Gathering of the Fleet: nearly a dozen of the Maine Windjammers raft up making an incredible spectacle © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.
It is one of those truly memorable experiences that travel affords: a Gathering of the Fleet of Maine’s Windjammers, a collection of about a dozen tall ships, most of which are National Historic Landmarks, which sail in the Penobscot Bay (and some, further on).
This is the “Schooner Gam,” which kicked off this summer’s season, and encompassed just about the entire fleet, highlighted by a Raft-Up – where all the boats tie up together.
As we sail from Swans Island where we spent the night anchored in a cove, we see them far on the horizon, like leviathans gliding on the water. The ships come from various directions, closer and closer, and gradually, we start to form a parade of sorts as we tacked into a cove for the gathering.
They are majestic, magnificent, graceful and powerful and proud.
The ships (or rather the captains and crew) do this marvelously choreographed, painstaking maneuver to slowly come along side each other, “raft up” – tie up with one another.
Our ship, the American Eagle, captained by its owner, John Foss, who is one of the most senior of the Windjammer captains with 35 years (25 years with this ship which he restored, and 10 years with his first ship, the Lewis R. French, built in 1871), eases along side the Victory Chimes.
As the majestic ships, most of them more than a century old, fill the cove, you forget what century you are in.
Then the party starts, and all of us passengers can climb from one ship to the other, visiting and greeting, tasting the appetizers that have been set out.
For the captains and the crews, it is a chance to meet up with old friends and colleagues.
For the passengers, many of whom had just set out on their journey that morning, it is the rarest opportunity to meet others who hail from all parts of the country, and even from abroad, so different, yet sharing this desire to experience a form of travel and a kind of life that has all but disappeared.
On our port side, music breaks out on the Mercantile, a National Historic Landmark, built in 1916 to carry fish, barrel staves and firewood, reconfigured to its new career to carry 29 guests. This sailing has two family reunions on board.
On our starboard side is the Victory Chimes. Built in 1900, it is the largest passenger schooner in America and one of the only three-masted schooners left. On board is the great-grandson of George K Phillips, whose shipyard built the Victory Chimes (he was also on the 2000 sailing to mark the 100th anniversary of the ship) and 30 others like it (the Victory Chimes is one of only a few surviving). The chef breaks out the lobster pot to begin preparing their evening’s dinner – the fresh-caught lobster bake that is a tradition of every windjammer cruise.
We traipse across to the Angelique, rare in that it was purpose-built for windjamming in 1980 and patterned after the 19th century sailing ships that fished off the coast of England. It has a deckhouse salon with a piano, and is being used for this trip by Exploritas (formerly Elderhostel), and there is a board listing activities that include various lectures and discussions.
Each of the dozen ships in the fleet is unique in its structure and its “story”, and has its own personality largely formed by the Captain and crew. Each sailing aboard a Maine Windjammer is uniquely formed by the weather and wind and the particular combination of passengers – as the many passengers we meet who were repeat cruisers attest. A windjammer cruise is the essence of serendipity.
Alec, our first mate, has put on a fancy jacket that looks like an English hunting jacket but makes him look like a World War I soldier, a shirt and tie decorated with schooners, khaki pants and no shoes, prompting “oohs” and “ahs” from his colleagues on the other boats.
It drizzles while we have dinner, so we go below in the American Eagle galley, but after dinner, the sun breaks through casting this fabulous golden light. We have our freshly churned ice cream on deck and the mingling with the other passengers and crews of the other boats begins anew.
Captain Foss gives the order to pull around the rowboat so we can get to the water line to row around all the boats to witness the full spectacle and take pictures.
It is a spectacular sight – you sense what treasures these ships are, and are so grateful for the captains and crew who give these ships – which in a former life hauled timber, granite, fish – a new working life and an economic basis.
As the sun sets, several of the captains, including Captain Foss, fire off a cannon and bring down their flags.
Three of the ships fall away from the group – taking some of the passengers that belong on another ship, prompting enormous laughter (no matter, a rowboat returns them to the right ship), and we gently separate and motor a short distance away.
Gradually, all the boats separate and find their own little patch of the cove to weigh anchor, as the sky deepens in color – yellow to pink to red at the horizon, azure to royal blue higher in the sky. A crescent moon with Venus shining brightly above. Several of us stay on deck to sit around and chat in the light of kerosene lanterns, then go below where Alec is playing a guitar and singing humorous songs.
That’s the other hallmark of windjamming: the camaraderie that forms when you have only conversation, story-telling and song as distractions.
There are other opportunities throughout the season for gatherings of the fleet – for races or rendezvous.
Windjammer Days, June 23, there is a grand sail parade through picturesque Boothbay Harbor.
The 34th anniversary of the Great Schooner Race, North America’s largest annual gathering of tall ships, takes place the week of July 5, when more than two dozen tall ships gather for an all-day race in which guests may participate. This is another Raft-Up opportunity.
The Maine Windjammer Parade is scheduled for Friday, July 16, when the entire fleet joins an afternoon Parade of Sail past the mile-long Rockland Breakwater.
Many windjammers gather during the week of August 2 for the Sweet Chariot Music Festival on Swans Island.
The fleet gathers in pictures Camden Harbor on Sept. 3-4, for the Camden Windjammer Festival, reminiscent of the days when hundreds of coastal schooners lined the waterfront. This is another Raft-Up opportunity.
The WoodenBoat Sail-In takes place Tuesday, Sept 14, in Brooklin, Maine. This fall gathering of the fleet is in its 24th year, and there are refreshments, live music, tours and a harbor full of historic schooners.
The Maine Windjammer Association includes 12 traditional tall ships, ranging in size from 46 to 132 feet on deck. Seven of them are National Historic Landmarks. They carry between 6 and 40 guests and 2-10 crew members They offer a variety of special interest cruises including wine tasting, pirate adventure, art and photography, festival, lighthouses, whale-bird and naturalist, knitters’ weekend, music and story-telling, plus family and kids getaways; there are also “Fairwinds and Fairways” golf and cruise packages; land and sea packages with Historic Inns of Rockland, and an Air & Sea Package with Cape Air from flying from Boston to Rockland. (800-807-WIND, http://www.sailmainecoast.com).
Our schooner, the American Eagle, sails 4 and 6 night cruises, plus a 13-night voyage to Nova Scotia, attending the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. Capt. Foss is also the only Maine schooner racing for the historic Esperanto Cup in Gloucester, Massachusetts, every Labor Day weekend (he won 8 out of 21 tries, including 2009) (Schooner American Eagle, 207-594-8007, 800-648-4544, http://www.schooneramericaneagle.com, email@example.com.)
For more about our voyage aboard the American Eagle and the Maine Windjammers and more photos, visit http://www.travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate.