Seasons Turn on the M/S Mount Washington
Story & Photos by Barbara Neville Wilson
It’s a bright, cheerful day that speaks contrast. The sun beats summer warmth, and the crisp blue sky and shadows whisper, “Fall is on its way.”
I get a happy text from my friend Tatiana. She has found parking for “Gino’s ginormous truck” in downtown Wolfeboro—something rare in busy summer—and she is waiting for me at the Wolfeboro Town Docks. We are meeting the Motorship (M/S) Mount Washington.
Passengers on hand to board the cruise ship hale from Port Orange, Florida; Siberia; Cape Cod; Wells, Maine; New Durham; Williamsburg, Virginia; Sri Lanka; and East Wakefield, New Hampshire. For most, this 2 ½ hour cruise is a rare treat, but for Ann Dingwell of Sugar Hill Retirement Community in Wolfeboro, it is an annual rite. How frequently has she been on the Mount Washington? “How long have I lived here?” she responds rhetorically and recounts weekend evenings dancing on the ship and annual tours with family and friends.
“The Mount,” as she is affectionately called by locals, was smaller when Ann danced on it, and the Mount that once greeted trains at the Wolfeboro Docks was a different ship altogether. Like fall, the Mount is constantly changing, yet remains fixed in our memory as if an anchor.
Tatiana and I turn aside to catch up. Having only been in the area three years, she is excited by the prospect of a cruise on Lake Winnipesaukee’s largest ship. She enjoyed a twilight tour on another vessel a year or two ago, but the larger ship and longer itinerary sounds heavenly on a beautiful afternoon, and besides, she’s doing research.
Research? Yes. Tatiana and husband Gino began renovating their historic 19th century Top of the Ridge Farm in New Durham this past year, preparing to open it as a bed and breakfast, and, of course, Tatiana must be able to guide guests to wonderful things to do, doesn’t she?
We board the ship and find seats under the awning on the second deck. Soon we feel the rumble of engines, and watch Wolfeboro recede as we leave the docks and head out into the lake surrounded by “80 miles of shoreline” says the narration over the intercom. We are on a return trip to Weirs Beach, it tells us.
The narration continues, and we find out that, like Tatiana and Gino’s farm, the Mount Washington cruise ship has changed in form over the years, but its purpose and image in people’s minds remain the same. Built in 1888, it was bought from its owner on Lake Placid and brought to Lake Winnipesaukee in 1940 to replace the original Mount Washington steamship that burned in the tragic Christmas fire of 1939 at Weirs Beach. In 1946, it became the motorship Mount Washington when diesel engines replaced its steam engines. In 1982-83 it was actually cut in two, and a 24-ft. center section was added, but in each iteration, it remained The Mount, the largest ship to ply Winnipesaukee’s waters.
Lake Winnipesaukee was named by native peoples thousands of years ago to mean either “Smile of the Great Spirit” or “Beautiful waters in a high place,” says the narrator practically in the same breath that it tells of the Europeans who claimed to have “discovered” the headwaters of the Merrimack River and claimed them for the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Weirs Beach, a place natives had been fishing for generations. Exactly who claimed what is unimportant, though, as we ride the waves, view the Ossipee, Sandwich and Belknap Mountains, learn about the “40 Islands” that are actually 13 and see a flotilla of Canada Geese poised to rise in the sky and head south for the season.
We peer curiously at the huge homes tucked cheek by jowl and clinging to the shore of Governor’s Island. The land was once the site of a mansion built by colonial Governor Wentworth and later hosted a farming cooperative and, later still, an unsuccessful land development by Stilson Hutchins, founder of The Washington Post. Today, it has returned to its first use as the location of the “highest concentration of multi-million-dollar homes in the region,” says the narrator.
The ship docks at Weirs Beach. While we enjoy looking at the gingerbread features and Victorian architecture of the NH Veterans Association cottages across Weirs Boulevard, dozens of sightseers wearing nametags and matching shirts board the ship. Soon we are underway again with an invitation to enjoy the buffet luncheon served below.
“Look!” I point Tatiana to the illustration of the Mount Washington at the top of my plastic plate. The image almost makes me feel like a fancy passenger on an early 20th century ocean liner, and the colorful buffet strewn across the stern of the boat makes me feel no less pampered. A courteous staff offers tossed and fruit salads, green beans, fresh rolls, baked haddock, vegetarian lasagna, barbequed chicken, white rice and a selection of sweet parfaits and trifles, including a seasonal pumpkin.
We lose ourselves in food and conversation, pausing only to hear disbelievingly about the five- to six-ft. waves that can appear in the currently glass-calm Broads, and the stories of grand hotels transferred to new homes across winter ice.
Then suddenly it’s over! The narrator tells us we have re-entered Wolfeboro Bay. Surprised, we look ahead and there we see a Main Street every bit as picturesque from the water as from land.
Honestly, we are a little sad our respite from daily life is ending. To prolong my jump back into reality, I pause to chat with Captain Paul Smith and Pilot Kevin Pettengill before disembarking.
I smile when the day’s theme unfolds again. Captain Smith tells me he has been on The Mount for 33 years and is slowly decreasing the number of his cruises. He is “honored” however, he tells me, to be training Pilot Pettengill to take his place. You see, it was Captain John Pettengill, Kevin’s father, who trained him to captain The Mount decades ago!
Old becomes new as seasons turn.
Watch the seasons turn from the decks of the M/S Mount Washington any day from now through October 28. Information about sailing times and ports of call can be found at www.cruisenh.com or by calling 603-366-5531.