“Two, six, heave! Two, six, heave!” yells the first mate, and a dozen of us passengers — ages 9 to 70 — pull with all our might to hoist the giant mainsail of the Isaac H. Evans, my home for the next four days.
After we’ve lifted the remaining three sails, Captain Brenda Thomas guides us from the harbor and into Maine’s Penobscot Bay, where we sail for hours alongside two other schooners, the Grace Bailey and the American Eagle. On the horizon are the elegant sails of other tall ships representing the entire Maine Windjammer Association (MWA) fleet, which is headed to Gilkey Harbor for the annual Schooner Gam.
In the cove, crews lash the 13 ships together and passengers hop from deck to deck, admiring each boat’s sleek lines and polished brass bells. We mingle with fellow vacationers who, like my husband and me, left behind a few creature comforts to sail on historic, wind-powered boats.
“Our ships have changed little since the 19th century, except now they carry passengers instead of hauling timber, stone or fish,” says MWA marketing director Meg Maiden. The fleet’s ships range from 64 to 132 feet on deck and carry six to 40 passengers. The oldest was built in 1871; the newest in 1983. Despite their diversity, each owner-operated schooner provides an unplugged experience — one that many vacationers repeat yearly.
On the opposite coast, schooners departing from the harbors and bays of the Pacific Northwest offer similar adventure options for outdoor lovers of all types: singles, couples and families. (Check age limits before you book; some boats require a minimum age of 16.) Passengers can enjoy everything from swimming to fishing to rowing to islands and hiking their rocky shores. But nobody will mind if you simply want to lounge on deck and watch the world drift by.
At the end of our first day, we had slipped out of the 21st century and into the ageless rhythm of sun and moon, wind and tide.
Sailing Adventure for the Senses
A trip at sea can be an excellent place to hone creative powers. For eight summers, Frances Caporello, 65, of Amherst, Mass., has snapped photos on her annual sailing vacation aboard the Angelique, a 95-foot windjammer.
One of the retired math teacher’s favorite photographic subjects is the ship’s anchor chain as it is laid out on the deck, but year after year her shots of its links disappointed her. That changed in 2010, when she joined the Angelique’s weeklong digital photography cruise on Maine’s Penobscot Bay.
With help from professional photographer Neal Parent, Caporello’s images progressed from so-so to eye-catching. Each morning, Parent gave lessons on lighting, exposure or composition. The ship’s shutterbugs practiced throughout the day as they sailed or took walks after rowing themselves ashore. They reconvened after dinner to discuss their images’ strengths and weaknesses.
On the night Caporello’s latest anchor-chain close-up was to be discussed, she explained her frustration at not adequately capturing the links’ intricate patterns. On his laptop, Parent’s assistant quickly converted her color photo to black and white. “I practically jumped out of my seat,” she recalls. “The chain’s patterns just popped out.”
While the course taught Caporello to see like a photographer, her primary focus has always been on the sensory experience of being at sea. “I savor the sounds: the sails flapping, the groaning of the masts,” she says. “No noise from motors, radios or video games.”
On a schooner, she adds, “it’s just you and the water and the ocean air. In a brisk wind, the boat starts to heel and everything rolls around. That’s when it really gets exciting.”
She laid aside the camera long enough to learn to set the Angelique’s main topsail. “When you are raising the topsail, you have to really haul on the line to make the topsail move up the mast. I lift weights, but it’s still hard work.”
Caporello loves the images she takes home after sailing — whether they’re digital pictures or memories. “Whenever I get crazy busy at home, I breathe deeply and visualize myself on the Angelique’s deck — and my blood pressure goes down.”
A Sea-Dream Come True
With the 160-foot schooner Zodiac anchored behind him among breathtaking Canadian fjords, 67-year-old Bob Hammer paddled his kayak toward a waterfall. Pausing close to the cedar-fringed shore, he floated quietly where fresh water showered into salt water, and he meditated on being part of nature.
This was often Hammer’s end-of-day routine during a 12-day odyssey from Bellingham, Wash., to British Columbia’s Desolation Sound. The trip was a father-son excursion, a gift for his son’s birthday.
“It was a dream come true for both of us,” says Hammer, a retired forest hydrologist from Seattle. Both men had owned sailboats and been on traditional cruises, but sailing on the 88-year-old Zodiac was like nothing they’d ever experienced. “Cruise ships are just floating cities, but the Zodiac gave us real, hands-on sailing and navigation experience,” he says.
Throughout each busy day, passengers rotated between free time and daily work shifts, alternating posts in the chart room, at the wheel, at the radio and at the bow, where they watched for approaching objects in the water — including playful porpoises riding the ship’s bow wave. In between, Hammer helped polish brass, swab the decks and set shrimp traps.
“You don’t realize how much muscle it takes to raise the sail until your feet leave the deck as you hold on to the lines,” he says. The Zodiac’s 1,800-pound canvas mainsail takes 20 people to hoist. Most of the journey was wind-powered, but an engine was at the ready in case of dead calm. “We went full bore in 20-knot winds,” says Hammer. “The boat handled 4- and 5-foot waves beautifully. I don’t think anyone got seasick.”
Hammer reveled in the San Juan and Georgia Strait sea life. He fell in love with the orange-beaked oyster-catcher birds and watched salmon leap from the water. But his favorite discovery was bioluminescence, a word that means “living light” and describes the luminous chemical reaction that occurs in fireflies and a number of marine invertebrates. “At night I sneaked up on deck and dangled a rope in the water to watch it light up.”
All Hands on the Schooner Deck
During my own four-day excursion in Maine, all 20 passengers got a chance to captain the 126-year-old Isaac H. Evans, a National Historic Landmark. We learned to follow our course on the nautical chart, furl the sails and coil ropes. We cruised past forested islands and seals sunning on rocks.
Though optional, playing sailor is half the fun. Even mundane chores — vegetable chopping, dishwashing — are more enjoyable at sea.
In fact, schooner sailing feels like being a kid again: carefree and outdoorsy. One day, we rowed to a beach and hunted for shells. When the younger crowd — three children and a teen — plunged into the chilly water, some adults followed, whooping from joy and cold. “Being on a boat pushes you outside your comfort zone and makes you realize how self-sufficient you can be,” says Thomas.
I didn’t miss conveniences like a hair dryer or an in-room loo. (The two toilets were topside.) I was challenged by the boat’s small spaces. In our cabin, my husband and I slept in bunks and dressed one at a time. And our quarters were just inches away from our neighbors. Snoring was an issue.
Still, 21st-century schooner life is cushy compared with that of grizzled sailors who once harvested oysters from the Evans. Cruises feature a range of activities: live music, puffin-watching excursions, photography classes. The food’s not bad, either. One day’s menu included lobster quiche, lasagna, crab-stuffed haddock and blueberry pie.
When pelting rain kept us huddled in the galley beside the cast-iron stove, I found what really makes a schooner trip special: camaraderie. We bonded over cocoa, played games and sang. First mate Phil Bidwell gave us a lesson on schooner anatomy; Captain Thomas regaled us with tales of female pirates.
On our last day, the sun returned. We dropped anchor near a pretty island and ate lobster on the beach. As I pulled meat out of a claw, I wondered: Would the sky have been so blue or the sea so sparkly without a gray day for contrast? Foul weather or fair, I think a schooner trip may be as good as it gets.