A vacation aboard a large ocean going sailing ship is a remarkable experience that you will not soon forget.
Boarding any great sailing ship in port is like taking a giant step back in time. Life’s tempo changes the moment you set foot on the weathered deck and hear the sheets lightly tapping high in the rigging.
Serenity replaces stress as you listen to the quiet creaking of the wooden giant quiescent in a slightly undulating sea, – but hoist the mast and point her into the wind, and that serenity becomes instant exhilaration as the mighty ship moves forward and the bow begins to plunge into the oncoming sea.
That unique experience was familiar to countless sailors when the tall ships ruled the seven seas, -and now it can be yours to share by signing on for a cruise aboard one of Maine’s historic coastal schooners.
The idea for our trip started at a breakfast discussion with friends at a nearby seaside restaurant. We all agreed that taking a holiday aboard a cruising schooner would be great fun. We had heard of the Maine Windjammer Association, and found their website at www.sailmainecoast.com. After some investigation, we decided a one-week cruise on the “Heritage,” one of the ships in the Windjammer Association’s 12-schooner fleet, would make a perfect holiday.
A few weeks later, we flew to Portland, Maine and rented a car for the two-hour drive to Rockland, the homeport for the Heritage. We arrived on Sunday evening, just in time to go aboard. Ready for our six-day sea adventure, we grabbed our gear and carefully walked down the aluminum gangway to the waiting schooner. Captain Doug Lee greeted us, just as we threw our gear on deck.
Life aboard a cruising schooner
After a brief discussion with Captain Doug, we were invited to follow a crewmember below to see our quarters. We held fast to a shiny brass handrail and descending 15 steep and narrow steps to the cabin deck.
The Heritage has space for 30 passengers, and a crew of 7. She is an authentic coastal schooner built with the passenger, rather than the cargo in mind. Consequently, she is on the high end of the cruising schooner ‘comfort’ scale.
Small round skylights installed in the main deck floor just above each guest cabin provides light in the daytime. There are small electric lights for night reading. Converters are available for charging shavers, digital cameras and the like. Several cabins have bunk beds, others a small double bed. Two cabins have private toilet facilities.
There is enough head-room to stand upright in all the guest quarters, and each cabin has a small hot and cold water sink, and just enough room to store gear for a week of sailing. There are no TV’s aboard, so it is a good idea to pack a good book or two.
Returning topside, Captain Doug oriented the entire complement of guests on the ship’s safety features, the location of the three passenger heads (toilets), and the site of the ship’s single shower room and cozy galley/dining room with its wood burning stove.
The ship and its captains
The Heritage is the brainchild of the two Captains Doug and Linda Lee. Already seasoned masters while in their 20’s, the young seagoing couple decided to build their own large cruising schooner from the keel up. It took one year to plan, and four years to construct their dream.
Launched with significant fanfare on April 16, 1983 at the historic North End Shipyard in Rockland, Maine, the 95 foot, 165-ton Heritage is the second largest coastal schooner in the Maine Windjammer Fleet.
Now in their 50’s, the Lees’ have been sailing the coast of New England for over 30 years. They are a virtual treasure store of nautical history and marine lore. They are “sailing legends,” and with their heavy accents, never fail to entertain their guests with whimsical New England jokes, and interesting sea stories.
A roving, a roving, and a roving we will go
We sailed with the tide early Monday morning. To get into the spirit of the voyage, the passengers are encouraged to participate in the first hoisting of the mains’l. Rope in hand, the crew leads in the seagoing pulling chant “…way haul away, way haul away together, way haul away, way haul away Joe.” It’s a very big mainsail, and before long everyone has caught on to the rhythm, and is heaving-ho and singing the melodic refrain as the huge gaff works its way up the mast.
By the end of the first day, the crew makes certain that you have a working knowledge of the nomenclature of the various parts of the ship. From that point on, the crew and the turn-of-the-20th century gas-powered donkey engine takes over the daily tasks of lifting the anchor and hoisting the sails. However, any passengers wanting to experience the daily rigors of able-bodied seamen are allowed to continue to help the deckhands and galley crew. Surprisingly, many continued to volunteer for the work.
Sailing the islands of Maine
The ports of call for each cruise are different depending on the prevailing winds and weather – and what events may be taking place along the coast of Maine. Most weekly cruises cover approximately 125 nautical miles, and all sailing is done in daylight hours.
There are some 3,000 rocky islands off the coast of Maine, and each night you are comfortably anchored in a quiet cove near some remote spruce-capped granite island, or in a charming harbor near a seaside village or town.
Access to the islands and ports is always available by ship’s skiff and Captain Doug’s personal 12-foot sailboat that has been in his family for 40 years.
There are photo opportunities at every turn of the helm. The islands are rich in color, and the sunsets are spectacular. Lighthouses glisten, and great birds and sea creatures are visible throughout the day.
All hail the queen
We were fortunate to book passage for the week that Maine celebrated its “Windjammer Days” in Boothbay Harbor. Several hundred small boats jammed the harbor as their occupants came to marvel over the beauty of the many tall ships participating in the annual festivities.
The Heritage, moving into the congested port under billowing sails, was the grand guest, and the high point of the final day. Ship’s horns and blaring whistles welcomed her like royalty. Just as pretty as you please, and without the benefit of power or pilot boat, Captain Doug sailed the mighty schooner into the bustling harbor.
He approached the ship’s mooring site with sails still aloft, and ordered, “Drop the anchor.” The Heritage slowly dragged her anchor and chain to a halt with the ship’s stern just 30 yards from the crowded dock and viewing stands.
As the colossal Heritage came to rest, the crowd roared its approval and appreciation of the captain’s amazing display of seamanship in piloting the mighty ship to her place of honor. Later during a conversation in port, Captain Doug winked and asked, “I was a bit nervous, did it show?”
A unique vacation
A windjammer cruise is much akin to camping. ‘Luxury’ is not in the wind jamming ‘glossary of terms’. However, there is ample shelter, and the food is good and plentiful. Meals are included and are greatly enhanced by homemade bread, and cookies fresh from the wood burning stove.
Weather permitting, many meals are served buffet style on deck even while under sail – and sometimes enjoyed at a noticeable list to starboard or port.
The gastronomical highlight of every cruise is the “lobster bake.” This is an all you can eat lobster and corn-on-the-cob extravaganza prepared by the crew on the beach of one of the islands.
You could be hooked
Doug and Linda boast that over 60% of their annual passengers are returning guests. Out of the 19 passengers on our voyage, only four of us had not previously sailed on the Heritage. In fact, several couples had been aboard for more than 10 cruises. Our fellow guests ranged in age from their mid-30’s, to one couple in their early 80’s.
Who should go?
Vacationers seeking a real-life adventure; sailors of small boats who love the tall ships and are keen to hear the howl of the wind in the gigantic sails – and ordinary landlubbers who are ready for a week full of fun and the occasional thrill of a deck awash in salty brine.
If you are reasonably fit, and want a vacation that is truly out of the ordinary, a windjammer cruise is worth considering. It is like no other vacation on earth – or sea for that matter.