Cruising the Maine coast on a schooner built when Grant was President
I am lying on my back looking up not just at a wide blue sky but also at sails taut with wind, oaken masts, rigging that creaks and vibrates. Beneath me an ocean swells and yields, and the air sings with the sound of water rushing past the hull. I feel the power of being propelled through the sea on nothing but wind and canvas and wood. It’s not a sensation I’m familiar with.
I’ve been on a sailboat perhaps three hours in my life before and certainly never on a craft like this—a Maine coasting schooner, sixty-five feet long, built in 1871. Not only am I discovering the timeless pleasure of sailing, but I’m tasting it exactly as it felt a century ago, on a boat that has plied these waters since Grant was President.
We left the harbor of Camden, Maine, this morning for the first full day of a six-day cruise on the Lewis R. French , one of more than a dozen windjammers that offer three-, four-, and six-day excursions out of Camden and Rockland, and one of two that are National Historic Landmarks.
At the helm Dan Pease, the owner and captain, is considering where the winds may lead us today—to what pristine remote harbor of what island. His first mate and the cook and the cook’s mate are the whole crew, and I am one of nineteen guests all out on deck chatting with the captain, reading, applying sunscreen, or just staring out at the Maine shore off to starboard or the wide sea off to port.
We ended up that first day dropping anchor in a cove near South Bristol, Maine, where the most prominent landmark was a big steel-hulled commercial fishing boat that had sat there so long a pair of ospreys had nested at the top of its tall net-hoisting crane. We watched the eaglelike birds fly back and forth from the nest and cry out and dive for supper as we ate our own dinner on the open deck in the cool June twilight.
The next morning the rhythms of shipboard life began to grow familiar. Samantha, the cook, and her mate were up at four-thirty, noiselessly making bread and muffins and biscuits for the day’s meals in the galley’s wood-fired cookstove, which also heats water for the shower and might be almost as old as the French itself. By about six I could hear, close above my head, the gentle sound of the first mate pouring buckets of seawater on the deck and swabbing it down. Breakfast was at eight, but at seven several of us early risers joined the captain in the motorized yawl boat that the French carries on its stern davits for a short trip to visit the nearby grave of the man the schooner was named for.
As we stepped down into the yawl, a lobsterman passing nearby admired the French and told Dan so in a typically laconic Maine conversation. “Where’s she from?” he asked.
“Christmas Cove,” said Dan.
“Oldie but goodie.”
Ten minutes later we were walking up a hill past the weathered buildings of a very quiet fishing village and into its graveyard. We saw the monument for Mr. French, who died in 1886, and his wife, Salome, who survived just three months without him; the sides of the obelisk bear the names of their sons. Three of them built our schooner and named it for their father. All around us stones carried the inscription LOST AT SEA .
The boys had built the French to be a workhorse, wide enough across the beam to hold plenty of cargo and shallow enough to run up onto a beach when no dock was available. Over its first century it carried lumber, firewood, bricks, granite, fish, lime, and even Christmas trees. In 1929 its owner was having dinner with his father in the galley when the older man lit his pipe, tossed aside the match, and the schooner burst into flames. Miraculously neither man was seriously hurt, and the French was saved by its heavy cargo of bricks, which carried it to the bottom before it could burn completely. After that a motor was installed, and the French operated as a powerboat for forty years. In 1975 the motor was removed and the craft was renewed from keel to topmasts, using native red oak and white pine to match that of a century before. It entered passenger service in 1976.
The captain told me that only about a tenth of the boat actually survives from 1871, but, he added, “If you look up, you’re seeing it exactly as it was.” Of course, the once open hold belowdecks is now divided into compact but comfortable cabins for one or two people, with firm mattresses, a sink, and even fresh flowers in each.
Usually Dan heads down east from Camden, across Penobscot Bay and toward Mount Desert Island; this was the week in late June when windjammers annually gather to parade into Boothbay Harbor, so we headed that way instead, up southwest, as it were. Having come aboard Sunday evening and left Camden Monday morning, we swept into Boothbay Wednesday. Dan, a lifelong Maine resident in his mid-thirties, slim, with a big red captain’s beard, showed what seemed centuries of sailing experience as he almost effortlessly threaded the schooner in among dozens of motorized pleasure craft and other sailboats all the way to the downtown heart of the harbor. That night, after the motorboats had all gone and the town itself had quieted down, I went up on deck to find beneath the stars a sea of masts around me: the sleek white schooner Heritage on one side of us; the Stephen Taber , built on Long Island the same year as the French , on the other; the three-masted Victory Chimes , from 1900, at the mouth of the harbor; and other schooners dotted around behind them. I felt I had traveled a long way in three days.
Thursday we were on the open water again, heading straight out to sail all the way around Monhegan Island, a dozen miles from the coast. For a brief part of the way a whale swam fifty yards off alongside us; at other moments a seal would pop its whiskered face out of the deep to give us a placid once-over. Sometimes guillemots and petrels flickered across the surface of the ocean and gulls and cormorants rode its swells, but often we seemed absolutely alone in an expanse of living water and sky almost as far as the eye could see. That night we moored back by the shore, in the broad mouth of the St. George River, just a short way, Dan informed us, from where Andrew Wyeth painted Christina’s World .
By Friday the start of the day’s sailing had grown pleasantly familiar. After breakfast any guests who so desired helped haul the anchor, pumping on a hand-driven iron winch in the bow, and raise the sails, tugging on lines and sheeting them in. That day we finally headed down east, crossing West Penobscot Bay to Vinalhaven Island. We threaded between the White Islands, so named because their rocky coast is visible far out to sea, and Hurricane Island, where Outward Bound does wilderness training, and up into Vinalhaven Island’s Hurricane Sound. We pulled into a neck of that, the remote-seeming Long Sound, surrounded by tall evergreens and distant vistas of open water, with no house anywhere in view, and there we anchored.
The other passengers included a retired chief petty officer in the Navy, a former Army sergeant and his wife, a young couple from outside Boston who had lived for a year on a boat and missed it, and a woman from Georgia in love with Northern waters. Most had sailed on the French before—one person six times, another seven. It was the first evening we hadn’t dined on deck, and sitting down at long, close tables to two roast turkeys and carrots and potatoes seemed almost formal and almost nostalgic as we neared the end of our week together.
After dessert a couple of us guests joined the first mate in taking a rowboat around the silent waters. The light was so golden everything looked as if it had been photographed by Eliot Porter. We admired thick beds of glistening mussels in transparent tidal pools; when we rowed down a narrows to the very head of the cove, we noticed a young bald eagle watching us from the top of a tall fir. Two lone markers in a clearing turned out to be, oddly, for-sale signs with a real estate agent’s name and number, facing out to sea.
When we returned on board, night was descending, and other guests were talking about getting Dan to read aloud. I had learned during the week that the captain was not only a superior ship handler and navigator but an expert on the coast’s history, a civil engineer trained by the Coast Guard Academy with a business degree to boot, and, above all, a man doing what he loved, whose invariably relaxed, good-humored friendliness overturned everything I had always understood about how captains of sailboats behave. I was not entirely surprised to learn how he met his wife, who is from Wisconsin: She had read about Maine windjammer cruises in a travel magazine and come east to try one. On a second cruise she found herself on Dan’s boat. She wrote home after three days: “I’ve found him.”
As Jupiter shone out in the darkening sky and a sliver of moon sank beneath the horizon, everyone on the boat gathered to listen. Dan, standing by the wheel and holding a flashlight, began by reading two anecdotes he had taken down from Ed Gray, a frequent guest aboard the French who first sailed on it in 1924, when he was eight and his father was captain. Gray had told Dan what life on the French was like seventy years ago, when two powerful men handled the entire ship. It was hard work. One time, as Gray had told it, a new hired man tacked so clumsily that a whole load of logs spilled off the deck into the sea. Ed Gray’s father had had to watch as other boats swarmed in and made off with the lost payload.
After that Dan read the passage from The Wind in the Willows where the Water Rat says, “There is nothing—absolutely nothing —half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” He read “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and a couple of sea poems by John Masefield and two old Maine seafaring verses. He read them all in that gentle Maine inflection that sounds of a piece with the rocky shore and the surf, that sounds almost older than time.
The next morning we started early for our final run home to Camden, and we had our first morning of fog. As we left the cove, I mentioned to no one in particular that I had hoped all along to see some beautiful fog. Dan heard me and said with amusement, “Beautiful fog? Those words mean opposite things.” But as we crossed Penobscot Bay in a cocoon of mist, the French , in a world all its own, yielded up one last ancient treasure—an antique hand-pumped, bellows-operated foghorn in a plain wooden box. I took a turn at blowing it—and the fog looked absolutely perfect to me.