There’s something about being out on an historic Maine windjammer on quiet Penobscot Bay on a beautiful fall day to help you forget all the stuff that’s going on elsewhere in the country and the world.
That’s where my wife, Catharine, and I were the last weekend of September: aboard the two-masted, gaff-rigged topsail schooner Nathaniel Bowditch, in the company of nine other passengers and five crew members, including Captain Owen Dorr, who along with his wife, Cathie, has owned the ship for ten years.
First built as a private racing ship in 1922, the Bowditch later saw action as a coastal patrol boat in World War II, and subsequently served as a fishing vessel before finally being outfitted as a passenger ship.
It now holds up to 24 passengers, though with that many aboard the sleeping accommodations and eating in the galley (if you’re not eating up on deck) could get pretty tight.
There are two below-deck sleeping areas — midship (where Catharine and I were) and the foc’s’cle, the forward compartment that’s a bit tighter. Each area has one head (bathroom). None of the cabins are large, so passengers largely stay up on deck, weather permitting. Captain Owen even suggests you might want to sleep up on deck, not bad advice for the claustrophobic.
On our three-night, two-day voyage, passengers came from as nearby as New Hampshire and as far away as Oklahoma. New York, Rhode Island and Virginia were also represented. Most had some sailing experience on their own boats, though sailing a 108-foot vessel proved to be a different animal, and much of the fun onboard is watching (or assisting) the crew in action.
While baby boomer age passengers predominated, it was nice to have a few younger folks aboard to help the crew hoist the sails, weigh anchor, and coil the decklines — although just about everyone pitched in to one degree or another. (I admit, I mostly played photographer, but someone has to do that, too.)
For all the brisk air and sail-hoisting, we were never left hungry. Captain Owen’s brother, Paul, was the chef and turned out excellent, hearty fare — whether blueberry pancakes for breakfast, fish chowder for lunch, or meat loaf and mashed potatoes for dinner. Hors d’oeuvres preceded dinner as well, and coffee and tea were available from 6 am, which, as I stumbled up on deck at first light, I tried to convince myself was the best time of the day.
As Captain Owen announced when we first set sail, there’s no set itinerary to any Bowditch voyage; “We sail where the winds [and whims?] take us,” he told us. On the first night out on the bay, we anchored at quiet Mackerel Cove, which the captain dryly nicknamed “Holy Mackerel Cove.” On the second night, we anchored off a sleepy island fishing village, where he equally dryly assured us that everyone goes to bed by 6 pm and is up by 4 am in search of the day’s catch. Judging by the paucity of lights on after dark, he didn’t seem to be exaggerating much.
The highlight of any windjammer cruise is a lobster bake; ours came the second day on an uninhabited state-owned island called Hell’s Half Acre. It may be a half acre, but it was far from hellish and provided a scenic backdrop for tearing into 25 lobsters that the captain had purchased that morning from a village on another island. Corn on the cob and sausage sandwiches complemented the crustaceans. (See my recent post on Maine lobster.)
Two hardy passengers went swimming in the chilly Penobscot bay waters, as close as anyone came to bathing during our two days. In warmer weather, I’m sure most would have joined them.
At one point another windjammer came into view and an informal race ensued. The captain ordered the topsail raised and soon we were watching the other schooner in our figurative rear-view mirrors. We later learned that the Bowditch had won the annual windjammer race this past summer, a tribute both to the ship and Captain Owen’s sailing skills, which he has been honing since childhood.
The Bowditch sails out of the Windjammer Wharf in Rockland, Maine, a town well equipped with restaurants and lodgings for those who arrive a day or two before the voyage or want to linger in the area afterwards. Nearby, the communities of Camden and Rockport have a wide variety of inns and eating places as well.
One thing that Captain Owen said as he wished us all goodbye at the end of the trip really resonated with me: everyone who joins a sail aboard the Nathaniel Bowditch and other ships in the historic Maine windjammer fleet helps to enable these magnificent vessels to stay alive. They’re part of Americana and about as far from a sterile cruising experience as you could imagine.
The windjammers are the real thing — appealing to baby boomers or anyone who wishes to help preserve this vital part of our past. That’s really what distinguishes these trips from some other forms of cruising, and it’s what continues to attract passengers who are willing to rough it a little to experience something truly authentic.
(In a previous post, I talked about how the captain of the historic Maine windjammer Isaac H. Evans was tapping into the niche cruise market with a variety of specialty cruises, ranging from pirate to knitting themes.)
Next up on clarknorton.com: The Maine Windjammer Association, which helps promote the 10-ship windjammer fleet.