“oldie But Goodie”

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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.

“Live there?”

“Built there.”

“When?”

“Eighteen seventy-one.”

“Old.”

“Yep.”

“Oldie but goodie.”

“No shit.”

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.