“oldie But Goodie”


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.