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Contrary to popular belief, cruises aren't all the same. There are quiet ships and loud ships, elegant ships and cheesy ships, and then there are the tiny historic schooners that redefine the word "cruise" completely.

Each summer, the Maine Windjammer Association (tel. 800/807-9463; www.sailmainecoast.com) offers 3- to 10-day trips aboard a fleet of 14 independently owned classic schooners, sailing the vast waters of Penobscot Bay from their homeports of Camden, Rockland, and Rockport.

This is "cruising" only in the sense that, like the megaships of Carnival, Princess, NCL, Royal Caribbean, and the lot, these vessels also operate on water. Expect no über-buffets and hot tubs here, nor any high-tech entertainments. Instead you get meals cooked on a woodstove and served on deck, and, if you're brave, a leap off the side into the cold Maine sea. As for technology, the captain may have a radio and GPS to keep things safe, but aside from those the most advanced wizardry you'll find aboard is an electric light.

What we're talking here is real sailing -- with sails. There are almost no schedules at all, with the captains sailing by day wherever the wind is best, then anchoring in a quiet cove at evening, maybe running passengers ashore for a walk around one of Penobscot's hundreds of islands.

It all began in the 1930s, decades after steamships had supplanted the sail craft that had been the mainstay of world commerce and transportation for centuries. In Maine, formerly one of the country's top boatbuilding regions, the boats that had escaped the scrapyard were in danger of simply rotting away from despair and disuse. In 1936, though, Maine artist Frank Swift began offering pleasure cruises on one of the old vessels, confident that people would be glad to escape the bustle of modern life for a few days of relaxation and simple pleasures. As Swift later recalled of his first trip, "We had only three lady passengers from Boston. The next time, I believe, we took off without any passengers." Soon, though, his trips were in such demand that over the next three decades he not only grew his fleet but also lured other captains into the business. By 1977, there were so many schooners operating in coastal Maine that it only made for them to pool their advertising and marketing dollars, and thus the Maine Windjammer Association was born.

The majority of their summer cruises are 3- to 6-nighters, priced from $395 to $875 per person. With no engines on most of the vessels, plus little electricity and only the most basic accommodations, these ships are a reminder of a less pampered, more physically demanding, yet quieter and less rushed time. The oldest of them, the 22-passenger Lewis R. French and Stephen Taber, were built in 1871, during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Most others date from between 1882 and 1931, though the Mary Day and Mistress were built in the 1960s and the Angelique and Heritage in the 1980s, all using 19th-century designs. In size, they range from the tiny, 6-passenger Mistress to the 40-passenger Victory Chimes, which graces Maine's state quarter. Passengers aboard can help with the actual work of sailing as much or as little as they want, trimming the sails, hand-cranking the anchor from the sea floor, or taking a hand at the wheel.

While the Windjammer experience has remained much the same since its start, each year sees some new offerings and innovations.

In June, guests aboard all 14 vessels can attend onboard "Leave No Trace" environmental awareness workshops, and on World Ocean Day (June 8) guests and crew will spend the day on the beach, removing trash that washed ashore during winter.

Several of the schooners offer themed sailings that explore aspects of the maritime experience.

On July 24, Mary Day will offer a 6-day cruise in collaboration with Maine's famous WoodenBoat School, which teaches traditional boat-building techniques. Guests act as part of the crew and learn general seamanship and coastal navigation skills. The trip is priced at $950 per person. Mary Day's June 12 and 26 sailings will include extra time spent ashore, with a naturalist from the Maine Audubon Society teaching about the coastal environment. On June 7 and September 4, the vessel will offer 4- and 6-day trips that sail to twenty Maine lighthouses, with historians aboard to shed light on their history.

A similar 6-day lighthouse trip will be offered September 4 aboard Stephen Taber, with photographer John L. Shipman aboard to teach informal classes in digital photography. On September 25, the Taber will offer a 6-day hiking-themed cruise in collaboration with the Maine Guides Association, giving passengers a chance to hike on different islands daily.

On June 9 and July 16, the American Eagle -- the only one of the schooners certified to sail internationally -- will offer 8- and 10-day cruises up the Maine Coast to Canada, with the July cruise sailing in the Bay of Fundy.

Less nautically inclined themes will be on display during Stephen Taber's 3- and 6-day wine-tasting cruises (June 8 and September 18); Isaac H. Evans' 4-day knitters' cruise (Sept. 6); Victory Chimes' 4-day Irish music cruise (July 24); Timberwind's watercolor-painting weekend (Sept. 22); and Angelique's 6-day naturalist-led wildlife cruises (June 19 and 26), during which passengers spend time puffin-watching with the Audubon education director of the Maine Puffin Project. Other themed trips are available throughout the season on many of the schooners.

Other highlights of the 2006 season include several annual events in which all the schooners assemble for tours, music, food, and fireworks.

First up is Windjammer Days (week of June 26), with schooners parading through Boothbay Harbor.

During the week of July 3, the Great Schooner Race will feature more than two dozen tall ships, with guests free to help work the sails

On Friday, July 14, the Maine Windjammer Parade will see the entire fleet parading past the Rockland Breakwater. Festivities include tours of the Breakwater Lighthouse.

During the week of July 31, the Maine Windjammer Music Festival will feature music aboard various vessels during an evening "raft up," where the schooners are roped together in harbor, allowing guests to walk from one to another.

Camden Windjammer Weekend (week of August 28) will see the fleet gathered in Camden Harbor for a sail parade, music, dancing, and fireworks.

Finally, during the week of September 11, schooners will gather in Brooklin, Maine, for the 20th annual WoodenBoat Sail-In, featuring tours of the WoodenBoat School, live music, seafood bakes, and a harbor full of schooners.

You can see information for all the schooners on the Maine Windjammer Association website, along with links to their own web pages. Bookings must be made directly with the captain of each schooner.

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