The Line in a Nutshell
Actually, it's not a line. Unlike every other review in this guide, this one discusses a collection of owner-operated vessels -- classic schooners that in some cases date back as far as 1871 -- all taking sail-powered summer trips along the gorgeous mid-Maine coast. It's the most natural cruise you'll ever take. Sails to: Mid-Maine coast.
* Because the Maine schooners are all owner-operated, programs vary significantly. These ratings should be taken as only a general indication of fleetwide quality. Ratings for "activities" and "entertainment" should be read in the spirit of these cruises, which are entirely outdoors oriented, with few organized activities. There's also very little of what you'd traditionally call "service." If you want a drink, you bring it aboard yourself, and there's no cabin service unless something goes drastically wrong. Meals are often prepared by the same people who trim the sails. There are no real children's programs aboard any of these ships.
Let's take a poll: How many of you harried, PDA-toting, 21st-century types dream of going quietly offline for awhile, back to some kind of ideal summertime memory -- you in a sailboat on the open water, cozy bunks and kerosene lamps at night, stars in the sky, and quiet all around? Aboard Maine's fleet of old-time schooners, that's exactly what you get, on mostly 3- to 6-night cruises that cost from about $400 to $1,100. With no engines on most vessels, little electricity, and only the most basic accommodations, these ships remind passengers that days don't all have to be rushed and multitasked. Days are filled with sailing and walks around quaint Maine towns, and evenings are pure serenity.
The Maine windjammers attract passengers in their 30s and those in their 90s, and everything in between. Many are returnees who sail a particular schooner every year, often coordinating with friends they've met on previous trips. Some are sailors themselves who enjoy helping out or taking a turn at the wheel. Most folks know the kind of experience they're signing on for, but first-timers often aren't quite prepared for just how rustic it can be. Bob Tassi, owner/captain of the schooner Timberwind, told us, "Initially, a lot of passengers experience some sense of shock, especially if they're not sailors and don't understand what a boat is is . . . but then suddenly by Wednesday they almost transform. . . . Very few go away unhappy."
It all began in the 1930s, decades after steamships had supplanted the schooners and other sail craft that had been the mainstay of commerce and transportation for centuries. In Maine, formerly one of the top boatbuilding regions of the country, the boats that had escaped the scrap yard 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." But Swift didn't give up, and soon his trips were in such demand that over the next 3 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 several decided to pool their advertising and marketing dollars and form the Maine Windjammer Association (tel. 800/807-WIND [807-9463]; www.sailmainecoast.com). Today, the association includes 12 member vessels, all of which are included in this review. You can request information for all member ships from the association and get basic info through its website, but bookings must be made directly with the captain of each schooner. Other schooners discussed here operate independently.
Meals on all the schooners are prepared on woodstoves in rustic galleys and served out on deck, picnic-style. In inclement weather, all passengers pack into the galley for meals. Expect traditional New England staples such as fresh seafood, chowder, roasts, Irish soda bread, and homemade ice cream. The cooks can accommodate vegetarian and some other special diets, but be sure to mention your needs when you book. Dinner is served soon after the ship drops anchor for the night, and chances are that other schooners will be anchored not far away. You'll hear their passengers off across the water, singing folk songs or saluting you with blasts from their tiny brass signal cannons. A few passengers or crew may even brave the frigid Maine water and swim over for a visit.
All the ships are BYOB, with coolers and ice provided if you've got beer to keep chilled. During the day, snacks are usually available in the galley. Once per cruise, most of the ships debark passengers onto a quiet, rocky beach for a traditional lobster bake, sometimes with champagne.
Don't expect much. Crew aboard these ships are really crew -- the folks who haul the sails and swab the decks. In their spare time, they do the dishes, clean the shared restrooms, and mend what needs mending. The first mate might also be the cook (and, often, the spouse of the captain). For the most part, you're on your own.
An exact opposite of the typical cruise experience, the Maine schooners sail during the day and anchor in protected coves every night. In the evenings or mornings, they'll often run a small boat to shore and allow passengers to explore small fishing towns and uninhabited islands. You can also see the sights at your port of embarkation because all the schooners encourage guests to arrive a day before sailing and spend the night on board, at the dock.
Most guests participate in the work of sailing: hauling the sails, raising the centerboard, or hand-cranking the anchor from the bay's floor (the latter not for sissies). Otherwise, days aboard are totally unstructured, leaving guests free to talk ship with the captain, take a turn at the wheel, climb the rigging for a watchman's view, or just read or stare out over the water, looking for seals, porpoises, puffins, and the occasional whale. An easy intimacy develops fast, and because the mid-Maine coast is a cruising paradise, passengers can expect to encounter any number of other schooners, sloops, and other sail craft. Often, two or more ships will take on one another in an impromptu race.
There is none to speak of, though many of the schooner captains and crew are musicians who may break out their instruments in the evening. Guests who play are encouraged to bring acoustic instruments.
Many of the Maine windjammers have restrictions on young children sailing aboard. Others accept kids as young as age 5, but there are no formal programs to keep them entertained. On one of our recent trips, a Texas couple was aboard with their 6-year-old daughter, who spent the week playing with the captain's young son. The schooner became a whole world to explore, the week an opportunity to use the imagination most kids cede to TV and video games.