Sailing Adventure: Windjammer Cruise in Maine
“Raise the mainsail!” Captain John Foss calls, and we eagerly move into place. It’s our first day of sailing on our windjammer cruise, and we can’t wait to get going.
There are 21 of us aboard the American Eagle Schooner this week. Half of us line the starboard side, while the others move to the port side.
Following the crew’s calls, we grab and pull the rope in rhythm.
The 2,000-square-foot sail is heavy, and it takes all our efforts to raise it almost 70 feet. After it’s in place, the crew raises the foresail, hauls up the anchor and raises the headsails.
With a snap, the wind catches our sails, and we’re off, completely powered by Mother Nature.
The sight of a tall ship bending with the wind is majestic and strangely moving. Ben and I sit down on the gleaming wood deck with the others, watching the sight with wonder.
American Eagle Schooner
Cruising in Maine is a unique experience. Instead of massive cruise ships with swimming boards and shopping malls, a small fleet of historic wooden tall ships ply these waters, offering small group cruising to adventurous and nature-loving passengers.
This week, our home is the American Eagle Schooner, which was built in 1930. For 53 years, the American Eagle was a member of the Gloucester fishing fleet.
Captain John Foss bought it in 1984, and carefully restored her to her current glory. The vessel is 92’ long, and can hold up to 26 guests.
The American Eagle is one of 10 traditional tall ships in The Maine Windjammer Association; most of the vessels have been designated National Historic Landmarks. A few are more than a hundred years old.
The fleet sails along Maine’s rugged coast in the protected waters of Penobscot Bay. The coastline of Maine is wild and beautiful.
Though it’s 293 miles long, the coast is so jagged that stretched out, it would reach more than 4,500 miles long.
Caption John Foss looks content as he heads the American Eagle out to sea, coffee cup in hand.
“In what other job do you have someone cook for you all summer and you get to go sailing 120 days a year and meet interesting people?” he says.
Captain John grew up in Maine and has been sailing most of his life. “Maine has an incredible cruising area,” he says.
“There is a good little harbor every couple of miles. We’re lucky that the area has never been industrialized. Things here are well cared for.”
“This is one of the two best places in the world to sail,” he jokes. “We don’t know where the other one is.”
The American Eagle is in pristine condition. There are two living areas below deck, along with a tiny galley. Our accommodations are simple.
Ben and I have a small cabin big enough to fit a double and a single bunk, with a tiny sink, several lights and hooks for hanging clothes.
There are warm wool blankets if it gets cool at night. At first it seems tight, but we finally figure out how to organize and move about in the room.
There are restrooms and two showers on board. In truth, the term “shower” is a loose one.
It’s rather like a small stall with a kitchen hose sprayer which allows us to get wet, soap up and then rinse down. It’s not relaxing, but it does the trick.
One of the best parts of sailing on the American Eagle is getting to know the six-man crew and the other passengers.
“There is an easy congeniality on board,” the American Eagle brochure had promised — and it’s true.
Everyone is open and friendly. We get to know folks from Texas, Boston, Michigan and elsewhere, enjoying the wide range of personalities and ages on board.
Jennifer and Scott are a couple from Seattle, celebrating their 10th anniversary with a sailing cruise.
We joke, swap stories, drink wine and lounge on deck, soaking in the scenery and enjoying the fun camaraderie.
Dining is a huge part of any cruise, and the American Eagle is no exception. Meals are served family style, all-you-can-eat.
Andy is our cook, and he makes every homemade meal in the tiny galley on a wood-burning stove. We can hardly believe the good meals he turns out from his simple kitchen.
Meals include lots of fresh fruits and local produce, fresh baked breads and pies, hearty soups and more.
Meals are served on deck or in the dining area below. It’s strange how the fresh air and the smell of the sea can really increase the appetite.
Lobster is a huge part of life in Maine, from its economy to its very culture. So it’s only natural that a highlight of sailing in Maine is taking part in a traditional lobster bake.
Each Maine Windjammer cruise includes one of these yummy events; collectively, the Maine Windjammer Association captains purchase more than 10 tons of lobster each season.
Before we headed out of the harbor, Captain John had purchased 40 lbs of fresh lobster.
The lobsters have been kept fresh and happy with regular dousing of sea waters. Now, they will play a feature role in our feast.
As the sun begins to sink lower in the sky, we sail into a secluded harbor at a small private island. After dropping anchor, we row ashore in two trips.
It is our first time rowing, and it takes us a while to learn the drill. After some awkward maneuvering, we find our rhythm and row to shore.
Some of the crew have gone ahead and built a fire on the beach. A large metal pot is filled with 5 inches of seawater.
While that cooks, the crew sets out a feast of hamburgers, cheese and crackers, veggies and even wine.
When the water is at a boil, Captain John plops the lobsters into the pot one at a time.
Then the crew gathers seaweed and piles that on top of the lobsters, creating an efficient steaming pot.
Thirty minutes later, the lobsters have turned that famous color of orange and they’re ready to eat.
It’s quickly evident which of us live by the water and which of us rarely eat lobster. I have a hard time figuring out how to tackle my dinner.
These Mainers know their lobster, though, and Mike, one of the crew, shows me a quick and efficient way to take apart a whole lobster, saving every available morsel.
I’m surprised by how tender the fresh lobster is. Used to frozen lobster at home in the Rockies, this tastes amazing.
We’re offered as many lobster as we can eat, and Ben and Scott enjoy seconds…and even a third.
We have homemade blueberry pie, and drink more wine, watching as the sun slowly sets over the water, casting a soft light on the American Eagle.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” I say, and the others agree between bites of blueberry pie.
The Island Life
Maine has more than 7,000 islands. While most are uninhabited, some of the islands are dotted with million dollar (and up) summer vacation homes; others are home to a few year-round locals.
A few of the islands even have farms, their own power, including wind turbines. Maine’s ferry system provides transportation to several islands, providing a range of daily or even just monthly service.
Sailing in Penobscot Bay is like a front row seat to Mother Nature. In addition to the island scenery, these waters are home to puffins, seals, and even whales.
Without the light pollution of the city, the night skies are covered with stars. Every once in a while, you can even see the colorful, undulating Northern Lights.
Every Windjammer cruise is a different experience because there is no set itinerary. The winds and the weather help the captain determine our course.
Though most of our time is spent sailing, each day, we go ashore somewhere to stretch our legs and explore.
Windjammer cruises may stop at fishing villages, bustling towns, or even Acadia National Park.
Our first stop is at Stonington, a small town on a bridged island in Penobscot Bay.
A true lobster town, the waters of Stonington and nearby Deer Isle are home to a working fleet of more than 300 lobster boats.
Colorful lobster buoys dot the water like candy, and lobster boats fill the harbor.
Though there are shops and cafes to visit, I’m more curious about what it’s like to live in Stonington.
We meander the streets, walking past historic homes that range from grand colonial-style houses to country cottages.
Lobster traps sit stacked in backyards or in shingled sheds. Here and there a boat sits out back, waiting to return to the water.
Over the next few days, time seems to slow down. My cell phone rarely get signal, so I happily put it away and forget about the office.
The days are warm, and the nights cool. I can feel the stress leaving my body.
On our last evening, we drop anchor in quiet Pulpit Harbor off the coast of North Haven. The sun is starting to set as we finish our meal.
“Who wants to go rowing?” one of the crew calls. Within minutes, Ben and I are in a rowboat exploring the harbor. (In truth, Ben is rowing, while I’m enjoying the ride.)
As the sky darkens, tiny lights illuminate the other boats anchored in the harbor.
Everything is absolutely quiet; all I hear is the sound of Ben’s rowing and the gentle sound of laughter coming from the American Eagle, which is now in the distance.
The American Eagle looks tall and majestic, silhouetted in the sunset. Ben stops rowing and we coast silently, savoring this moment. Then we grin at each other, and head back to the ship.
If You Go
The American Eagle sails out of Rockland, which is located in mid-coast Maine. It is a four-hour drive from Boston and a two-hour drive from Portland.
The Maine Windjammer Association offers an Air & Sea Package for an additional $150/person, which includes air transportation from Boston to Rockland via Cape Air, and ground transportation from the airport to the harbor. Cape Air has several flights daily from Boston, and offers friendly, efficient service.
The American Eagle offers three to seven-day cruises from late May to mid-October
Where to Stay in Rockland
Many guests prefer to go a day early and stay at one of Rockland’s unique Bed & Breakfasts. We stayed at the Old Granite Inn.
The 8-room inn is located in beautiful stone building on Main Street overlooking Rockland Harbor, and its only a quick walk down the street to the town shops and restaurants.
The rooms are large and comfortable. Innkeeper Ed Hantz is known for his incredible breakfasts — and he doesn’t disappoint.
Maine Windjammer Cruises
Cruises run from mid-May to mid-October, and last from three to seven days.
Windjammer cruises are good for older children and on up. Prices average around $160/day include all meals. Some guests come alone; others come in families, couples or even groups.
Maine Windjammer Association