Interview by Everett Potter
It’s a scene that evokes a 19th century painting: a tall masted ship is sailing past fir-covered islands off the rocky Maine coastline. The only sounds are of the wind filling the canvas sails, the creaking of the ship’s timbers, and the squawk of gulls darting overhead. Hour after hour, day after day, punctuated with hearty meals, colorful fishing ports, and some good conversation.
This is the essence of a sailing trip on Maine’s picturesque Penobscot Bay on a windjammer. These venerable ships depart from Rockland, Rockport or Camden, and sail Downeast in the direction of Mount Desert Island. Since these are wind-driven vessels, there’s no specific schedule and a wishful. Tides and wind dictate your day.
I sailed on the largest ship in the Maine Windjammer Association fleet, Victory Chimes, more than a decade ago, and loved it. So I thought it was high time for an update with Captain Barry King of the Schooner Mary Day, a 90 foot vessel that sails from Camden.
EP: Let’s start at the beginning: what is a “windjammer” and how did they become so closely associated with the Maine coast?
BK: The term “windjammer” was originally a derogatory term used by sailors in steamships when they referred to those sailing vessels that, instead of sailing straight up wind, had to tack back and forth sailing as close to the wind as possible to go places. Due to its lack of access by other means during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, commercial sailing vessels were still in existence along the Maine coast. The first windjammer cruises were offered aboard some of these schooners whose captains were happy to have a new “cargo.” Nowadays the term windjammer refers to any of the traditional sailing vessels offering over night sailing cruises along the Maine coast.
EP: Historically, when did Maine windjammers begin offering passage to paying customers?
BK: Windjammer cruises in Maine began in 1936. A gentleman by the name of Frank Swift saw a potential market for folks from urban and suburban areas enjoying time aboard a traditional Maine coast schooner. Given the popularity of these cruises it seems like he was right.
EP: Tell us about your ship, the Schooner Mary Day. Is it a vintage working ship or a later version of a windjammer?
BK: Mary Day was the first commercial sailing vessel purpose-built for windjammer cruises. She was built at the Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol from an original design by Capt Havilah Hawkins who had formerly owned and operated the schooners Stephen Taber and Alice Wentworth. She was the first schooner ever launched just to be a windjammer. As a commercial sailing vessel she was designed for a different purpose than any of the other vessels at the time but she was none the less a commercial sailing, the first schooner launched along the coast of Maine since 1938. Capt Hawkins design reflected the best examples of his experiences aboard older schooners and added his own well-founded ideas about how to make a schooner more comfortable and easier to maintain. In essence she is a coasting schooner like all the rest, just launched a little later with a new cargo in mind. 51 years later I think he got a lot of things just right.
EP: What are the classic reasons that a tourist would enjoy a trip on a Maine windjammer?
BK: Have you ever met someone who didn’t really like to relax and couldn’t enjoy spending a few days poking around the coast of Maine? Windjammer cruises take folks away from the daily cares ashore. No cell phones, no computers, no radios or television telling us what the latest crisis in the news might be. Who doesn’t need a chance to leave “it” all behind? There are some folks who don’t want to let go and that is fine. There are some folks who get seasick looking at a picture of a boat so this type of vacation experience isn’t for everyone. But I can promise this. If anyone wants a chance to relax deeply, to see a still wild part of the coast, to enjoy the thrill of 100 tons of boat being propelled by nothing more than the wind, doesn’t need constant hustle and bustle and can enjoy the company of others,well then this might just to do all of that and more. I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t get just a tinge of excitement when they get a chance to take the wheel or see a seal pup and its mother lying in the sun on an exposed ledge or see porpoise or bald eagle or the granite shores of an unspoiled spruce covered island.
EP: What are the ports of call you might visit?
BK: We have no itinerary. It is that simple. No schedule, no place to be. I like to think that we get guests off the beaten path. You can’t imagine that we could hide a big schooner like Mary Day but Maine is so full of islands and remote little coves it really isn’t that hard. Ports of call? Name any big town along the Maine coast and we don’t go there. A secluded beach, a small island community with a one room school house, a remote part of Acadia National Park that can only be accessed by boat, a small village where lobster boats far out number yachts. That doesn’t give you the names of any specific towns I know but then again most people wouldn’t have a clue where the fishing village of East Brookshaven on Little Long Island in Seal Bay is.
EP: You belong to the Maine Windjammer Association – do you meet up with other windjammers in the course of one of your voyages?
BK: Yes we do! The Maine Windjammer Association is a group of 10 owner/operators working cooperatively to insure the quality of the windjammer experience. The Association host several events during the season when the fleet has a chance to meet up for a “gam”, have a fun day racing around the bay or have a shoreside shindig with music and dancing. As the last and largest working fleet of traditional sailing vessels we can’t help but see and admire the other boats.
EP: How about families –is this a trip that families might enjoy?
BK: Families are more than welcome aboard the schooners. We have hosted family reunions, weddings and small families that just want a chance to spend some quality time together without having to worry about who is doing the cooking or the cleaning. Some of the schooners have a suggested age limit and some specialize in families with younger children.
EP: As a passenger, can I participate in the work life of the ship, helping to hoist sails, say?
BK: You bet! That is what we do best. These windjammers are a fabulous place to learn about sailing, traditional rigging, knots and navigation. Aboard Mary Day we actually offer sail training cruises for school groups and for adults looking for an exciting active experiential vacation that doesn’t require great physical conditioning or special equipment. We also offer a host of other cruises with themes that include folk music, natural history, lighthouses and this year, a beer tasting cruise that features craft beers from Maine.
EP: Tell us a bit about the food and your chef.
BK: Hearty New England fare, that is what we offer. Breakfasts such as blueberry pancakes with Maine maple syrup, scrambled eggs from our own chickens, and sausage made by a local farmer who lives just down the road from us. Fresh fruit and plenty of hot coffee and tea along with homemade cranberry scones. Lunches are usually hearty soups with fresh garden salads with home made dressings along with fresh bread and something just a little sweet like almond chocolate chip cookies. Dinner entrees include fresh fish with lemon and capers, baked boneless chicken breasts with an orange marmalade glaze, or a southern pulled pork made from Boston butt — again from our neighbor farmer down the road — slow-cooked in the wood cookstove. Every cruise includes an all-you-can-eat lobster dinner. Fresh pies from local fruits in season, a wicked moist chocolate cake with mocha frosting or a strawberry shortcake with light homemade biscuits, hand whipped cream and organic strawberries. Should I mention hand cranked home made ice cream?
EP: How about the cost – these are pretty reasonable trips, aren’t they?
BK: Trips cost on average $175 per person, per day, depending on the length of the cruise and the time of season desired. I have had more than a few folks tell us we don’t charge enough. We keep our rates as low as possible and the great thing, unlike other cruise experiences, there are no surcharges or shore visit fees or chances that the engine (in our case the wind) will break down. Our trips are an all-inclusive get-away package that gets you out of your car and answers the question “What are we going to do today?” during your Maine vacation. Compared to shopping, gas, meals, entertainment and room fees for staying at one of the local B&B’s, we are a bargain. I think just knowing that you are doing something extraordinary, seeing the Maine coast from a whole new perspective instead of searching for a parking space from your car is worth the price of admission. The Maine windjammer sailing experience is something you just can’t find anywhere else in the world.
For more information, visit the Maine Windjammer Association