Written by Meerkat2k on 30 Jul, 2005
Way back in the year 2001, when I visited mid-coastal Maine for the very first time, I was immediately taken by the coastal views. The bays, the woods, the rocky shore – it captured my heart and soul. That first trip was a short 4…Read More
Way back in the year 2001, when I visited mid-coastal Maine for the very first time, I was immediately taken by the coastal views. The bays, the woods, the rocky shore – it captured my heart and soul. That first trip was a short 4 days, spent in the village of Freeport, famous for its outlet shopping possibilities; I actually ended up spending more time hiking through the woods and along the coast at Wolf Neck Woods State Park than I did shopping. Then and there, I decided I would be back and had to have more of a coastal experience.
For my second trip, in 2003, I spent a couple of days in Freeport and then 3 days on Monhegan Island, which only whetted my appetite. There would be another trip to Maine in my future. This time, though, I wanted more islands to go with my coast. That meant a boat trip – and I wanted something distinctly Maine.
With the schooners of Maine Windjammer Cruises, I found it – and a whole lot more.
For cruise veterans, there are probably certain expectations when one hears the word "cruise."
When you cruise aboard a schooner, throw those expectations out the nearest porthole. Better yet, don’t even bring them to the dock. Other things not to bring: hairdryers, iPods, laptops, fancy clothes, and cell phones (unless you intend to use them solely for the built-in clock).
This is NOT your froufrou-drinks, dress-for-dinner, disco-ballroom, round-the-clock-salad-bar variety cruise. It’s not even the same as the windjammers you find in the Caribbean: no toga parties, no crab races, no cross-dressing Miss Windjammer contests. Cruising on this type of boat is not for people who prefer cushy service and luxurious accommodations.
For one thing, the boats are smaller – much smaller. The Mercantile is a whopping 115 feet long, from the tip of her bowsprit to her stern. "On deck" (that is, the space the passengers use), you only get 80 feet. Mercantile’s sister, Grace Bailey, is considered the "big" boat of the fleet, even though just a few feet longer overall and only 81 feet on deck. The third boat, Mistress, is downright tiny at 60 feet. For such "old" boats, they’ve been cared for so lovingly that they do not show their age. They do, however, speak volumes of the devotion of their owners and crew.
Most of Maine’s schooners were built decades ago and were originally working boats, hauling cargo up and down the coast and to the many populated islands scattered along it (hence the term "coasters"). The Mercantile was built in 1916 and began carrying passengers in 1942. She underwent a total restoration in 1989. These boats are still the real thing, though – pure sailing, no engines, no onboard electricity (except for bare-minimum DC for minimal below-deck lighting, ship-to-shore radio, and up-to-date GPS navigation).
The Mercantile is outfitted to carry 29 passengers. For my cruise, there were only 13, plus the five-member crew (the captain, two mates, and two cooks). Even if you travel solo (as I did), you’ll soon have many new friends.
Stateroom? What’s a stateroom? Accommodations on board will be a bit cramped – even the "double" cabins are small. I had a single, which was tiny. I had a comfortable bunk and a place to store my two bags (soft-sided only, please, and you’ll understand why). Every cabin has a porthole or window for ventilation. There is just enough floor space to stand up and turn around in. There’s a wash basin (not a sink, mind you), towels, and linens provided, but you really won’t want to spend much time below deck. In fact, most people bring along a sleeping bag so they can sleep on deck.
There is plenty of fresh water onboard, but to get it you’ll have to work for it (old-fashioned hand-operated pumps are located on deck). The heads (toilets) are pump-operated. The shower is pump-operated -- and if you like to take morning showers, you’ll have to do with cold ones, or learn to take your showers later in the day to get hot water – and the water is heated by the same woodstove the meals are cooked on. If all this sounds like work, it is, but it’s the most fun you’ll ever have while working, and you’ll learn a special kind of hand-foot coordination.
The food you’ll get is plentiful and freshly prepared in the galley. The menu is different each day. What you get for breakfast one morning will likely not be what you get the next morning, and the same goes lunch and dinner, but whatever it is, the cooks spare no effort in making sure it’s tasty and filling. You can choose to eat it down below or take your plates up on deck. In fact, lunch is usually served on deck, even while the boat is underway. Plus, there are always juices, iced tea, lemonade, fresh coffee, and snacks being offered throughout the day, including freshly baked cookies and breads, so you’ll never go hungry. If you want soda or beer or wine, you’ll have bring your, but there’s a huge ice chest on deck that will keep everything cold during the voyage. There are stores in Camden where you can stock up on "personals" before boarding.
For all the creature comforts you won’t find on one of these schooners, the tranquil scenery and sailing and camaraderie you’ll get will more than make up for it. The cruising grounds are Penobscot Bay and the islands thereof. For times when the wind is too light to get to the night’s anchorage, a diesel-powered yawl boat is used to push the boat along.
One of the neatest things about this type of cruise is the opportunity you have to pitch in and actually help sail the boat. If not handling the helm, you can help raise and lower the sails, haul up the anchor, help out in the galley (and help wash dishes afterward), and look over the captain’s shoulder as he plots our course on the ship’s chart. Every member of the crew is enthusiastic and helpful when it comes to passenger participation, and knowledgeable enough about the cruising grounds to identify every single island you sail past.
Or you can choose to simply sit on deck and read or watch the day’s activity on Penobscot Bay. There is always something to look at. You’re never out of sight of land. The water is usually calm enough so that seasickness won’t be a problem. Lobster boats are always around, the waters throughout the bay are speckled with brightly colored marker buoys (lobster traps outnumber people in this area), lighthouses are all over the place, other schooners are passing by --- you’ll see harbor seals and porpoises and all kinds of sea birds -- and if you’re lucky, you might even see a whale.
Every evening you’ll be anchored in a different place, usually a deserted island, sometimes a pretty harbor. You’ll even be given a chance to go ashore, and this is an adventure in itself. The yawl-boat doubles as a water taxi, and for really shallow landings, you’ll use an oar-powered peapod (a little rowboat). On the multi-day cruises, one of the evening meals is a lobster bake on a pristine beach. During the cruise I was on, we picked up fresh lobsters that morning from a place on Swans Island and cooked them later that night on another beach.
While this was by far the best vacation experience I have ever had, I need to be blunt and emphasize that this type of cruising is not for "sissies." Also, if you’re of a "large" frame, you won’t be comfortable trying to squeeze yourself into one of those little cabins. And unless you have an exceptional child able to appreciate the simple beauty in the great outdoors, this kind of cruise is not suitable for most kids, who would probably get bored to tears by the utter lack of video games or television. The key to enjoying and getting the most out of a cruise like this is all in your attitude. Approach it like a camping trip on a boat. In fact, that’s how I packed, right down to the sleeping bag.
Cruising season for Maine windjammers is from May to October. Pricing for these trips is remarkably reasonable. I took a 4-day cruise for $665 and requested and got a private cabin for no extra charge. There are also 3- and 5-day cruises offered. You can board the boat the afternoon before your cruise begins, so you get an extra night aboard, even though it’s spent at the dock.
Go for the adventure and the experience of something that harkens back to the early days of sailing and you will not be disappointed on a Maine windjammer cruise.