For Gib Philbrick, any day is a good day for sailing if you're doing it. Philbrick is captain of the "Nathaniel Bowditch", a Maine coastal schooner whose cargo now is landlubbers looking for a taste of brine and the snapping sound of windfilled canvas.
They come from all over the country to spend up to a week with Gib and his feisty young crew or on one of the 16 other schooners working the myriad islands off the Maine coast during the June- September season.
You get the idea that paying passengers are a Godsend to Philbrick who otherwise couldn't afford the hefty upkeep of an 82-foot wooden boat with a long history. It's not a hobby for any but the rich.
Philbrick, a former high school and college coach, comes from seafarers, but his branch of the family grew away from the Maine coast, following the tall trees inland.
"They were loggers," he says. "Finally, they got over in western Maine and cut the last trees and there wasn't anything left."
Philbrick came down out of the remote hills to the ocean and has been there ever since. He bought the "Nathaniel Bowditch" in 1975 after its owners "got too far ahead of their rebuild."
The "Nathaniel Bowditch" is 82 feet long, 21 1/2 feet wide and has an 11-foot draft. It carries 24 passengers and a crew of four.
The crew comes and goes--many schooling for their own captaincies; some, like the 1994 cooks Lisa Beliveau and Kim Mullin, are self-confessed "sea bums." In the winter they head West to work at ski areas and become ski bums. "I've thought about maybe getting my own boat," says Mullin, who has an environmental studies degree and a teaching certificate. "I'd like to get kids on the boat and teach them about the environment in a hands-on atmosphere."
"We get along really well together," Beliveau says (a good thing because the tiny galley is smaller and stuffier than most jail cells).
She entertains passengers with impromptu jigs on the galley coaming and doesn't hesitate to scamper up the rigging like a capuchin monkey to help repair malfunctions at the tip of the mainmast.
The big schooners have a grace and elegance that sets them apart from any other vessel you'll see. They're long and sleek, like thoroughbred horses and under full sail, heeled over, they bite the stiff wind like a coursing hound. Rarely will there be winds strong enough to frighten landlubbers, but often it's strong enough to send the boat flying.
"It's the best sailing in North America," Gib Philbrick says. "They talk about Virgin Island sailing, but you can drop the Virgin Island area in any one of these bays up here. You'd have to go to the Aegean Sea or of the coast of former Yugoslavia or Turkey to find anything comparable.
"There's so damn many islands that they swallow up the boats and you rarely see many, even during the peak season. This was the sailing ground of the country's rich people--the Rockefellers and Morgans and the like. They moved up here when it got too crowded down around Newport."
August is the top sailing month, when the wealthy break out their yachts for races and general sailing. Some towns have yacht clubs and a local commodore to supervise racing.
It's possible for friends to charter a schooner as a group--one family of 14 chartered the "Nathaniel Bowditch" for a week to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the family on one of the islands. "Geez, they had a Dixieland band and an air show and roasted five pigs," says Gib Philbrick. "It was a heck of a deal." Cruises range in length from three days to a week. The winds pretty much dictate the direction, but some things almost always happen. You'll moor at a seacoast town and go ashore for a walking/shopping trip.
And there will be a beach lobster steam. This is what you first will see when (if) the Gates of Heaven swing wide to let you in: a washtub resting on a bed of hot coals, with a great glob of wet seaweed in it.
Under the steaming seaweed will be a nest of lobsters, bought that morning from a lobster boat. In other words, fresher lobsters than you've ever eaten unless you're a lobsterman. "You don't need anything but a little butter with these," Gib says. "You don't need spices or anything to ruin the taste. You've never eaten lobster like this."
And he is right...unless you're a lobsterman, which most people aren't.
The sun sets in flames over the wooded islands and the "Nathaniel Bowditch" gently rocks at anchor. It's the last night and everyone is aware that tomorrow's short sail back in is the end of the trip.
There already are a couple of the schooners in port as the trip ends the next morning. "This is the part I hate," Gib said. "If I could, I'd stay out there all week, maybe have somebody run me out a newspaper once."
He looks out over the tall masts of the berthed schooners toward the mouth of the bay where wavelets dance in a freshening breeze.
"Geez," he said. "It's a good day for sailing."
IF YOU WANT TO GO
The Maine Windjammer Association has information. Of the 14 passenger-carrying windjammers, 10 belong to the association and a call to 1-800-9463 will get brochures for each. Rates run about the same. Sailing schedules are somewhat different. A typical 6-day cruise runs $485 June 6-12, then jumps a few dollars a week to a maximum of about $645 through August, then declines through September. Some boats have four-day cruises for just over $100/person/day. Three day cruises are from $315 to $385, depending on time of the summer.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Cruises on the "Nathaniel Bowditch" are typical--they start on Sunday evening at Rockland and end back there on Saturday morning. Three-day cruises can go from then to Wednesday or from Wednesday to Saturday. Three-day passengers embark and disembark at a designated stop on Wednesday afternoon.
Expect days of relaxation, depending of course on weather. You cruise through the countless islands; typically will anchor one night offshore from a colorful coastal town where you can go ashore and shop or walk about, then another night off a secluded beach on an uninhabited island where you'll enjoy fresh-caught steamed lobsters and mussels. Spend your days reading the book you've been meaning to get to (Annie Proulx's Pulitzer-prize "The Shipping News" seems especially appropriate), talking with the crew and captain or just sprawling in the sun like old dogs. Go to bed as early or late as you want; rise early or late. There isn't much night in northern Maine in summer--the sun goes down near 10 p.m. and is coming up at 4 a.m.
Expect a mix of fellow passengers from all over the continent (Canada as well as the United States). They'll range from bankers to bricklayers, teachers to pipefitters.