Midway through June and the schooners are back on the Maine coast, plying the waters of Penobscot Bay as they've done for more than two centuries: sail-powered, silent, and -- a plus this year -- almost completely immune to the price of gas.
Their home, the schooners' home, looks just as you imagine it: all craggy rocks and weathered shingle-sided homes, docks full of working boats, fishermen hauling lobster pots and nets, and dense green forest and hills in the background. While the image is idealized, the mid-Maine coast really does look that way, albeit with mansions and boutiques sprinkled on top to serve the summering rich.
Maine's pleasure-schooner business began in the 1930s, decades after steamships had taken over the commercial trade, leaving the state's sail fleet disused and in danger of simply rotting away. In 1936, Maine artist Frank Swift began offering cruises on one of the old vessels, confident that people would be glad to escape the bustle of modern life -- and he was right. Swift's operation was so successful that over the next three decades he not only grew his fleet, but also lured other captains into the business. Today, some seventeen owner-operated schooners operate multi-night trips on the coast, along with dozens of other tall ships that offer day sails.
This story is about one of those vessels, and about the day I saved an innocent crustacean's life.
It Was a Late-Summer Week . . .
At mid-coast, the towns of Rockland, Rockport, and Camden serve as homeports for the majority of Maine's windjammer fleet, and it was in Rockland that my wife and I boarded American Eagle, a 26-passenger schooner owned by Captain John Foss. Launched in 1930, American Eagle was a fishing schooner for 53 years before Capt. John bought her and refurbished her for passenger sailing.
It was not his first foray into schooner repair. In college, Foss worked at a boatyard near Portland, then later helped rebuild the 1886-vintage Isaac H. Evans. In 1973 he purchased and rebuilt the 1871 schooner Lewis R. French and had her sailing within three years. When he bought American Eagle in 1984, she'd been laid up for a year and a half and was a mess. ("Which was nice," he says. "Got the price down.") A one-and-a-half-year conservation job followed, in which many of her original timbers were replaced -- a familiar story in the windjammer fleet -- but it all paid off. In 1991, the fully restored American Eagle was named a National Historic Landmark, and today she's so gorgeous you'd never imagine her rough, fishy past. Her brass and brightwork gleam, her interiors are warm and woody, and her hull and sails are as white as her captain's mustache.
Boarding at the North End Shipyard, a working yard that's also home to Isaac H. Evans and the 95-foot schooner Heritage (a modern schooner built by Captains Doug and Linda Lee in 1983), we settled into our cabin, a tiny space with bunk beds, a pocket sink, reading lights, and blankets -- and that's it. There's not even enough space for two people to stand on the tiny floor: If I wanted to brush my teeth, Rebecca had to leave or lie in her bunk. Thirteen other similar cabins are spaced along the length of the vessel, from bow to stern. Toilets for all are communal, and the ship's one shower -- a relative rarity among the windjammer ships -- is a phone-booth-sized space with a kitchen-sink spray nozzle. Passengers are encouraged to take only one or two showers a week, to conserve the schooner's supply of fresh water.
Just forward of our cabin, the ship's galley is dominated by a huge wood-burning stove and a collection of hook-hung pots and pans. Communal tables line both walls, and passengers pitch in after meals to help clean and dry. Up on deck, the locustwood wheelhouse provides space for most passengers to sit, and is also the serving station for meals whenever the weather cooperates, which it mostly does. Toward the bow, the ship's seine boat is hauled up on deck when it's not being used to ferry passengers ashore. "It's a good place to sit," says Capt. John. "Like a big, uncomfortable couch."
Wit is a currency on board. One passenger asks the captain, "What's that on your wheelhouse?" Captain answers, "Swordfish bill." Passenger says, "Where'd it come from?" Captain says, "Swordfish," and walks away toward the stern. (He reappears only after a few minutes' lag time, leans in toward the passenger, and whispers, "Flea market.")
Sun Is Shining, the Weather Is Sweet . . .
Our trip was a rarity in the Maine windjammer business: a full week, rather than the 2-, 3-, and 4-nighters that make up the majority of the fleet's summer cruises. Though we spent the bulk of our time in Penobscot Bay, we also got farther north, to Mt. Desert Island and Bar Harbor.
Such long trips are not unusual for American Eagle, which is the only schooner in Maine certified to sail internationally, enabling her to make an annual cruise to Canada. ("Mostly for publicity," says Capt. John. "Homeland Security is a pain in the neck.") The ship also takes an annual cruise south to Gloucester, Massachusetts, her old home port from her fishing days.
As the days went by -- days spent lounging on deck, helping with the sails, reading, or scanning for seals, porpoises, and the occasional whale -- we began to learn more about the other twenty guests on board, and were surprised to find that they hailed from throughout the U.S. Many were also returning for their second, fifth, or tenth trip on board, and three couples were back together for their annual visit: They met aboard years ago, and always plan to sail at the same time next year. One other veteran, a retiree from Ohio, was back for her twentieth schooner trip, all of them aboard American Eagle. "I started with John and I'm gonna stick with John," she said, "whether he finishes first or I do."
The passengers' professional and personal backgrounds were fascinating. There was a retired anesthesiologist whose wife dislikes ships -- so he was traveling alone with his ukelele, hoping for people to sing with him. There was a retired forester, a psychologist, a physics professor, a seed co-op manager, a contractor, and a school secretary. There was a young photographer celebrating her divorce by taking a vacation with her parents. There was a man who said, "I know two things: cars and wood. And this here," he said, patting the ship's woodwork, "this is good."
An exact opposite of the typical cruise experience, American Eagle and the other Maine schooners sail during the day and anchor in protected coves every night. In the mornings we often ran ashore in a small boat to explore whatever small fishing or resort town we were anchored near, then sailed through the day until dropping anchor again as the sun dipped low. One evening off Swans Island, after knocking off early, the crew let down Roscoe, the ship's small lapstrake skiff, so anyone who cared to could do a little rowing around the cove. Another evening, in Fort Point Cove, we were joined at anchor by the schooners Timberwind (1931), Grace Bailey (1882), and the tiny, six-passenger Mistress (1960). As the sun went down, the captains hauled out their tiny signal cannon and saluted each other across the water. Later, music drifted across as well: Many of the captains and crew (including Timberwind's captain, Bob Tassi) are accomplished musicians, and evenings frequently see them bringing out their instruments. Aboard American Eagle, Capt. John leans more toward storytelling, often reading by lantern light from Maine writers like Phil Crossman and John Gould.
When night finally settles, passengers turn in early for a quiet night's sleep, but despite the lack of engines it's never really quiet on board. There's the water, for one, slapping against the hull. There's the creaking wood, a light snoring from the next cabin, and the murmur of voices -- night owls hunkered down in the galley for cards or standing up on deck, watching the stars.
Makes You Want to Move Your Dancin' Feet
Happy hour generally begins just after the schooner drops her sails at night, but some evenings are happier and more social than others.
One night of our cruise, we came together in the same harbor with the schooners Stephen Taber (1871), Nathaniel Bowditch (1922), and Victory Chimes (1900), and the captains maneuvered in so close together that we were able to tie up hull-to-hull, giving passengers the opportunity to jump ship and go visiting. The captain of the Chimes went ashore and brought his dog back aboard, while our ukelele player went looking for singers -- eventually assembling a chorus from among the retired ladies of all four schooners and handing out songbooks. I occupied myself cranking an ice cream churn, then jumped the rail to tour the other boats, snacking from the spreads of food left out on each. Bottles appeared (while liquor isn't served aboard any of the schooners, passengers are free to bring their own, and there are ice chests to keep beer cold), bottles were emptied, ukeleles were played, and life was good.
To the Rescue, Here I Am
There's a tradition among the Maine schooners: Once per cruise, everyone goes ashore for an all-you-can-eat lobster bake, held on whatever secluded island the captain chooses. There, with beer and wine chilling right in the seawater, the crew cooks up lobsters, clams, and corn in a tin tub, then spills the results over onto the sun-bleached rocks. Gorging ensues.
Our lobster bake happened on little Green Island, just off Stonington, four days into our cruise. By that point, passengers and crew had gotten to know each other pretty well -- well enough that everyone, for instance, knew I was a vegetarian. They'd arranged tofu dogs for me, but I wasn't prepared when Capt. John sidled up and asked if I'd like to set one of the lobsters free, since I wouldn't be eating it.
I demurred for just a second -- shades of "don't mind me, I'll just pick" vegetarian embarrassment -- but then thought, Yes, do it. Save that lobster's life. So I did. My lobster -- a female, to judge by the soft, feathery swimmerets on her underside -- spread her claws wide when I picked her up, expecting to fight for her life, and when I put her in the cold water she seemed surprised, settling to the bottom like a rock. I imagined her realizing her good luck, her eyes darting side to side like a hoodlum in a 30s movie seeing his chance to escape, then she made a break for it, scuttling under a large rock and out of sight. It felt good. It felt right. And it made those tofu dogs taste pretty delicious a little later on -- a little mustard, a dash of good karma, and I was good to go.
Lobsters live about 15 years on average, and I've often wondered where mine is today. Has she escaped the lobster pots? Has she met a nice male lobster and had a bunch of little lobsterettes? They say a female can easily carry 90,000 eggs at a go, but most don't survive past the larval stage. Still, with some luck, my lobster could have had 100 or more children since I saw her last, and that makes me what? Some kind of crustacean godfather? That's not a bad feeling at all. Thanks, Capt. John.
American Eagle sails 4-, 6-, and 11-night cruises through October 5, with per-person prices starting at $595 for the 4-nighters. For more information, contact tel. 800/648-4544 or www.schooneramericaneagle.com. American Eagle is one of 12 schooners represented by the Maine Windjammer Association (tel. 800/807-WIND; www.sailmainecoast.com), which can provide information on all the vessels.
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