter, and those three days were tremendous fun with New York Harbor packed with all sorts of vessels: liners, small cruise ships, excursion boats, sail training ships, warships, ferries, and tugs. After that, when the Colonial Explorer came to New York, I would give a harbor talk before the farewell lobster dinner at which George and I would show the passengers how to crack a lobster as most did not hail from the East Coast. That was the beginning of a long friendship.
George Coughlin has been captain of the Pilgrim Belle, Colonial Explorer, Newport Clipper, Nantucket Clipper, Yorktown Clipper, National Geographic Sea Bird/Sea Lion, Victorian Empress, Spirit of Yorktown, Chichagof Dream, and S.S. Legacy.
Q&A with Small Ship Cruise Captain George Coughlin
Ted: Where did you grow up and what made you interested in taking a job at sea?
George: I grew up in Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. In the summer months, my parents took me on frequent day excursions from Rowes Wharf in Boston to Nantasket Beach and Provincetown, Cape Cod. This was my introduction to becoming very interested in passenger carrying vessels, which at the time, I never realized would be the foundation of my career as a mariner.
Ted: What was your first ship and your role aboard? Did you think you had made the right decision?
George: My first ship was the S. S. Potomac in 1962. She was a former vessel owned by Wilson Lines. Built in 1910, I believe. All steel construction, 4 decks and a passenger capacity over 1,000. She was a true oil-fired steamboat. I was a 14-year-old deckhand.
Ted: Any stories to tell from those first months?
George: I remember the very first time that Capt. Herb Patterson had me take the helm, and under his direction, gave me rudder commands to bring the Potomac alongside Rowes Wharf. I also remember that going back to school after working that first summer aboard wasn’t so easy. I had to join a union for the summer, but really wasn’t old enough to be working onboard. Management felt that I looked old enough, so we worked around that obstacle pretty well.
Ted: When did you think you had settled in and were making good progress in the cruise industry?
George: I was in the Navy from 1965-1968. During that time, I had my sights on the Merchant Marine after completing my term of duty and really had no interest in staying with the Navy as a career. I remember being fascinated with the liner S.S. United States and thought that perhaps being a deck officer onboard would be of interest. As things turned out, I opted to stay involved with smaller passenger vessels and I have no regrets.
Ted: Where did you get your professional training?
George: As the expression goes, I worked my way up the hawse and through the ranks. Many individual classes have been taken at various schools for all the license endorsements, including Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Buzzards Bay MA.; Maritime Professional Training, Fort Lauderdale, FLA; and Northeast Maritime Institute, Fairhaven, MA.
Ted: What ranks did you hold before becoming a captain and on what ships?
George: My time in the Navy was shipboard as a Quartermaster and when I was discharged I opted to sail as Mate aboard a yacht for the winter in Florida. During that winter of 1968-69, I focused on accumulating my combined sea time and sitting for my first Coast Guard License.
Ted: What was your first command and where did you go?
George: My first command was a classic Harbor Tour vessel owned by Hyannis Harbor Tours (Hy-Line Cruises) Hyannis, MA. Her name was/is Prudence, a 65-foot wooden-hulled 150-passenger vessel, single screw, and built in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine in 1911.
Ted: Did you have favorite ships and what made them special?
George: I’m a little superstitious about naming favorite ships. It’s rather like showing favoritism to a child of a family of 10. Just don’t want the word to get around to those other ships that I may possibly be sailing on again. They have a way of retaliating. With that said, the “Prudence” will always be dear to me, as well as the now S.S. Legacy.
Ted: Did you have preferred seasons and favorite itineraries?
George: It’s like comparing apples to oranges. There are just so many places to see and enjoy. If I had to choose — in the winter, The Virgin Islands; and in the Fall, The Chesapeake Bay. In the Spring, it’s the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau; and in the Summer, S.E. Alaska.
Ted: Any unusual occurrences to share?
George: It was nearing the end of one of my Alaska summer seasons, and we had what was considered a good year for wildlife sightings. I was sailing through Frederick Sound towards Petersburg and almost in disbelief there were literally 25+ Humpback whales ahead of us breaching, sounding and as a group, being very playful. As I recall, the following week, there was but one whale in that same area. We decided that the week prior was the Humpback’s gathering together and bidding us farewell before making their long migration to Hawaii for the winter.
Ted: Any funny stories to tell as a small ship cruise captain?
George: I was sailing on the Panama/Costa Rica itinerary one winter and after consulting with one of our onboard local guides, I opted to anchor off a beautiful uninhabited island off the Panama Coast. I sent the ships Bosun in with an inflatable to check out the sandy beach landing. He radioed back to me and said there was a pretty good swell, but the landing was doable. I made a shipboard announcement and said for those who are agile and in the spirit of adventure, we will be offering zodiacs to/from the beach. All was going well, and I was standing in the companionway just outside the lounge, when a returning guest, rather elderly and looking frail, approached me and asked me if I was the Captain. I looked at her and noticed that she was missing one of her rubber shoes and her eyeglasses that she was wearing were full of sand. She looked like the cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, and I did all I could to restrain from laughing. I noticed that she wasn’t hurt in any way and replied that I was the Captain, not knowing what she might be gearing up to say, thinking that she was probably infuriated about her experience on the beach. She looked up at me and smiled, saying “I just had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.” Needless to say, I was greatly relieved and very happy for her.
Ted: Have you fully retired?
George: I keep my license renewed and current. I enjoy doing random fill-in stints as Captain and also some piloting/training. I did a few relief stints with Lindblad/National Geographic this spring. I also did a few relief Captain stints aboard the S.S. Legacy on the Columbia/Snake Rivers last summer for UnCruise Adventures. I’m looking forward to a few more years before full retirement.
Ted: What do you like to do with your free time?
George: I’ve always had an interest in music, especially classical and opera. I’ve been singing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Holiday POPS and Boston Symphony for the past 20 years. I had my own small sailboat and was a member of the Hyannis Yacht Club for over 30 years. I enjoy travel and hold a single-engine aircraft land/sea license.
Ted: You have a good balance in your life that will serve you well. I hope we get to meet up soon, and thank you sharing your seagoing story. I am sure there is more to tell.
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