Come in my time machine back to 1936. The Great Depression is finally coming to an end, but in Maine, so is something else: the era of the sailing ship. Not many years before, coastal Maine had been one of the country's top boatbuilding regions, when sail craft had been the world's workhorses of commerce and transportation. The first decades of the 20th century changed that, with steamships supplanting sail for long-distance transit and trucks taking over wherever a road could be built. By the mid-1930s, the great sailing ships had either been scrapped or were in danger of simply rotting away from despair and disuse.
Then, in 1936, Maine mariner Frank Swift had a big idea: Take one of the old vessels, convert it for passenger use, and sell pleasure cruises to people eager to escape the hurry of modern life and return to a quieter time. Swift offered his first cruise in 1936 aboard a 55-year-old schooner named Mabel. As he later recalled, "We had only three lady passengers from Boston" on that first weeklong trip, and each of them paid only $35. "The next time, I believe, we took off without any passengers."
But Swift didn't give up, and his business grew slowly. Over the next 25 years, under the trade name Maine Windjammer Cruises, he operated more than a dozen classic vessels, scooping them up as their owners deserted the sail business -- and in the process, Swift helped preserve a vital piece of history.
As the decades passed, other Maine captains began their own schooner businesses, and by 1977, there were so many that they decided to pool their marketing dollars and form the Maine Windjammer Association (www.sailmainecoast.com). Thanks to Frank Swift's big idea, the Maine coast is now home to America's largest concentration of traditional sailing ships, including the 13 members of the Maine Windjammer Association and several unaffiliated operators offering overnight and day sails.
A Different Kind of Cruise Experience
Today, the idea behind the Maine Windjammers is the same as it was when Frank Swift planned his first cruise in 1936: getting back to a classic sailing experience, free of the distractions of modern life. With no engines (on most of the vessels), little electricity, and only the most basic accommodations and amenities, these ships remind you of a time before the word "multitasking" was even invented.
Sailing from the ports of Rockland, Rockport, and Camden from late May through mid-October, the schooners sail all day where the wind takes them. At night, they anchor in protected coves, often running their yawl boats ashore to let passengers explore small fishing towns or hike on the coastal islands. Passengers are welcome to help with the sails and anchor, climb the rigging, take a turn at the wheel, scan for seals and whales, or just relax.
Often, two or more boats will meet up and take each other on in an informal race, while evenings will see passengers debarking onto a quiet, rocky beach for a traditional lobster bake. Meals aboard ship are prepared on wood stoves in rustic galleys and served out on deck, picnic style, or at cozy communal tables in the galley, if there's rain.
Cabins are almost universally tiny, to the point where only one guest is able to stand and change clothes at a time, while the other lays in the bunk. Most cabins have no more amenities than a sink and reading light, plus warm blankets. Toilets and showers are shared, activities are few, and what excitement there is comes from the simple act of sailing, and interacting with the other people onboard.
A Labor of Love
The simple, rustic nature of the Windjammer experience is what first attracted Bob Tassi, now captain and owner of the 20-passenger Timberwind, when he first heard about the fleet in 1998. At the time, Tassi was director of studio operations for Warner Brothers Records in Nashville, recording artists like Johnny Cash and The Fairfield Four. But he and his new wife were game for new challenges.
"Dawn and I had been looking since we got married for some profession we could pursue together, but weren't sure what," says Tassi. "Having a sailing background, I'd always wanted to get back to a coastal area, and Dawn was originally from Maine. One day, we were watching a TV special about the young craftsmen who were coming into Maine to build boats the old way. One of the segments was about the Windjammer fleet, and as soon as I saw it something just tumbled in my head. I said, 'Oh my goodness, there are people actually doing this and making a living and raising their kids on the boat,' and that sounded really wonderful to me."
The Tassis booked a cruise aboard the 22-passenger schooner Stephen Taber, and within a few days decided that windjamming was what they wanted to do for the next stage of their lives.
As it turned out, the Taber's owners, Ken and Ellen Barnes, had discovered windjamming in exactly the same way, doing a week's sail on the schooner Lewis R. French and then putting together a plan to buy their own boat. "So, they understood it when we approached them," says Tassi. After five years of working as a deckhand on the Taber every summer, Bob Tassi was offered a chance to buy the 1931-built Timberwind, and he's been at it ever since.
It's not an uncommon story. Though many of the Windjammer captains grew up on the Maine coast or even aboard the schooners (Capt. Noah Barnes of the Stephen Taber first sailed aboard his ship at age 7, when his parents were its owner-operators), others were reborn as schooner captains after living completely different lives.
Capt. Brenda Thomas of the schooner Isaac H.Evans was working at a Maine bank and doing freelance accounting when she first discovered sailing, via a gig bookkeeping for the owners of the schooner Wendameen (which offers overnight and day sails from Portland). "I had the opportunity to sail on an overnight trip," she remembers, "and my connection with windjamming was instantaneous. It was magical and still plays like a movie in my head."
Thomas first signed on as a crewmember aboard the Wendameen, then in 1995 took a job as mess mate aboard Isaac H. Evans. She rose to cook the following year, spent the next two summers as first mate, and then bought the Evans from Capt. Ed Glaser.
"When I purchased the Evans in February of 1999, I didn't yet have my captain's license. I spent that whole winter working on the boat and studying for my test. It was an absolute rollercoaster ride, but about two weeks after the sale became final and the reality was finally starting to sink in, I called my mom and said, 'I own a National Historic Landmark!'"
In all, eight of the Maine Windjammer Association schooners enjoy National Historic Landmark status: Isaac H. Evans, American Eagle, Grace Bailey, Lewis R. French, Mercantile, Stephen Taber, Timberwind, and Victory Chimes.
Capt. Ray Williamson spent the early 1970s sailing a tiny, styrofoam Sea Snark around between college classes, spent the late 1970s as a social worker and part-time sailor, then in 1981, he read an article about the Maine Windjammers in WoodenBoat magazine. Williamson was hooked. He signed on as a deckhand aboard the 29-passenger schooner Grace Bailey (launched in 1882), worked as her captain for four years, then bought the company -- Maine Windjammer Cruises, Frank Swift's original Windjammer enterprise. Today, with his wife Anne and daughters Allysa and Kristie, Williamson operates a fleet of three schooners, the Grace Bailey, the 29-passenger Mercantile (1916), and the 6-passenger Mistress (1960).
Not all longtime passengers make the transition to captains, but that doesn't mean they stop coming back.
Mainer Martha "Mattie" Mosher took her first trip in 1936, met her future husband aboard Grace Bailey (then named Mattie, from which Mosher later derived her nickname) in 1946, and has since sailed well over 75 times, on almost every vessel in the fleet. June Knowles of Belmont, Massachusetts, is another longtime passenger, having sailed more than 70 times since 1962 aboard the largest of the Maine schooners, the 40-passenger Victory Chimes, whose image adorns the back of the Maine state quarter.
"Unless you've sailed, I don't think you can account for how a boat gets inside of you," says Timberwind's Bob Tassi. "You can see it in the eyes of people who come aboard Sunday night and they're very anxious, but then by Wednesday they almost transform. Where they were checking their cell phones for messages before, all of a sudden that stuff gets put away and something gets inside them, and they become Windjammer people."
Celebrating the 75th
This year, the Maine Windjammer Association is planning a grand bash to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Frank Swift's first cruise, and all that has followed.
Kicking off the anniversary celebrations, a "Schooner Gam" on June 13 will include a raft-up of the entire Windjammer Association fleet, in which the schooners will tie up side by side, allowing passengers to tour them all. There will be a special anniversary ceremony, guest speakers, grog toasts, a flag-raising, live music, and a salute from the schooners' signal cannons.
On July 15, Rockland will host the Maine Windjammer Parade and Anniversary Party. Open to the public, the festivities will include an afternoon sail parade past the mile-long Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, open schooner tours, a multimedia display of historic Windjammer photos, and a free evening concert at Sharp's Wharf by legendary Maine folksinger Gordon Bok, himself a onetime schoonerman.
"I worked on the Stephen Taber, the Alice S Wentworth, and the Mary Day when she was first built, all under Capt. Havilah Hawkins, on and off for seven years," says Bok. "Windjammers are wonderful, independent businesses, self-sustaining and quite ecologically sound. More importantly, they're a living history lesson -- like stepping into a different century. The vessels are sailed as they were back in their cargo days; the only difference is, the cargo is more precious now."
The Maine Windjammer Association schooners are offering 3-, 4-, and 6-day cruises scheduled to coincide with the events, starting at $545 per person. And at Frank Swift's old company, Maine Windjammer Cruises, Capt. Ray Williamson has an anniversary-year deal for loyal clientele: Returning passengers can sail this year for the same price they paid on their first cruise. When this same offer was made to celebrate the company's 60th Anniversary in 1996, some passengers were able to nab a cruise for $35 -- the same as Frank Swift charged, back on Day One.
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