By Allison St. Claire
"Down the hatch" was a phrase my mother always used before making me swallow some vile childhood medicine. "Down that hatch" didn't seem nearly so hard to take when Captain Annie Mahle directed me to my cabin aboard the schooner E & J Riggin. Then again, as I looked at what appeared to be a ridiculously small opening and a dauntingly steep ladder for my plump body to navigate, I began to think that maybe hatches and I were never going to be a pleasant combination.
Fortunately, not so. In fact, after seeing Annie and her husband, Captain Jon Finger, scramble nimbly up and down the boat's hatches with a load of something in their arms plus their six- month-old daughter Chloe on their back in a baby carrier, I realized once again how easily my eyes often misjudge size.
"Always go down backwards," the crew advised. OK, I can do that, I thought. And it was easy. The rungs are not far apart and you always have a good solid grip on the sides of the ladder or the hatch walls to hang on to as you approach the deck.
Then there was the cabin. Small, Spartan, compactly arranged with two bunks, small, a tiny sink with fresh cold water, hooks for clothes, and enough room for one person to stand at a time in the remaining floor space. Did I mention small? But wait a minute, I thought, even big luxury cruise ships offer what seem to be ridiculously scanty quarters. Cruising, especially windjamming, is about being outdoors in the wind and the sun and the tingle of ocean spray. And this schooner is one of several magnificent historic ships where the compact but very comfy bunks are for collapsing on at the end of a glorious day on the water, not for hanging out for lack of anything else to do.
And glorious the days are, especially off the uniquely beautiful, rugged coast of Maine. A windjammer cruise means you get to participate fully in sailing the ship, from hoisting sails to taking a turn at the wheel, to helping out in the galley.
But most of all, it means relaxing. Here is a time to unplug yourself from phones and faxes and pagers and computers and all the other annoyances of modern living and slip into the quiet routine of sailing. Time to enjoy conversation with a couple of dozen other like-minded passengers. Thought-provoking board games, a chance to read the book you can never find time for at home, an opportunity to meditate on the awesome beauty of the setting sun. You are encouraged to bring your musical instruments.
I can still hear it in the pleasure zone of my mind - the haunting sound of an achingly beautiful bagpipe melody as it floated across the early-morning fog-clad stillness of an island harbor. My cup of hot tea took on a whole new depth of mystical flavor. The spice of my breakfast muffin was even tastier as our captain answered the musical call from the nearby ship with a cheerful riff on his concertina.
And speaking of that muffin: Food aboard these ships is exquisite, especially under the professional culinary expertise of Annie on the E & J Riggin, as she performs miracles with organic produce fresh from her home on shore. (Reports from travelers on sister vessels were equally as mouthwatering.) Family style meals on all the boats feature fresh seafood, garden salads, chowder, homemade breads and desserts, and whatever your special diet request may be. Is it the fresh sea air, the exercise from hoisting the mainsail or exploring coastal islands, or the cozy smells of food cooking on an old-fashioned wood stove that makes everything so outrageously good? And then there's the traditional New England lobster bake, featured on most trips, on a quiet beach amidst the craggy shores of one of those islands.
The sailing season is just beginning. Perhaps it's time for you to pack that duffel bag and enjoy a trip to treasure aboard one of the dozen traditional tall ships that are part of the Maine Windjammer Association. Many of the ships are National Historic Landmarks. Each windjammer carries between 20 and 40 adult passengers and 4 to 10 crewmembers. (Children are not permitted under the age of 16 and even then, you'd want to consider their idea of a good time - which does not include any kind of electronic stimulation - before inviting them along.)
The fleet includes America's two oldest commercial coasting schooners (built in 1871), an oyster-fishing schooner, a pilot boat, a three-masted ram schooner and a racing yacht. All the boats undergo rigorous U.S. Coast Guard inspections and carry electronic navigational devices.
Sailing excursions can be booked for late May to mid-October for a weekend, four-day or weeklong cruises. The cost of a windjammer vacation is extremely reasonable - from $350 to $745 per person, including all those fabulous meals. Several festive weekends dot the summer calendar including sail parades, tours of all the vessels, races, waterfront activities, good food and music.
Speaking of waterfront, the fleet sails from the picturesque ports of Rockland, Rockport and Camden along the Maine mid-coast. Each offers delightful shopping, excellent dining and quaint New England vistas and neighborhoods. Bar Harbor, just up the coast, is a delightful place to begin or end your trip to the area. An overnight stay in Rockland either pre- or post-cruise offers a chance to visit a growing art community, including the magnificent Farnsworth Art Museum containing the famous Wyeth family paintings. The LimeRock Inn in Rockland has to rate right up there with one of the friendliest Bed and Breakfast's I've ever visited. With a bad knee keeping me from walking a few blocks to the many restaurants and attractions downtown, the owner tossed me the keys to his car!
What to Bring
Space is definitely at a premium so forego the idea of a different outfit for every day, or needing to dress for dinner. You should be able to fit everything into one duffel bag.
- Casual summer wear, plus warm sweaters, jackets and hats for cool nights.
- Non-skid boat shoes are a must, as is full rain gear, including waterproof pants, jacket and hat. (There was a box of left-behind lobsterman-type rain gear on board, but none big enough for me. A nearby Wal-Mart had a good selection for about $25.)
- Camera, binoculars, sunscreen and other sundries. The heads (bathrooms to you landlubbers) are communal, small, and clean, but offer no extra amenities. Be prepared to rough it if you're used to long showers, lots of hot water for shampoos or automatic flush toilets.
- Musical instruments, games, reading material, art supplies, a journal.
How to Get There
- Free parking is available if you drive. It's about two hours from Portland or Bangor and four hours from Boston.
- Fly directly into the Rockland area on Colgan airlines (a Continental feeder line) with special discounts for windjammer passengers.
- Limousine and bus service is available from both Portland and Boston.