Sailing into the past

On the historic schooners that cruise along Maine's coast, passengers can opt to work a little or loaf a lot

June 15, 2008|By Jane Wooldridge | Jane Wooldridge,McClatchy-Tribune

Penobscot Bay, Maine -- We've been stuffed with fresh blueberry pancakes and perfectly crisped bacon, tempted with salads and pork in barbecue sauce and home-baked focaccia, sated with all the steamed lobster and corn on the cob we can manage in a single sitting.

Now we're all staring at our watches, waiting. Twenty long minutes more before one of the galley girls will hoist the huge brass bell and bellow, "Dinnah!"

Some of us have signed aboard the Victory Chimes for its 100-plus-year-history as a National Historic Landmark schooner. Some are here simply for relaxation, others for the pain-free glory of sailing the coast of Maine without the hassles of swabbing the deck. By the trip's end, we know we've forged a common bond: jeans over-stretched by the joys of chef Pammy's cooking.

In only a few short days, the crew of the Victory Chimes has instilled a Pavlovian response. "We're like dogs," says Janet Sniffen, a fellow sailor from Cary, N.C. "They ring that bell and we start salivating."

Johnny Depp, eat your heart out.

The Victory Chimes is part of the Maine Windjammer fleet, a dozen individually owned classic sailing ships offering a lazy version of adventure. One is a raucous party boat with a captain who sings and howls across the sea. Another is known for its sip-and-sails - wine cruises that are a hit with urbanites and baby boomers; yet another offers yoga voyages. Two of the ships are nearing their 140th birthdays.

None has pool, spa, cigar club. This is "sailing" - and sailing into the past, at that.

"It's a bit like camping," says Kip Files, Victory Chimes' captain. The tight cabins are spare, with just enough light for reading. Heads - marine toilets - are down a hall or up a wide wooden ladder. The shower is in its own snug cabin off the deck.

Though each windjammer carries a yawl boat - a motorized mini-tug that gets us in and out of harbor - the real power comes from the same lusty winds that brought Leif Eriksson and Christopher Columbus, the pilgrims and Sir Walter Raleigh to this brazen new world. It is our job to hoist the sails each morning - after the pancakes, of course - and lower them before the official start of cocktail hour.

The captain and crew repeat commands, lest the wind swipe the words of this sailors' rondelet and we end up beached on the rocky shore. "Ready on the throat?" "Ready on the throat." "Hands to mizzen." "Hands to mizzen." "Ready on three." "Ready on three."

On "three" we heave the halyard that hoists the mizzen - that would be the sail on the mizzenmast, or last from the bow - passing length over length of the wrist-thick rope to the person behind us. Veterans - some passengers have returned more than a dozen times - wear gloves; landlubbers quickly learn to wrap their hands in a T-shirt or stand aside.

And then we're back to our real jobs: reading, snoozing and watching the rocky coast slip past, the crisp fresh breeze in our faces.

At 170 feet, the Chimes can hold 40, along with its cheery crew of eight, but on this late-summer sailing, we are a companionable 22.

Dave and Janet Sniffen saw the ships on a previous trip to Maine and vowed to come back. Ron Goldman, a Boston folk singer, is a first-timer with guitar in hand. Joan Johnson of Connecticut is on her 13th cruise; Carolyn Wimer of Ohio is making voyage No. 9.

Ruth and Mike Benning and daughter Kelly, 13, of Pennsylvania are here for the second year. Though families often join in mid-summer, on this cruise, Kelly is the only person under 35.

Make that 45. Not even the most Type A among us - that would be me - is fretting for more action.

"You can help when you want and relax when you want," says Ruth Benning, Kelly's mom. A sailor since childhood, Benning loves the sea - but not the effort that sailing requires. "Here, I don't have to serve food or do the dishes."

Occasionally, a porpoise breaks the surface, a group of seals suns on boulders. A whitewashed lighthouse crowns a crag high above the water. Granite doughnuts seem to bob on the sea; on closer inspection they prove solid and unmoving, islands trimmed with spiky puffs of firs.

"I love the poetry of motion, the challenge of it," says John Dickey, an avid sailor and NASA engineer from Houston. "And the nature. I just love it."

Our days start early - coffee and juice on deck before the real breakfast below; then a spurt of activity when we raise the sails. Then a lull - time to chat or shower or soak up the scenery - before lunch and another rest and the flurry of dropping sails. And of course, more of Pammy's honest, yummy food.

Traditional ways persist here, and our voyage into the past doesn't end when we hop into the tender boat for visits ashore. Shingled cottages dot the land; ferries - not bridges - link many of the 3,000 islands. Slick is frowned upon, and even the occasional obscenely priced summer home has a timeless feel.

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