Gathering of the Fleet makes you forget what century you are in
by Karen Rubin
It is one of those truly memorable experiences that travel affords: a Gathering of the Fleet of Maine’s Windjammers, a collection of about a dozen tall ships, most of which are registered National Historic Landmarks with a proud heritage.
They sail in central Maine’s Penobscot Bay (and some, further on).
This is the “Schooner Gam,” which kicked off this summer’s sailing season, and encompassed just about the entire fleet, highlighted by a Raft-Up – where all the boats tie up together.
It is the climax to our four-day voyage aboard the historic schooner, American Eagle.
We sailed that day from Swans Island where we spent the night anchored in a cove, coming out of fog and a flat grayness that makes you contemplate your place in the world, into a brighter, clearer sky, and as we sail, we see these tall ships far on the horizon, coming like leviathans gliding on the water.
The ships come from various directions, closer and closer, and gradually, we start to form a parade of sorts as we tack into a cove for the gathering.
They are majestic, magnificent, graceful, powerful and proud; each has its own personality and stories.
The ships (or rather the captains and crew) do this marvelously choreographed, painstaking maneuver to slowly come along side each other and “raft up” – tie up with one another.
Our ship, the American Eagle, is captained by its owner, John Foss, who is one of the most senior of the Windjammer captains with 35 years (25 years with American Eagle and 10 years with the Lewis R. French, both historic ships he restored). With patience and precision, Capt. Foss eases the American Eagle along side the Victory Chimes.
Most of the ships are more than a century old – many have received National Historic Landmark designation – and as they fill the cove, you forget what century you are in.
Then we party – like it’s 1910. We climb from one ship to the other, visiting, meeting and greeting, tasting the appetizers that have been set out.
For the captains and the crews, it is a chance to meet up with old friends and colleagues.
For the passengers, many of whom had just set out on their journey that morning, it is the rarest opportunity to meet others who hail from all parts of the country, and even from abroad. We are so different, yet share this desire to experience a form of travel and a kind of life that has all but disappeared.
On our port side, music breaks out on the Mercantile, built in 1916 to carry fish, barrel staves and firewood, reconfigured to its new career to carry 29 guests. This sailing has two family reunions on board.
On our starboard side is the Victory Chimes. Built in 1900, it is the largest passenger schooner in America and one of the only three-masted schooners still sailing. On board is the great-grandson of George K Phillips, whose shipyard built the Victory Chimes (he was also on the 2000 sailing to mark its 100th anniversary) and 30 others (the Victory Chimes is one of only a few surviving). The chef breaks out the lobster pot to begin preparing their evening’s dinner – the fresh-caught lobster bake that is a tradition of every windjammer cruise.
We traipse across to the Angelique, rare in that it was purpose-built for windjamming in 1980 and patterned after the 19th century sailing ships that fished off the coast of England. It has a deckhouse salon with a piano, and is being used for this trip by Exploritas (formerly Elderhostel) – a board lists the lectures and activities for the group.
One of the last ships to arrive is the Nathaniel Bowditch, built as a racing yacht in 1922, and captained by its owner Owen Dorr. We had sailed on the ship a few years ago, and it was like seeing an old friend.
Each of the dozen ships in the fleet is unique in its structure and its “story”, and has its own personality largely formed by the Captain and crew. And no matter how many windjammer cruises you have taken (and we meet many repeat cruisers), each sailing aboard a Maine Windjammer is uniquely formed by the weather, the wind and the particular combination of passengers. A windjammer cruise is the essence of serendipity.
Alec Schoettle, our first mate, has put on a fancy jacket that looks like an English hunting jacket but makes him look like a World War I soldier, a shirt and tie decorated with schooners, khaki pants and no shoes, prompting “oohs” and “ahs” from his colleagues on the other boats. Perhaps he has set a new tradition.
It starts to drizzle, so we go below in the American Eagle galley for our dinner, but just in time for dessert, the sun breaks through, casting this fabulous golden light over the scene. We have our freshly churned ice cream on deck (several of our passengers helped in the churning) and the mingling with the other passengers and crews of the other boats begins anew.
Captain Foss gives the order to pull around the rowboat so we can get to the water line to row around all the boats to witness the full spectacle and take pictures.
It is a spectacular sight – you sense what treasures these ships are, and are so grateful for the captains and crew who give these ships, which were built to haul timber, granite, fish – a new working life and an economic basis, while also preserving these traditional seafaring skills.
As the sun sets, several of the captains, including Captain Foss, fire off a cannon and bring down their flags.
Three of the ships fall away from the group – taking some of the passengers that belong on another ship, prompting enormous laughter (no matter, a rowboat returns them to the right ship), and we gently separate and motor a short distance away.
Gradually, all the boats separate and find their own little patch of the cove to weigh anchor, as the sky deepens in color – yellow to pink to red at the horizon, azure to royal blue higher in the sky, and a crescent moon with Jupiter shining brightly above, becomes more defined. Several of us stay on deck to sit around and chat in the light of kerosene lanterns, then go below where Alec is playing a guitar and singing humorous songs.
That’s the other hallmark of windjamming: the camaraderie that forms when you have only conversation, story-telling and song as distractions.
For most of the ships, it is their first night, but we are at the end of our four-night voyage.
Windjammer Voyage Begins
Our Maine Windjammer voyage began with a drive from Long Island to Boston’s Logan Airport (parking off-site at PreFlight Parking; download a 20% coupon from the site, www.preflightparking.com), and an hour-long flight on Cape Air into Rockland Airport (capeair.com). It’s a short trip ($11) on Schooner Bay Taxi to the American Eagle’s pier in Rockland.
It’s a Friday afternoon, and we stow our stuff onboard, then walk back into Rockland, where we explore the charming galleries and shops and marvel at the revitalization of its Victorian main street. We get to take a quick peek at the Lighthouse Museum before it closes (where I am fascinated to learn about Women lighthouse keepers), and learn that the Farnsworth Museum of art is holding a public event that evening, giving us a chance to see its magnificent collection of Wyeths (Andrew Wyeth was a frequent visitor, coming for the last time just months before he died, in 2009; I note a canvas, “Goodbye, My Love,” dated 2008), and paintings of Maine.
It is dark when we walk back to the ship, where our fellow passengers are sitting around on deck in the light of a kerosene lamp, getting to know each other.
One of the couples came from Wisconsin to celebrate their 25th anniversary on Capt. Foss’ ship; 25 years ago, they honeymooned on Capt. Foss’s first windjammer, Lewis R. French; at the time, they could see where Capt. Foss was working to restore the American Eagle at his shipbuilding yard.
Actually, most of the passengers on this cruise are veteran windjammers. One couple, originally from Massachusetts and return passengers to the American Eagle, have come from California for his 50th high school reunion. Another couple, in their 80s, comes from New Hampshire on one or even two windjamming trips a year. A fellow from Wyoming had been on a couple of windjamming trips in the past, and invited his friend from California to join him on this one.
It seems that the only rookies are a father and his 12-year old son who have come from Indianapolis.
Altogether, though, we are a very interesting mix of people.
The American Eagle, designated a National Historic Landmark, is a gorgeous ship. The 92-foot long schooner was built in 1930 in Gloucester, Mass. and for 53 years, served as part of the Gloucester fishing fleet.
“We could have built a new schooner for what it took to restore the American Eagle,” Capt. Foss says of spending two years restoring the ship as a windjammer 25 years ago, “but you can enjoy the best of both with us: the safety and comfort of a new vessel with the tradition, design and history of the last fishing schooner built in New England.”
Things have changed from when 11 sailors would sleep in hammocks, the catch of fish in the cargo hold next door.
In fact, there are some “luxuries” on board the American Eagle that are not necessarily common to all the windjammers in the fleet – a heating system below, full headroom throughout, a shower with hot water (when the ship’s wood-burning stove is operating).
Our cabin is small – about the size of a closet (and not the walk-in kind) – with two bunk beds and it takes getting used to. But it has luxuries as well: a sink (which gives water you can drink, as well as hot water), overhead light as well as reading lights at both bunks, and most wonderful of all, a plug-in so you can charge your cell phone, your computer, your camera batteries overnight (when the ship’s lights are on).
There are nine cabins in our section, the Midships Cabin; three in the Main Cabin, and two in the Foc’sle & Galley (a few have double berths or can be converted to double berths); the crew and even the captain sleep in bunks – essentially shelves separated by a curtain – reminiscent of the old-style sleepers on trains.
There are beautiful brass fittings, stunning veneer, majestic sails. Creature comforts include folding chairs we can use on the deck.
But the whole point of a windjammer is the simplicity of it. This harkens back to the days when ships were transportation and commerce – workhorses of the water – not floating resorts or cities or themeparks.
That’s why there is still an etiquette that discourages openly using cell phones, computers and what-not.
Even though Capt. Foss says that it is one of the concessions to modernity that there is greater acceptance, you are careful not to be intrusive, because immediately upon coming on board, you have a sense of this communal desire to escape modernity. That’s why we are here and not on a cruise ship, after all. We are here to experience at least a little what it was like to depend on little more than the wind (okay, the radar, ship’s radio, and motor are helpful).
The fact is that cell phones don’t even work much of the time, and that adds to the sense of adventure.
It is a great idea to have the first night onboard before we sail away. The schooners are small (some only accommodate 6 passengers; the largest 39), and take getting used to. You are outside your comfort zone and that adjustment to something different is a huge part of the experience. The first thing to get used to is not bumping your head on the bunk bed.
There is also a convenience store just up the street from American Eagle’s pier, so if you realize once on board that you forgot something (you might decide to bring on board your own wine, beer or soda, sunscreen, ear plugs for sleeping), you can stock up. No need for snacks – there is always fresh fruit, cookies and coffee, tea and hot chocolate available.
Breakfast is served on board before we set sail, and we get a sense of cook Nola Logan’s interesting (dare I say quirky) flavor combinations that prove to be immensely satisfying. Her style of cuisine boils down to “comfort food” – and everything she whips up is delicious and wholesome. She gets up at 4 a.m. each day.
We get our first taste, as well, of the communal spirit that is as much a part of a windjammer cruise as anything: we form a fireman’s line to bring up the dishes, silverware, cups, and trays of food which are put out on the deck; and after breakfast, we learn how to rinse our dishes; several volunteer to help dry, as well.
At this point, acclimated to the schooner, you feel gung-ho about shipping out.
And so, we leave behind what is familiar, and set sail out at about 10 a.m.
Hoisting (and furling) the sails is a communal activity – one of the best parts of a windjammer cruise, as well. In fact, we can be as active as we want in helping sail the ship.
Setting out from Rockland harbor is wonderful: the Rockland Lighthouse, at the end of a nearly mile-long breakwater, is a sight, as is the Owl’s Head Lighthouse we pass by soon after. (Half of the Windjammers sail from Rockland, and half sail from Camden)
Some days, there are other tall ships leaving at about the same time, they make a stunning figure on the water reminiscent of the magnificent Maine seascapes you can see at the Farnsworth Museum.
With little else to distract, we focus on our surroundings. Soon we spot a seal, and then the arc of porpoise.
Lunch is a hearty, freshly prepared onion soup with cheese/bread, a most interesting (unusual) salad that is actually extremely tasty: broccoli, raisins, onions, bacon with cole slaw dressing.
We go past North Haven, and the Spark Plug Lighthouse, now privately owned, automated. “The keepers hated working on it,” Capt. Foss says.
We’ve set out with a crate of live lobsters for that evening’s lobster bake which is a tradition of the Maine windjammer cruises, and Capt. Foss has set our course for a secluded beach.
Friday, 16 July, 2010
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