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 Coast of Maine on a Windjammer

Windjammers in Maine
Coast of Maine – Windjamming Along the Maine Coast

by Christina Tree

The sting of salt breeze and warmth of the sun, the scent of pine trees and aroma of blueberry pie from the wood stove. For windjammer passengers, Maine isn’t something seen through a windshield or on a postcard. They taste and feel, smell and savor the essence of coastal Maine.

Of course, it doesn’t happen overnight. The first Sunday evening you are still a nervous landlubber, remembering what you’ve left at home, eyeing the two or three dozen strangers who will be sharing your week under sail.

“There is no schedule, no itinerary,” your captain announces. “Where we go depends on the wind and tide.”

But on Monday morning you cast off in more ways than one. Clad in old jeans and sneakers (uniform of the windjammer fleet) you help haul a line, watch the tall sails fill and feel the rhythmic pull of the schooner as it gets underway.

You pick up a book but never get into it. There’s too much to see – harbor seals to starboard and islands all around. You give yourself up to the luxury of steeping in life on the face of the ocean. As the wind and sun drop, the schooner eases into a hidden harbor.

Supper is hearty Yankee fare, maybe fish chowder and beef stew with plenty of fresh corn bread, served up on the shiny long tables of the galley. After supper you board the vessel’s yawlboat for a foray into a quiet village. As the moon rises you are back on board singing along as the captain strums his guitar. The stars have never looked so bright and someone is an authority on the constellations.

By Wednesday the days begin to blur. You’ve put away your watch. Cradled in a favorite corner of the deck you sun, lulled by the schooner’s motion. But you find yourself seeing more. You watch flocks of cormorants and spot a minke whale, see eagles circling over island nests. The sky itself seems closer and you are mesmerized by the ever-changing surface of the sea.

Sunday’s strangers are now shipmates. You have strained together for the sound of buoys and channel markers, eyes squinting into fog for a glimpse of land and lobster boats. You have helped heave and haul together, elbowed each other around the galley table, marveling at what can emerge from an old wood stove.

Stuffed haddock and turkey, even shortcake with hand-cranked ice cream pale, however, by comparison with the mid-week lobster bake. Chances are, it is staged on an uninhabited island, rocky and windswept but covered with blooming beach plum, lupine and wild irises. If you’re lucky there will be a patch of wild strawberries. You consume the lobster, clams, and corn in a bathing suit and let the butter drip, the water lap at your feet.

You now understand why more than one windjammer passenger has swapped job security for the life of a schooner captain, why almost half the season’s passengers are repeats, many returning with friends made on previous cruises.

Choosing which vessel to sail on in the first place turns out, in retrospect, to be the most difficult part of a windjammer vacation. The 12 members of the Maine Windjammer Association are all proud, trim vessels with their own followings. All share the distinction of being among the few dozen schooners presently plying a coast which was once home for literally thousands of their prototypes.

Said to have been invented in 1713 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the schooner is a peculiarly American vessel. Thanks to a fore-and-aft rig, it sails speedily before the wind and yet comes about handily, responding to a minimal crew. Nineteenth-century schooners were the coastal workhorses, hauling everything from granite to hay.

Windjammer LEWIS R. FRENCH, built in Christmas Cove, Maine in 1871 freighted salt fish, coal, lime, pulpwood, brick, even Christmas trees. Also built in 1871, the coasting schooner STEPHEN TABER holds the distinction of being the oldest documented sailing vessel in continuous service in the United States. Schooner GRACE BAILEY was launched from Patchogue, Long Island in 1882 and carried, in addition to coastal cargo, fruit from the West Indies. The ISAAC H. EVANS was built in 1886 to freight oysters in Delaware Bay and the VICTORY CHIMES was built in 1900 to carry lumber along Chesapeake Bay.

Well into the twentieth century, schooners continued to be built for specialized jobs. Broad-beamed, shallow-draft vessels like Windjammer MERCANTILE (1916) continued to work the Maine coast and islands. The long, graceful, deep-draft Gloucester fishing schooner AMERICAN EAGLE (1930) worked far offshore. Schooner NATHANIEL BOWDITCH was built as a racing schooner yacht in 1922.

It was in the 1930s that artist Frank Swift thought of using schooners to “freight” passengers in and out among the sheltered, island-strewn waters of Penobscot and Blue Hill, Jericho and Frenchman’s Bay. The business grew and, eventually, schooners designed along traditional lines were built specifically to carry passengers. The MISTRESS was launched in 1960; the MARY DAY in 1962; the ANGELIQUE in 1980; and the HERITAGE in 1983.

Of course, each schooner is as individual as its history and the captains are far from interchangeable. All of the vessels offer hot showers, comfortable bunks and cozy, well-heated gathering spaces and wide, gleaming decks. They range in length from 46 to 132 feet and carry anywhere from 6 to 40 passengers but there is never a cramped feel. In drizzle or fog an awning shelters the forward part of the deck permitting plenty of space to sip coffee and play cards and Scrabble. Captains claim as many repeats from wet as from dry weeks.

Passengers are advised to pack for the worst, bringing slicker and sweater. In the course of a normal day in the bay you tend to shed and don layers as regularly as the winds shift.

Maine’s windjammer fleet, like its weather, is a distinct regional phenomenon. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else. While former working schooners now carry passengers in other places, the vessels seem out of context beyond their native waters. With State-O-Mainers at the helm, Yankee fare in the galley, the windjammers conjure a way of life that was once the norm in this salty corner of the world.

No two windjammer cruises are alike. Usually the course is downeast from Rockland, Rockport or Camden toward Mount Desert and sometimes beyond to Frenchman’s Bay. Most of the cruise is spent within the gloriously ragged edges of Penobscot Bay: 30 miles wide, fathoms deep, and pocked with literally hundreds of islands – depending on where you draw the line between an island and a rock or a ledge.

Of course all members of the Maine Windjammer Association are Coast Guard inspected and all carry ship-to-shore radios. The older vessels have all been meticulously rebuilt.

Contrasting nicely with most sailing adventures, windjammer vacations are a bargain: weekend to six-day cruises range from $400 to $950 per passenger, all meals included. Cruises range in length from three-day getaways to week-long excursions. The 14 Maine windjammers sail from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. For details write to: Maine Windjammer Association, P.O. Box 1144P, Blue Hill, ME 04614 or call toll-free, 1-800-807-WIND or check out the website at

Photo: Isaac H. Evans sails past the Rockland Breakwater. Photo courtesy Annie Higbee

Christina Tree is a freelance writer and author of several travel guides including Best Places to Stay in New England, How New England Happened, and three Explorers Guides for Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. In addition to having traveled extensively throughout New England, Christina has embarked on numerous windjammer cruises.

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