Sailing on the American Eagle Among the Islands of Penobscot Bay

–What’s Old is Good Again

by Karen Rubin

The American Eagle, anchored in a cove off Swans Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/

There is no actual itinerary for the cruises aboard the Maine windjammers – these magnificent tall ships that harken back to when sailing was the major mode of transportation and facilitated commerce (though I suspect the captains have their favorite places and routes). Where you go typically is based on the wind and weather, and that just adds to the adventure and mystery. And the serendipity of it all.

Capt. John Foss, who has sailed his American Eagle for the past 25 years, gives us a list of all the passengers (tremendous help), with a map of the area, so we can trace our route. He is almost always at the wheel, and we frequently stand beside him as he describes with such fascinating detail the interesting aspects of the islands, the villages, and sailing.

So much of the windjammer and the cruise experience is shaped by the personality of the Captain.

Capt. Foss is this sweet, good natured, extremely knowledgeable man with a wry wit. I love to listen to him – soft spoken, a bit of a twinkle in the eye, redness to his cheeks. He issues his commands to his crew with authority but without barking. He is a font of knowledge and experience, which he only volunteers once you engage him.

The historic windjammer, American Eagle, anchored in Stonington's harbor © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Capt. Foss’ family came to Maine in 1638, and he is named for his great uncle who was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg while serving under Joshua Chamberlain. John spent summers working in boatyards at home and on schooners and graduated Bowdoin College. He served as a deck officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. He brought all that experience and Maine tradition with him when, in 1973, he bought the Lewis R. French.

Built in 1871 to carry fish, coal, bricks, Capt. Foss rebuilt her for carrying passengers. The oldest windjammer in America, Capt Foss sailed the French from 1976 to 1986, when he began sailing the American Eagle, a ship that he also rebuilt, over a two-year period.

The Lewis R. French became the first vessel hauled for rebuilding out of the North End shipyard, which Foss co-founded with fellow schooner captains Doug and Linda Lee, of the Heritage. Today, the two ships, plus the Isaac H. Evans, an 1886 schooner that carries 22 guests, sail from the pier.

With 35 years in Maine windjamming, Capt. Foss is one of the senior captains in the fleet.

One of the picturesque scenes that lie around every bend in the road in Stonington © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The scenery is lovely and always interesting – you wind through islands so there is always something to look at, and look for – like porpoises that swim off from the boat, an eagle trying to snatch a baby seal, lobstermen picking up their traps, picturesque lighthouses.

Every so often, a crew member and then James, who at 12 is the youngest passenger on our voyage, douses the lobsters with a pail of seawater. James gets comfortable enough to pick up a lobster in each hand and pose.

By afternoon, we have come to Russ Island, where we anchor for our lobster bake, a tradition of the Maine windjammer cruises.

We row over to the island in shifts, and begin exploring. There is a sign that alerts visitors not to disturb the wild sheep that inhabit the island – we don’t see any actual sheep, just the signs of their presence. We don’t get very far on trails – they are blocked by fallen trees – but have a wonderful time finding our way on boulders at the shoreline.

A scene reminiscent of the seascapes in the Farnsworth Art Museum unfolds at sunset off Swans Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Soon, the crew has prepared a fire and put the lobsters into an enormous pot to boil, and put fresh corn in foil to heat. They gather seaweed which becomes the “platter” upon which the corn and lobsters are placed.

We eat our fill of the lobsters, wieners and hamburgers, sitting on boulders.

The cook, Nola Logan, has brought from the ship wooden cabinets holding freshly baked strawberry and rhubarb pies.

It is an amazing and memorable, movable feast.

American Eagle's Captain, John Foss, prepares for the lobster bake © 2010 Karen Rubin/

We return to the ship as the setting sun casts a golden glow on the ship, hoist the anchor and motor around the island to anchor in Stonington’s harbor, the lights of the fishing village making interesting patterns on the water. It is a night for star-gazing, and Alec Schoettle, the first mate, tries to be as helpful as possible pointing out constellations and describing early navigation.

The evening’s entertainment consists of conversation, story telling, a little music. Several of us gather in the galley where crewmember Gerard Hoogeboom is reading a political satire of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.”

I wake at 6 a.m. Sunday morning, and go on deck to an exquisitely peaceful scene.

Breakfast is a hearty oatmeal with all the fixings, freshly baked muffins (delectable) and yogurt, plus the strawberry-rhubard pie from last night’s lobster bake.

It is overcast when we row in to Stonington, this quaint fishing village on Deer Isle. Most of the people are in church and most of the shops – which we can see are very charming – are closed.

Capt. John Foss at the wheel of the historic windjammer, American Eagle © 2010 Karen Rubin/

It doesn’t matter. In fact, the overcast weather and stillness adds to the atmosphere. We walk the winding, rolling road which at every turn, reveals a scene worthy of the paintings we have seen at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland and other museums. Picturesque does not even begin to describe it.

I come upon a workshop where Steve Robbins is painting lobster marketers and buoys. “What is it that you are doing?” I ask. Laughing, he replies, “Avoiding church with the wife.”

There is a historic Opera house, and we see the sculpture of a stonecutter – Stonington is named for granite quarrying. Back on board, Capt. Foss points out the dormers and mansard roofs on many of the Victorian houses which converted to boarding houses for the stone workers.

We learn of modern changes: “Summer” people are buying up the waterfront houses at high prices, making staying in Stonington prohibitive for the children of the fishing families.

James, wearing American Eagle fire hat, helps hose down the anchor chain © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Back on board, we have lunch: Nola has whipped up a delectable pizza with her now signature unusual toppings, and Caesar salad.

We haul up the anchor again – the captain has given young James an American Eagle fire helmet and he sits on the bow to hose down the anchor chain as it comes up. We take places at the lines to hoist the sails, and set off again.

This time we come into a thick fog. Rachel Bickford hauls out the fog horn and every few minutes, sets off that mournful tone. In olden days, I am sure Rachel would not have been aboard as a crew member when the American Eagle was hauling fish, but she certainly holds her own hoisting those sails.

We approach one of these tiny islands that is inhabited predominantly by seals. An eagle is going after a baby seal and we watch as seagulls chase him off.

A kerosene lamp on the historic windjammer, American Eagle, provides a scene out of an Andrew Wyeth painting © 2010 Karen Rubin/

We pull into a cove at Swans Island, which is a popular community served by a ferry. The fog makes it all look mysterious and interesting. A few of us row in for a few minutes to explore (I discover I have cell service on the island).

Because of the damp weather, we have our dinner in the galley but then the Captain announces dessert will be on the deck and we come out to sun that is making the most stunning crystal light and colors on the water.

Several of us pack into the rowboat to get photos; another takes out Roscoe, the small sailboat that Capt. Foss has built. It is magically beautiful.

That day’s sail takes us through the Eggemoggin Reach and under a bridge that connects Maine’s mainland to Little Deer Isle. Our destination is the cove where we meet up with the rest of the Maine Windjammer fleet for a ritual known as “The Gam”, and “raft up” – where they tie up together. It is the most amazing climax to our voyage (see Discovery, 7/9).

Push-Pull of Progress and Preservation

Sailing back on our last morning, Capt. Foss relates how this area was a busy shipping route – Stonington, North Haven, Vinalhaven. A hospital was built on one island where sick sailors could be quarantined; it operated from 1870-1926.

So, he says, the idea of “pristine” is not really accurate – most of these islands were stripped bare of trees for lumber and firewood; the trees we see are new growth in a climate of environmental conservation.

A scene out of a seascape in the Farnsworth Art Museum, in Stonington's harbor © 2010 Karen Rubin/

We pass newly built wind turbines on North Haven, and it seems appropriately in keeping with the wind that powers our boat. I hear not all the locals are happy – they don’t like the look, though it seems to be no more intrusive than a lighthouse or even the tall masts of ships. They also don’t like the noise, which I think is ironic, since many of the bell buoys are even more intrusive, as are the boat motors, the foghorns, and all the rest.

There is this push-pull of preservation and progress.

Capt. Foss has given new life to these wind-powered schooners, once the most technologically advanced of their age, but which were headed to extinction, along with the seamanship skills they require.

“These vessels have a bright future. There is no reason these vessels can’t continue beyond our service life,” he says wryly.

There are some concessions to modernity. Though the etiquette and courtesy still discourage use of cell phones, computers, radios and televisions on board, the itineraries themselves are more accommodating to contemporary life – there are three and four-day sails, when they all used to be six-days, leaving a one-day turnaround for the crew.

Stonington, a quaint fishing village, is a popular stop for the Maine Windjammers like the American Eagle © 2010 Karen Rubin/

“What we view as traditional 6-day trip allowed for 2 days banging your head, dealing with weather, learning people’s names and by the third day, you could really enjoy the experience. But if you are only out for a 1-2 day trip, you don’t come away with fair impression – of what the coast of Maine is, what a schooner trip is,” Capt. Foss says. “Today’s passengers need to experience maximum in minimum time. So we made a concession with the four-day trip – it is fairly close to what 6-day trip used to be.”

Several of the windjammers offer special interest and themed cruises like “Music and Story-Telling Cruises,” (Capt. Foss and the crew were great at this without a theme); Knitters’ Weekend; Whale, Bird and Naturalist Cruises; Whale-watching; Festivals; Wine Tasting cruises; Pirate Adventure Cruise and Art & Photography. I didn’t need an “Art & Photography” special interest cruise to find the most picturesque scenes I could imagine.

But Capt. Foss says, “I like to under-promote and over deliver…This is a platform of opportunity to observe nature, but we don’t go into scientific detail as to genuine bona fides. We may see [as we did] seal pups being attacked by eagles, and eagles being chased off, but the matinee doesn’t start at 2 p.m.”

Rowing in the tranquility of Swans Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Maybe not the matinee, but the American Eagle crew were so delightful, they made the trip especially entertaining. When they would be setting the sails, they might go into a Monty Python routine that cracked me up. They were so hardworking, but so warm, good natured, and with a fabulous sense of humor – it added so much to the trip. In the evening, they would read stories, play guitar and sing, and if we wanted to know about celestial navigation, they were happy to answer any questions.

Most of the sailings on American Eagle this season are four-nights (priced from $655 pp), but a few longer cruises are offered, such as a six-night Lighthouse Week/Parade (Sunday-Saturday, $975); 13-night Lunenburg Folk Harbour Cruise roundtrip to Nova Scotia ($2495); a six-night Gloucester Schooner Race Cruise which also features whale watching ($945), and six-night WoodenBoat Sail-In/Coast Week $895) (prices are for 2010).

The cruises are ideal for families (with children from 12 years old) and reunions, groups and even corporate “team building” exercises. On our voyage, the age range ran from 12 to 80s.

Departing Rockland, we get a magnificent view from the Maine Windjammer American Eagle of the Rockland Light © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Capt. Foss does a superb job of sending materials that let you know how to get to the ship and what to bring. One thing that you should bring is ear plugs – these are close quarters, after all – though the ship was generous with its own supply.

For more information, contact the Schooner American Eagle, PO Box 482, Rockland 04841, 207-594-8007 or 800-648-4544,

The Maine Windjammer Association, which represents a dozen of the sailing ships, also offers air-and-sea packages with flights from Boston on Cape Air; sail-and-parks packages which provide access to state and national parks and golf-and-sail packages (Maine Windjammer Association, PO Box 1144, Blue Hill, Maine, 04614, 207-374-2993, 800-807-WIND,

Leave time for visiting Rockland – especially the Farnsworth Art Museum, with its spectacular collection of generations of Wyeths ( and the Maine Lighthouse Museum (, and strolling Main Street where there are marvelous galleries, shops and eateries. You are apt to see what makes Rockland so quirky and interesting, as well, such as coming upon a regional Dock Dogs competition. (Visit

See also:
Maine Windjammer American Eagle Sails to a Schooner Gam


Friday, 16 July, 2010


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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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