Maine Windjammer Association Takes Guest On Historical Cruise Trips
Maine Windjammers Association, History
MRV: The Buzz
Serenity At Sea: Maine Windjammers Association
Consisting Of Nine Restored Boats That Guests Can Board, With Many Achieving National Historic Landmark Status
Some people are born for the sea. June Knowles discovered she was one of these people when she went for her first cruise aboard a Maine windjammer back in 1962. It was the first of many trips - some 70 voyages in total. And, fortunately for the world, June is a poet, capturing her observations on the stars, the sea, the weather and life under sail in a book of verses. “Just being aboard and being out there is the most marvelous sense of light, freedom and joy that I find so totally restorative,” Knowles writes.
Knowles is one of the most frequent sailors aboard the Victory Chimes, largest boat in the Maine Windjammers Association fleet, but far from the only repeat visitor. “People come from around the world to sail with us,” Capt. Kip Files tells The Buzz. “From China, Japan, Europe, they all come to catch this unique experience of exploring the coast of Maine in a ship without motors, powered only by the wind.” More than 50 percent of guests are returning for their second - or third - windjammer sail.
It’s an experience that was nearly lost, Capt. Kip explains. “During the Age of Sail thousands of these boats were built, but they were only designed to last 10 years.” They were the cargo trucks of the day, hauling freight and fish from Maine to the big cities. But with the development of trains and steam power, and later the automobile, most of the wooden boat fleet was tied up to docks and left to rot.
Things began to change in the late 1930s, according to Meg Maiden, a frequent sailor aboard the windjammers as well as marketing director for the association. “A local captain decided to fix up one of the old ships to take tourists out,” she says. Three ladies from Boston were the first vacationers to set sail.
Today, the Maine Windjammer Association includes nine boats, all lovingly restored and maintained, with several achieving National Historic Landmark status. “They all have running water, plumbing, hot showers, and all the Coast Guard required safety equipment,” Maiden says. And the food is amazing, she adds, with trained chefs working magic in the tiny galleys. “It’s definitely not a cruise ship experience, but more luxurious than camping.”
Meals are served family style on most ships, with an emphasis on local produce, chowders and seafood. “We’re having a real foodie boom here in Maine,” Maiden says. “Lots of young people are starting artisan farms so our chefs can easily accommodate vegetarian and other dietary requests.” Some chefs even make their own pasta and bake bread onboard, she adds.
Each ship is privately owned and handles its own bookings. The association, established as a marketing cooperative back in 1977, provides an overview website where potential visitors can order booklets or find links to each ship’s individual website. All the ships in the fleet also gather at several events every season, including a rendezvous in June, several parades of sail and windjammer races, and the WoodenBoat SaiI-In in September, all open to guests.
The windjammer sailing season stretches from late May to mid-October. While a number of themed departures are offered by the various schooners, including photography, music, lighthouse, and even knitting cruises, the ships don’t follow a set itinerary. Instead the course of each cruise is set based on the weather, just as captains did in the past.
“The captains just let the itinerary unfold,” Meg Maiden says. “With over 3,500 miles of coastline and 3,000 islands within 30 miles, there is plenty to explore.” The windjammers, she adds, remain within sight of land, inside the protected lee of the islands. Sea sickness and rough conditions are rarely an issue.
“Being on a boat, away from the highway traffic, is a cool way to see the coast,” Meg says. She describes a typical day at sea beginning with coffee at dawn for early risers, followed by breakfast cooked on a wood stove. Sails are raised about 10 a.m. with lunch on board. Passengers can join in to help the crew navigate, polish brass or take the wheel, or just kick back and enjoy the ride. The course is set to highlight the many iconic sights along the coast, including lighthouses, sea-bird inhabited cliffs, rocky coves, playful dolphins and seals, and piles of lobster traps. After sailing for about six hours, the captain chooses a spot to anchor for the evening, sometimes at a little town or fishing village where guests can go ashore, other times at a deserted island where beachcombing is allowed. “Many of our islands in Maine are less crowded now than they were a century ago,” Maiden says. “Some are deserted with just remnants of towns remaining.”
A lobster bake is the highlight of every windjammer cruise. Menus and locations vary, with some captains hosting the traditional meal on board, while others choose an isolated beach. Kettles layered with seaweed, clams, corn on the cob, and of course Maine’s most famous crustaceans provide dinner for all, with vegetarian options available, followed by pie and coffee on deck. “Our ships go through two tons of lobster every season,” Meg tells us.
For many, the best time on board comes at night, when a clear sky and low ambient light combine to provide one of the best star shows on the East Coast. The lapping of the water against the hull provides the only sound, until guests and crew join in song for one of the informal music sessions that often spring up spontaneously.
One of Capt. Kip’s favorite memories was made on a night like this. Paul Stookey, from Peter, Paul & Mary, was aboard and led the other guests in a sing-along of some the group’s most beloved songs. “Here’s one of the icons from folk history, singing ‘Puff’ on your deck,” the captain recalls. “Magical stuff.”
A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked
as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel
guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.