As a boy growing up near the New Hampshire seacoast I often dreamed about sailing on a tall ship, huge masts towering high above and the sound of the sea dividing beneath her bow and the feeling of the power of the wind driving the massive ship forward. It was a dream I never got to live then, but now anybody can sail on one of these beauties. A group of owner/sailors in Maine created the Maine Windjammer Fleet so everyone can set their inner sailor free.
The Maine Windjammer Fleet
I first ran into the Maine Windjammer Fleet a few years ago when I first saw a ghostly ship appear out of the fog at Northeast Harbor in Acadia National Park. I learned that this incredibly beautiful apparition was Victory Chimes, and she was part of an association of independent tall ships that took passengers on cruises along the Maine coast.
There are eight members of the Maine Windjammer Fleet association that market together, but each ship is totally different from the others. Some, like Victory Chimes, are larger and carry up to 40 guests; others like Mary Day carry fewer passengers. But all are Coast Guard certified and each offers a unique sailing experience.
Why a sailing ship cruise, won’t I get sick?
The attraction of this kind of cruising is the chance to slip away from the hassles and distractions of everyday life, take the kids or steal a grandchild, and settle into a cozy corner on one of the fleet. Many of the itineraries of these ships (each one is different) take passengers on extended voyages in Penobscot Bay, a vast protected stretch of ocean known as some of the finest sailing waters in the world. It is not unusual to find fellow passengers that come from abroad to sail here. The motion of these ships is gentle and during the two cruises that I have taken, I have not seen anyone even queasy, but if you’re particularly sensitive there are medications to help until you become used to the motion.
The Experience, life aboard ship
It’s amazing to be on a vessel the size of a building that is being pushed along by nothing more than gently moving air. With the sails up, the ship rides gently through the water, playing with the waves. With a fair breeze a ship can sail on in a straight line for ages, but most passengers find tacking to travel against the wind more fun. What to do on board? Leave electronic devices at home, this is about relaxing and experiencing nature. Bring a good book or two (or even a tablet) to read out on deck while absorbing the sun – and between keeping your eyes peeled for porpoises, seals and even the occasional whale.
The whole fleet sails in these same waters and it is fun to watch for their sails and to try to identify them as they sail by. Most of the Captains allow passengers to take the wheel for a time and learn how these ships operate and navigate. Watch the crew hoisting and lowering sail, and on all of the ships you can join in with the crew as they haul ropes, furl sail and perform other tasks. On board the beautiful Angelique (you can identify her because she is the only one with red sails—Ahhh yes, the song) 12-year-old Mary was thrilled not only to help furl the sails but to be allowed to help the cook in the tiny galley as well.
Each of the ships has its own style, but cabins on board are all on the small side. You won’t spend much time there, of course. Some cabins are bunk beds, others have single beds; you can check the configurations for each ship on the website. Almost all have fresh water sinks in each cabin with common use toilets and showers nearby.
Cruises are anywhere from 2-3 days to a week or more, but a constant is that the ships anchor in the harbors of small coastal Maine towns every night, often with a chance to go ashore and do a little exploring on your own. Itineraries vary from week to week for each of the vessels as they travel in Penobscot Bay or go further afield to places like Acadia National Park.
Ship board dining
Dining on board the ships of the Maine Windjammer Fleet is casual and always a delight. Each ship has a tiny galley where the chef prepares the family-style meals. Every ship has its own style and specialties, but two things that can be counted on are the quality and quantity of the food. Provisions brought aboard are usually from farms and fishermen near the port and every meal is prepared fresh aboard ship, often on a sea-going wood stove.
While breakfast and dinner are usually served in at tables in the dining area, when weather allows, lunch is served alfresco on deck. One of the big highlights of every trip is the lobster bake. The ships anchor close to a deserted beach, a fire is prepared on top of a pile of stones and when everything is just right seaweed is put on top and then the lobsters are added. There is nothing quite like lobster cooked in seaweed.
Choosing a ship
Before booking, compare several of the ships on the Maine Windjammer Fleet website, as each is different. To first-time sailors a bigger ship like the Victory Chimes, or the specially built Angelique may be the better choice. These two are likely to have less motion than some of the smaller ships. They are also bigger and offer more space to move around on than the smaller ships. But smaller ships like Mary Day or Stephen Tabor are more agile than larger vessels and they respond to lighter winds than the heavier, bigger, ships. Other details may be important: some windjammers welcome children of various ages, some weeks include special events or have themes.
From Boston take I-95 north. At Portland follow I-295 which merges with I-95 again north of Portland. Take the exit for Route 1 at Brunswick through Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle/Damariscotta and Waldoboro. After Waldoboro, take Route 90 on the left if you are headed to Camden and Rockport. For Rockland stay on Route 1. The trip should be about 3.5 to 4 hours .