Heave ho mates! Unfurl the sail.
I hardly knew my muscles strained, helping to sail a National Landmark schooner in Maine’s great big Penobscot Bay, sunny, cold and windy in early June. Credit the sea chants for mesmerizing me.
Life on the Lewis R. French schooner built in 1871 to sail among the 4,000 plus islands on Maine’s beautiful, rocky, craggy coast is way more special than a vacation.
This is living the history, not visiting a living history museum. Sailing a Maine Windjammer put me inside the history on an outdoor vacation.
Ancient rhymes like “Heave Ho” morph the captain’s commands into salty poems, fun to chant while pulling hand over hand to bring in a thick rope and change a sail.
That is well boys Capt. Garth Wells praises when tacking is complete. We’re all boys at tacking and jibbing time.
Every sail adjustment, every lean and turn creates new scenes, and Maine is beautiful.
During one of my afternoon dozes on the deck the wind eased, the sun warmed my fleece parka, and I woke to the sound of a harbor seal and the sight of another tall-sail schooner! Mine had two masts and this one had three.
Victory Chimes is its name, America’s largest passenger schooner and a National Historic Landmark. She’s on the Maine quarter.
Alone on the water all day and then all of a sudden another windjammer. Startling. Not the kind of vessel popping into view when I’m on the Georgia coast. Wondered what past or present I might be in.
Windjamming is life in another era. Living this history happens mid-May through
mid-October on a fleet of 12 schooners sailing from pretty harbors in Maine communities worth a holiday visit themselves. Camden and Rockland are the towns, and they’re worth more stories.
My boat was the Lewis R. French, the oldest schooner sailing in America. Officially a National Historic Landmark made of native red oak and white pine with 3,000 square feet of sail. No engine. Silence, birds, seals and conversations. Nothing mechanical.
That’s why I chose the French, and also for her small size with only 21 passengers and four crew. Some of the windjammers carry 29 and 30 passengers.
Now that I know the captain, he’d be another reason to book the French again. Skilled for sure, plus exuding his own personal delight sharing a life under sails.
Garth Wells’ love of schooner sailing is infectious. I was a newbie to this outdoor vacation but several travel mates were repeaters, specifically choosing my vessel and captain again.
He and the wind confer each day about the path to take; map this route as you go. I was glad I had a detailed map of the Maine coast to follow along with a highlighter.
Wells is almost breathless with awe and admiration of the experience every day. Sincere, this fellow.
“When I’m on the French thinking about passing the same waters and coastal lands her other captains saw 130 years ago, aah, what a connection.
“She was built to sail the Maine coast, not the Chesapeake or other waters,” Capt. Garth says. “It’s important to me to keep her sailing, still doing what she was built to do.”
Vacationers like me are the cargo now, but early loads were lumber, tin, mustard, bricks, granite, fish and lime.
Nights are still, always anchored, often in serene quiet coves and sometimes in working harbors, getting off the schooner to walk a bit and leaving later than the lobster boats each morning.
What about the days? Helping First Mate Ryan Downs and mate’s assistant Amber Nuite only if we want to. Sometimes I’d hold a book but really gazed at the splendor, chatting, dozing and eating heartily.
Abundant farmer’s market groceries filled nooks and crannies as we sailed: asparagus, broccoli, salad greens, peppers, fresh herbs. Loads of flour too because cook Amber Dunn is a bread baker as well as server of three squares a day, plus hearty snacks.
The clang of the schooner’s bell signals mealtime with cook announcing the courses.
6:30 a.m. she emerged from the tiny galley with its wood-burning stove to serve pre-breakfast food: hot muffins on the deck, coffee and water for many teas. Every early morning a different kind of hot muffin, brimming with blackberries, apricots or something fruity, plus a big wooden bowl with grapes, bananas, oranges, apples.
I was awake because the summer sun rises really early in Maine, plus I slept lightly, fearful of rolling out of my narrow top bunk.
Lesson learned later about that fruit bowl: should have chosen more bananas to combat excessive dry skin caused by life on the water.
“All those days on the water cause potassium imbalances and affect your adrenals,” says Susan Kelly, registered nurse and licensed aesthetician who runs the SkinKlinic Day Spa in Rockland. “Eat more bananas and broccoli while you sail.”
Plenty were available on the Lewis R. French but I didn’t know that bit of nutrition until exploring Rockland after the sail.
Don’t skip a schooner lunch---as if you could go anywhere. Soup and salad takes on new meaning on a Maine Windjammer.
Sun-dried tomato basil bread and corn chowder one day. Butternut squash bisque and cucumber salad with fresh dill another. Goat cheese arugula salad with veggie pasta turkey tarragon soup.
Some windjammers in this fleet of 12 serve meals at a galley table but the French celebrates the outdoors. Balancing a plate while perching on deck goes along with finding your sea legs. Sometimes works, sometimes not so well.
Maine lobster feasting required some row boating, anchoring the schooner to go to shore on a deserted island. Crew built a fire and set up a serving spot with seaweed covering the sand while a bald eagle soared overhead.
Passenger task? Find two good-sized rocks to crack your lobster’s shell. Butter not clarified, but melted, corn on the cob with graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows later for s’mores.
Hiking around an Ice Age, glacier-created vacant island, including a walk through an immense meadow of ferns, and then savoring lobster with the windjammer in sight -- that’ll take you to a thoughtful reflective place about what’s good in life.
The humpback whale calf breaching the Bay waters another day did too. People see things on historic schooner sailings because they’re fully there, in the moment. No cell phones allowed on the Lewis R. French; on this boat folks talk to each other instead of texting elsewhere.
Conversations varied wherever I sat: choose aft and hang out with the captain at his wheel. Passengers knowing how to sail already tended to be there the most.
Bundle up with an extra fleece to perch on the windy bow; that’s a solo seat. Point out harbor seals and birds to each other with a spot port or starboard.
Liquor’s low key on this adventure. Bring some if you like and Captain makes a spot to keep a beer cold, but for everyone on my six-night sail, alcohol was a minor, mostly nothing detail.
Maybe Mainers prefer Moxie, a regional carbonated soft drink.
Get your head straight before you sail. Clear thinking about the quirks opens space to enjoy it all. Worked for me.
Expecting hotel accommodations might make you cranky.
Windjammer living is cozy. My traveling buddy Syd Blackmarr called our bunk-bed cabin a “communal bedroom.” Seems the snores and sounds of new-found friends in the other four cabins off our tiny entryway wafted to all pillows.
Pack earplugs, the soft putty kind that mold to your ears.
Don’t pack much else; re-wearing casual clothes is the way to sail. Bring what you can hang on hooks. This is not a dresser drawers or suitcase-on-a-luggage-rack space.
Three hooks and a small hammock to hold stuff were within reach from my top bunk with five hooks and a hammock next to Syd’s bottom bunk. Four hooks by the little sink and five more next to the door.
Plenty for airing out a week’s wearing which ought to include wind-breaking rain gear. I’d recommend a soft cloth sack to corral little stuff hanging on a hook.
Make sure your suitcase really is small or it won’t fit under the bunk.
Water’s hot in the one shower booth 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. The hand-held nozzle shares a spot with the toilet but a curtain keeps the paper, your towel and clothes dry.
Quiet time by 10:00 p.m. and if you like to read in bed, take a clip-on book light too.
Exercise your knees before you go to be ready for steep ladders, the only way to your bunk, and safest facing backwards.
Costs for the 12 windjammers range from $400 for some three-day sails to a high of $1,100 for some of the six-day trips. Take a long one if you can to settle in, instead of arriving as if you were leaving soon.
Leave some days to schedule a wonderful time in the Windjammer Fleet harbor towns Rockland and Camden, plus the airport city Portland.
When you go:
Maine Windjammer Association
Maine before and after sailing: