In Search of Value: Going to Sea on a Maine Windjammer
It's a scene that evokes a 19th century painting. A tall masted ship is sailing past a chain of rugged islands that lie off a rocky coastline. The only sounds are of the wind filling the canvas sails, the creaking of the ship's timbers, and the squawk of a pair of gulls darting overhead.
But the year is 2009, and the waters in question are those of Maine's picturesque Penobscot Bay. As for the ship, it could be any one of 12 wooden schooners in the Maine Windjammer fleet (Lewis R. French, above). Founded in 1936, the Maine Windjammer Association is a way for 21st century landlubbers to enjoy the bracing air and simple routines of 19th century shipboard life. Even the prices seem to be not of this century. Rates average $150 per person, per day, based on double occupancy, with all meals included. This is clearly one of the best value vacations at sea.
I've sailed on the largest ship in the fleet, Victory Chimes (above). Built in 1900 in Bethel, Delaware, it's job was to carry lumber in the shallow bays and rivers of the Chesapeake. Now the 132-foot schooner is the last three-masted schooner on the East Coast and the largest passenger sailing vessel under a U.S. flag, with a capacity of 40 passengers. I learned to love the morning fog, took the wooden rowboat off to explore Hell's Half Acre island, and tried my best to slow down.
Every ship seems to have a colorful history. For example, the 78-foot Mercantile was built in Little Deer Isle, Maine in 1916. The ship carried salt fish, barrel staves, and firewood. The Mercantile became a cruise schooner in 1942 under the ownership of Frank Swift, the founder of the Maine windjammer trade, and now sails with 29 passengers.
Most of the windjammers were built at the turn of the century as work vessels designed to transport cargo. With time, some have achieved the status of registered National Historic Landmarks. While they've been refitted to carry passengers, space is at a minimum, even on the largest vessels. This is decidedly not a Carnival cruise. But at a time when uniformity is commonplace among cruise ships, it's refreshing to find that each schooner is unique.
This kind of seagoing vacation offers a welcome break from modern routine. When the ships depart from Rockland, Rockport or Camden, they sail downeast, in the direction of Mount Desert Island. But since these are wind-driven vessels, there can be no specific schedule and only a rudimentary itinerary. Tides and wind dictate where and when these ships sail. On these three- to six-day trips, no one is in a hurry and you can savor the Maine coast.
After all, Penobscot Bay has hundreds of beautiful islands, many wild and uninhabited, and they're often visited by the fleet. Wildlife is another great reason to take one of these cruises. While there's no guarantee of sightings, spotting cormorants, seals, minke whales and ospreys is common. Porpoises are often seen, as are bald eagles and many varieties of gulls.
But remember, these are not action-packed trips. Nor are they for shoppers or anyone craving 21st century excitement. Nor are they meant to be. Learning to tie knots, taking a turn at the helm, hauling sails and getting to know crew members and fellow passengers is what fills a day. Exploring small fishing villages or larger towns like Stonington or Castine, or taking a hike on an island is also part of the routine. When a ship anchors in a port overnight, an evening stroll is possible. There may or may not be a shop or restaurant open. The thick fog that the Gulf of Maine is known for may or may not roll in. If it does, the phrase "pea soup" suddenly makes sense.
If you crave physically activity, you can hop in a wooden rowboat and put the oars to work or learn how to haul sails. But you can also forget about exercise and get into the lazy, day to day rhythms of a sailing ship, enjoying conversation, scenery and birdwatching.
As for accommodations, the diminutive cabins invariably have bunk beds, while bathrooms and showers are shared. As with any cruise, food plays a major role, and meals are cooked on wood-fired stoves. In true Yankee tradition, the evening meal is called supper, not dinner. It's always casual and it usually very hearty fare, everything from roast beef and fresh fish to hand-cranked ice cream and a lobster bake on a beach on the six-day cruises. After dinner, entertainment takes the form of stargazing, games of Scrabble and cards. Cruise wear never get fancier than jeans, fleece and sneakers. And this being coastal Maine, it's smart to bring raingear along.
There are several special schooner weeks, such as the Sail-In at Wooden Boat magazine on September 15, where the entire windjammer fleet meets at the magazine's offices and legendary wooden boat school in Brooklin, Maine.
The sailing vacation season extends from mid-May to mid-October. For more information, visit the Maine Windjammer Association.