On a brilliant June morning, the Stephen Taber casts off from Windjammer Wharf in Rockland, Maine, a yawl boat nudging the engineless 68-foot schooner toward the open waters of Penobscot Bay. Passengers mill about on deck sipping coffee, chatting and watching the action. Some, like me, have cruised previously aboard a Maine windjammer; others are first-timers. We're set for a three-day cruise from Rockland. Wind and tide will determine our route.
"Look at this day!” one of my 22 fellow passengers exclaims, gesturing to the clear skies and calm waters.
"I think we won the lottery,” I reply.
She shoots back: “I'd rather win this lottery than a money one.” I nod in agreement. My husband, Tom, and I had driven 45 minutes from our home to join this cruise, the annual Schooner Gam, when vessels in the Maine Windjammer Association fleet come together for a night of music.
Experienced sailors consider these waters, framed by scalloped shorelines and granite-girdled fingers and salted with spruce-fringed islands and craggy islets, among the world's great cruising grounds. Add winking lighthouses, clanging bell buoys, shrieking seabirds and the hum of lobster boats to-ing and fro-ing, and the result for passengers is an immersion into the real Maine.
The state's windjammers (sailing ships with multiple masts) vary from National Historic Register-listed vessels like the Taber to purpose-built or masterfully restored schooners with contemporary amenities. You can find day-tripping windjammers all along Maine's Coast, but most offering multiday sails are based in Penobscot Bay, which notches Maine's mid coast, about 3.5 hours northeast of Boston.
To help you plan your next big trip, get AARP’s twice-monthly Travel newsletter.
These longer three- to 10-day windjammer cruises embark late May to mid October, and you can find all kinds, including themed cruises focused on knitting, wine tasting or seafood. Rates, including meals, cabin and onboard adventures, begin around $600 per person, per cruise. Some windjammers offer solo cabins at the same rate; others charge a fee; and some will help pair same-sex solo travelers in a twin cabin. We didn't plan well in advance, so our trip cost $698 each. We could have saved 5% with an early-bird discount. Additional costs include a $20 parking fee, for those arriving by car, and a recommended 10 percent crew gratuity.
Note that sailing aboard a Maine windjammer differs markedly from modern cruise ships. They're independently owned, carry only 16 to 40 passengers, and sailing is the entertainment. There are no theaters, casinos, spas or elevators aboard. Stairways are ship-ladder style, which can be difficult for those less nimble. Cabins range from campy to glampy rustic, and only a few schooners offer en suite options other than running water.
Our coasting schooner was launched in 1871 — the oldest documented sailing vessel in continuous service in the United States — and its cabins are cozy and comfortable. Ours was one of six with two twin beds, four have doubles, and two are singles. All have nice mattresses and linens, as well as a comforter, and an L L. Bean wool throw. I especially liked the bedside reading lamps.
"If you're in it for the cabin, you're not in it for the right reasons. The cabin is for a nap, to lie down for a bit and to sleep at night,” quips Noah Barnes, second-generation captain of the Taber. “The people who find us are attracted to sailing, adventure, fresh air, good food, perhaps a glass of wine with dinner and music, definitely music.”
My fellow Taber passengers, most of whom are retirees over 50, come from as far west as Colorado, as far south as Georgia. A few are return guests, motivated equally by a love of sailing and the promise of hearty, delicious food, especially the all-you-can-eat lobster/chicken/steak barbecue highlighting every cruise.
One of the pluses of sailing aboard the Taber or its sister Ladona, is that wine with dinner is included on all cruises. On other windjammers, it's BYOB (bring your own bottle).
Equally magical is how fast time flies when you're doing “nothing.” That nothing includes: volunteering to help raise and lower sails; taking a supervised turn at the wheel; keeping an eye out for seabirds, seals, sea mammals and winking lighthouses; watching lobstermen haul traps; or simply relaxing with a good book or over a card game with fellow passengers, playing an instrument you brought aboard, or perhaps sketching or taking photos. I've seen passengers do all that and more.
In addition, most schooners anchor for the night either near a remote island or by a fishing village. On our trip, we had a chance to explore Isle au Haut, an island with a small village and a remote section of Acadia National Park. On other sails, I've poked around Stonington, a lobster-fishing village, and Buck's Harbor, the village that inspired author Robert McCloskey's beloved children's books One Morning in Maine and Blueberries for Sal.
I've sailed aboard Maine windjammers in fog, rain and heavy winds, and I've found that even in inclement weather, the experience retains its magic.
The breeze stiffens, and by midafternoon, we're surrounded by windjammers under full sail. Among those dancing around us in a wind-choreographed routine are Victory Chimes, largest in the fleet; Ladona, rebuilt by Noah and Capt. J.R. Braugh; American Eagle, licensed for international voyages; and Angelique, with a piano aboard. I've sailed aboard a half-dozen schooners, and yet I'm slack-jawed at the sight, almost giddy about experiencing a tall ships gathering without hoopla or crowds. Radios buzz as captains plan the rendezvous off Vinalhaven Island.
Parallel parking windjammers requires delicate maneuvering. The Chimes sets anchor, throws bumpers over its rails, and the Eagle tucks in on one side, the Heritage bookending the other. One by one, windjammers slide into place. When secure, we're free to move about and tour the other boats.
After dinner on deck, the Gam's jam session begins. Professional musicians and singers play alongside talented amateurs, captains and crew harmonize with passengers, including Ellie, who's sailing with her cello.
Another day's sail, and all-too-soon we are heading to our home port. We all exchange emails, promising to keep in touch; in four days, we've gone from strangers to budding BFFs. A fellow passenger looks around and says: “I'm eternally grateful that the first time I came sailing, I chose this boat. I found a home.”
I think we all did.
If You Go
Although windjammer day sails are available from other ports, those offering overnight cruises sail from Rockland and Camden, Maine.