Captain Jim Morash: Call me Ishmael

At 19, he worked at an IGA in Poultney.  How did he, 35 years later, come to skipper the Mount Washington II on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee and win the state’s top tourism honor? 

Jim Morash, better known as Captain Jim, at first seemed to be at a bit of a loss to explain just how and why he made his romantic career choice. Herman Melville’s Ishmael, in the novel, “Moby Dick,” went off to sea whenever he found himself “growing grim.”  With Morash, it was more like simple gravity.

“I felt the pull of the lake—absolutely,” he admitted.

In a telephone interview, Morash spoke in especially upbeat and modest tones. He repeatedly refused to dis the grocery business. He simply would not say that he found piloting a ship superior to working in a grocery store.

 “In my heart, I’m still a Poultney boy,” he said adamantly.

Initially he also downplayed the distinction he received as recipient of the New Hampshire Travel Council’s 2013 Richard Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award for promotion of tourism. But as he spoke from his Laconia offices as captain and co-owner of Mount Washington Cruises, Morash eventually made it clear that his youthful love of the lake and its people, and the fascination of piloting and maintaining a 230-foot ship had combined to make him a natural spokesman for New Hampshire tourism.

“I call it the old man award,” Morash said about the tourism award. But his tone changed when he spoke of previous award winners, including the award’s namesake, Hamilton.

“A lot of those people,” he said, “I knew a lot of those people.”  He also noted with pride that out of “17 years in existence, the award has only been given out 11 times.”

Morash helpfully supplied a translation of the official rhetoric for the award, which is given “to an individual who has made lasting and permanent contributions to the travel and tourism industries,” and who has also displayed qualities of “leadership, generosity within the community, corporate giving and ethical business practices.”

He said he made a firm commitment to the Lake Washington II in 1982, when, as a 25-year-old, he signed on as a laborer working on a 25-foot addition that expanded the ship to its current length.

He went on to work as marketing director in the winter, which was more in line with his 1979 degree in business management from Castleton College. Meanwhile, during the summer months, he worked up the ranks, from deck hand to officer, purser, pilot to captain and co-owner. Working as hard as he did for Winnipesaukee Flagship Corp. over 25 years, Morash explained that it was only natural that as his job grew more glamorous, he got more and more media exposure.

 “I got a lot of press,” he said.

Morash used his local fame to champion New Hampshire tourism in “any venue” that he found.  He soon became an “ambassador,” representing not only his cruise line company, but his state, New Hampshire.  That is his explanation why he received New Hampshire’s top tourism award.

But what about the Ishmael factor?  Why did Captain Jim “quietly take to the ship,” as Melville wrote?

 “Well, I didn’t run from groceries,” he said, laughing. “I ran to the lake. I just loved the lake. As a boy, I spent all my time on the lake. I grew up on Bear Island,” where his family, Caryl Morash and the late Harvey Morash of East Poultney, had a summer home.

It was this love of the lake that naturally grew into a love of lake shipping, both past and present.

From memory, Morash reviewed the history of the shipping  industry on Lake Winnipesaukee, highlighting how the Mount Washington II was built in 1888 from the “iron-hulled vessel Chateauguay,” docked at the Lake Champlain Shipyard.  Morash reminisced about his relations with the Dow family, owners of the Lake George Steamboat Co.  He pointed out similarities and differences between the nautical duties of crewmen on lake ships and those in the U.S. Navy.

 As the interview drew to an end, the reason grew clearer exactly why Jim Morash left Poultney to ply the waters  of the nearly 22-mile-long, 15-mile-wide Lake Winnipesaukee.

“One of my proudest moments,” Captain Jim recalled, “was the time when we re-powered the vessel.”  In 1940, just before World War II, the Mount Washington II was converted from a steam engine vessel to a ship powered by twin 615 horsepower diesel engines. In 2011, when it came time to replace those engines, Morash said he successfully located the one remaining man who had worked on the 1940 engine overhaul.

“I knew the gentleman,” Morash said. An e-mail correspondence developed. Morash sought major federal grant funding, which was awarded to nine ship companies, one of them being Winnipesaukee Flagship Corp. One could hear the pride in the Captain’s voice as he described how workmen pulled two 22-ton diesel engines from the Mount Washington II and replaced them with two, state-of-the-art Caterpillar engines.

 “And all the while the Mount was in the water!” Morash said.

Life choices and American success stories—sometimes they just seem hard to explain. Sometimes they are as simple, in Melville’s words, as a little sail “about the watery part of the world.”

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