As a Floridian, I looked forward to escaping the hot, humid summer weather and enjoying cooler New England temperatures and refreshing breezes. My Maine Windjammer Cruise brought those and much more.
My boyfriend and I flew to Bangor, Maine, rented a car, and spent two days exploring Acadia National Park and the Bar Harbor area. We hiked from a sand beach, maneuvered across fields of boulders battered by the sea, then up to Otter Point with its breathtaking drop to the sea and magnificent views. Early, the following day, we drove to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak on the east coast. What a spectacular view! (Be sure to make reservations for the summit drive.) Jordan Pond offers a circuitous hike, but you can also kayak or canoe on the lake. The return of loons still has the locals excited and if you’re lucky, you’ll see a family of them out fishing. Bicycling on the historic carriage roads is another popular option, but we couldn’t fit it in.
An afternoon hour and a half drive brought us to the classic Maine village of Camden. White steepled churches, colorful art galleries, non-chain restaurants and shops dot the two-block main street overlooking Penobscot Bay. The harbor buzzes with activity and a plethora of pleasure boats and windjammer schooners.
Before starting our cruise, we stayed at a Camden bed and breakfast inn. In nearby Rockland, we ventured out to the Rockland Breakfront Lighthouse, resting almost a mile offshore. The massive granite pathway took 18 years and nearly 800,000 tons of granite to complete.
Rockland’s other highlight rests downtown, the fabulous Farnsworth Art Museum, home to hundreds of artworks by Andrew, N.C., and Jamie Wyeth, among others. The Wyeth family summered in the area, and their numerous paintings reflect life along the New England coast.
The Lewis R French, Our Windjammer
The Maine Windjammer Association maintains a fleet of nine schooners that offer 3, 4, or 6- day cruises. These are former merchant ships propelled by sails. They sail out of Camden or Rockland in mid-Maine.
We planned our Maine trip around a three-night cruise on the Lewis R French, a 65-foot wooden sailboat launched in 1871. The French, the oldest known two-masted schooner in the United States, remains one of the few in active service. Built in 1871, she operates much as she would have 150 years ago.
The historic vessel carries 20 passengers in single, double, and bunk bed cabins. Each cabin includes a sink, a window, reading lights, and a USB charger, but no toilet. You’ll find two heads (bathrooms) on the main deck. While a generator keeps food cold, she has no engine for sailing.
We boarded in the early evening, listening as our female captain explain the logistics. Afterward, we took our duffel bags below deck to stash in our cabin. Yikes! It was tiny and cramped. Reminding myself that we were aboard a national historic landmark, I figured we were in much better shape than early crews must have been. Captain Becky said, “Your cabin will feel bigger each day.” She was right– rather remarkable how we adapt and how the cabin ended up offering a lot of what made this voyage uniquely transporting.
We slept listening to the waves lapping against the wooden hull. By 6:30 am, we were both up on the main deck enjoying a mug of coffee. I grabbed a freshly baked Danish, and we chatted with the other early risers on the schooner. Most of the guests, like ourselves, are not sailors.
At 8 am, the chef served a full breakfast: blueberry pancakes, eggs, fresh fruit, and various homemade breads and jams. Yum. When finished, everyone washes their dishes in the tubs provided, one of the few jobs required of each guest.
We then set out into Penobscot Bay with the aide of a yawl (small boat) motoring us out of the crowded harbor that challenged maneuvering a 65-foot schooner but brought views of a number of old sailing and motorized vessels.
Once in the clear, passengers helped to hoist the sails, though not a requirement. As the heave-ho process took place, Captain Becky sang a lively sea shanty. Strong arms worked to unfurl and raise the mainsail. The smaller sails take less umph.
The wind, weather, and tide dictated the journey once the sails were up. Yes, we were on vacation, but going nowhere in particular.
A windjammer cruise allows participants to sit back and relax, read, sunbathe, or nap. I loved looking up at the tall masts and billowing sails. Watching them made it easy to imagine stepping back in time and pondering the hardships of a long Atlantic crossing. But, I had it easy and savored the moment. Penobscot Bay’s countless, striking islands (some an acre or less) offered a rich green counterpoint to the expansive blues of the water.
Smartphone addicts should know: You can charge a smartphone in your cabin, but the Wi-Fi reception can become poor out on the water. Cruisers unplug from the tech world and join the sport of daydreaming.
For lunch, the cook served a delicious chowder and hearty salad. I believe he has a sweet tooth, like me – – his cookies hard to resist. Chef works magic preparing the meals and snacks on a wood stove burning in a tiny galley.
Around 4:30, we anchored near an uninhabited island for a traditional New England event on every windjammer cruise- a lobster bake. The cook and assistant paddled a rowboat with all the preparations as we shuttled over on a small motor boat (carried onboard). We were free to explore the island while the crew dug a firepit for grilling hot dogs, hamburgers, and vegetable kebobs.
Into a huge pot over a fire on the beach went seaweed, 40-some lobsters, and fresh corn on the cob . We all threw in the lobsters and corn when steam started escaping from the lid. At dinner time, everyone sat on cushions in the sand and feasted – as much as you wanted. Out came the fixings for dessert s’mores.
Full from the feast and perhaps tired from the sea air, we fell into bed early. We giggled as we maneuvered into the snug space by now finding it welcoming.
The next morning, we awoke to rain. An awning covering most of the deck kept us dry, and hot coffee warmed our hands. Fortunately, the skies cleared about the time we set sail.
This day, I helped by rinsing off the anchor chain while others pulled it from the bottom of the bay. The process requires a few able bodies to manually crank a roller and carefully arrange the chain in a designated space. Every square inch of a 150-year old schooner is planned and accounted for, although the lounging spots on deck were ample.
First mate came to the rescue, cleared the muck, and stowed the anchor. Other guests joined the crew to trim the sails.
The French sailed past picturesque little islands, often studded with pine trees, a few gorgeous summer homes and lots of lobster traps. We noticed many lighthouses, vital for sailors before GPS and many of them still operating today. One squatty little version named Goose Light appeared, seemingly in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by water.
Late afternoon calls for snacks and a beer or wine (you bring your own and store it in onboard coolers.) Chef presented fresh vegetables and dips, one featuring leftover lobster, cheese, and crackers.
Around this time, an increasing wind brought the full feel of being under full sail. I loved the spray on my face and the rocking of the boat.
Unfortunately, the wind took us toward an afternoon storm. We anchored and let it blow through, watching another windjammer do the same. We saw small sailboats scurrying for a spot of calm. Weather becomes the crucial factor on a sailing cruise. We ended up at a comfortable mooring overnight.
We used the downtime before dinner to crank homemade ice cream, each guest taking a two-minute turn while telling a story, singing a song, or reciting a poem. That and working together to get or keep the ship moving with the crew really did produce a bonding among all – – crew and guests alike. You won’t get this on a mega ocean liner. It’s the nothingness on a windjammer cruise that is something.
That evening we were blessed with a vibrant sunset, and when I awakened at night to use the toilet, I gazed upon an incredible starry sky reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting.
A windjammer vacation offers a rustic experience, don’t expect four or five-star luxury. I’d call it akin to glamping, with less emphasis on luxury. The cabins below deck are tiny, meant for sleeping and not much more. A small sink allows for face washing and teeth brushing.
Showering is a different story. You can take a make-shift shower before breakfast or late afternoon if there is hot water. The space in the head proves difficult at best. Most of us opted for a navy shower- a washcloth over the body. Our cruise lasted just three nights, for those on longer voyages, a leap puts them into the bay — a cold but commodious tub.
I’d be delighted to sail on a windjammer again – – I relished the exciting yet relaxing sea journey. I highly recommend it for those who enjoy being outdoors, are willing to use communal toilets, can unplug, and aren’t germophobic. It’s the kind of trip you’ll tell stories about forever.
A hearty thanks to the Lewis R French and her fabulous crew.
Cover photo: The Lewis R French, courtesy Debi Lander
The Lewis R. French is a proud member of the Maine Windjammer Association
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