“Privacy is an illusion. We can hear you,” said Captain Noah Barnes. The charismatic captain was speaking to me and about 21 other passengers who had just boarded the Stephen Taber, one of nine windjammers that people can book for multi-day adventures along the coast of Maine.
I had been excited for this trip. I love being on the water. And the idea of being transported by the wind, without machinery, nor engines — and for what I decided to also be without a cellphone — felt like stepping back in time. But it was the illusory aspect of privacy the captain referenced that had me nervous.
What I was to learn is that I had foolishly worried about all the wrong details heading into the trip. It’s true: “state rooms” on the 109.9-foot (33.5-metre) schooner were so tiny you could hear the person snoring in the cabin next to you. And there were only two heads (or toilets) and a makeshift shower for the lot of us — 22 guests plus 5 crew and the captain.
But, as I was to discover, privacy doesn’t matter. We were in this together. And friendships and camaraderie quickly developed. During 2.5 blissful, sun- and wind-filled days, I felt downright euphoric to be sailing the wide open sea, sharing the waters with other schooners and lobster fishing boats, but not the typical marine traffic you might find choking other parts of the coast.
“We are our own self-contained nation when we leave the dock,” Barnes told us. Maine has almost 3,500 miles of coastline, with several thousand unspoiled islands dotting its shoreline. And with its protected waters, steady winds, and opportunities for island hopping — it is arguably one of the best sailing destinations worldwide.
Although the towns along the coast can teem with tourists in the summer, stepping off land and onto a ship you become part of this tranquil undulating space. It feels like the road less traveled.
And exploring these waterways on a seriously stylish schooner — what Barnes described as “fat, fast, and sexy” and “a ship with soul” — makes the experience that much richer. It’s not just that the four-sail schooner has mahogany parts, Douglas fir booms, and a wood-burning stove from 1910. The yacht also has the special distinction of being a National Historic Landmark. Built in New York’s Long Island in 1871, it’s 152 years old and the longest continually operating sailing ship in the United States.
Of course, what makes a ship isn’t just its parts. The Taber is crewed by five young able-bodied sea adventurers who cast goodwill wherever they step. The chef served gourmet meals three times a day in a space so tiny that in parts I couldn’t fully stand up. Guests enjoyed items like lobster frittata, home-baked doughnuts, and scones, among other delights. The ship’s wee captain, Oscar, is Barnes’s lithe 14-year-old son. And there were four other crew who seemed to do a lot of everything, for all of us, all of the time. And finally there were the other passengers, all from the United States and with varied experiences sailing and sleeping at sea.
Swept Away While Sailing Through Maine
For our three-night sail, we went, well, where the wind blew. (Barnes never has a set route.)
The first night we slept on the schooner in the harbour so we could get an early start in the morning. Around 10 a.m. the adventure began. Passengers were asked if they wanted to help raise the sails. Those that did formed two lines, one on either side of the fore deck.
Then the captain called out, “Haul away, throat. Then “Haul away, peak.” I later learnt that the first command means to raise the gaff and “peak” refers to the lifting of the aft.
Then each line took a turn pulling on a rope, hand over hand, to raise the sails.
“You say, ‘Heave’, I say, ‘Ho,’” the captain called out as the going got more difficult.
I was relieved to discover how a captain’s “orders” could be expressed as a kind of friendly challenge. It was a far cry from my only other sailing experiences, when — as a child – my father would bark out orders like, “Pull in the god damn jib,” in albacore races at the cottage. We kids would grimace. My mum would wear gardening gloves. Aboard Barnes’s vessel, I knew right away I was going to have a different, more pleasurable sailing experience.
Once the sails were raised, we were off. With a good wind, we quickly reached about seven knots. We sailed between the islands of North Haven and Vinalhaven, and along the narrow Fox Island Thorofare. I sat on a cushioned aft deck, enjoying the warm sun on my face, and for once relishing a state of non-doing. I loved the creaking sound of the boom as it moved in the wind. I loved the sparkles that shifted on the water’s surface. And I loved how my mind slowed as the ship sped.
After several hours at sea, we anchored off the deserted Wreck Island. I and a few others swam into shore — at about 59 Fahrenheit degrees (15 Celsius), it was cold but refreshing. The rest of the guests were chauffeured out in a small yawl boat, along with 50 pounds of lobster, beef, sriracha chicken, corn on the cob, many bottles of wine, and chocolate, peanut butter, marshmallows, and batter for pizzelle – a decadent dessert the captain cooked over a fire. We spent the next several glorious hours swimming, eating, drinking, and simply enjoying being together, on a deserted beach out at sea.
The next day, we began with coffee, then a swim and a paddleboard. For breakfast, it was another “light” meal, of freshly baked muffins, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, and yoghurt and granola made by the captain’s mother.
After more sailing and lunch, we stopped for an hour and a half at Stonington, a picturesque seaside village on Deer Isle where we strolled along the main street, checking out its bookstores, coffee shop and art galleries, and taking photos of the yachts moored in the harbor. Later, back on the boat, as the sun set, almost all of us jumped into the water for a swim. There were about a dozen heads bobbing as guests chatted and laughed while treading water. Then the crew joined in, jumping together off the bowsprit. It was like a pool party at sea.
After that, the wine came out, the samosas, the several types of chutney, and the cheese, oh the cheese — the camembert from Greensboro, Vermont, with a local honey, the gruyere from Austria, an Australian Roaring Forties Blue, and a Cypress Grove goat cheese. And that was before dinner. Barnes loves his cheese.
The final morning, after a breakfast of lobster and dill frittata with cream cheese, breakfast sausages, vegan quiche, and granola, we packed our bags and came out on deck for a final goodbye.
The captain thanked us for our quirky sense of adventure. “This is not for everyone,” he told us. I knew what he meant. If you like 300-thread Egyptian cottage sheets on a king-sized bed with a private en suite bathroom, the Stephen Taber may not be for you.
But if you like the open sea, the feel of warm wind on your face like a wave floating in the air, and being part of something wider and calmer and simpler, then windjamming may just be your choice for a holiday thrill.
Windjamming Life Explained
Steamship operators used the word “windjammer” as a derogatory rather than a technical term to reference the sailing vessels they saw as dinosaurs “jamming at the wind,” or tacking back and forth, rather than heading directly up wind, with greater reliability and speed.
During the late 1800s through the early 1900s, windjammers were used as commercial vessels to transport raw materials and other supplies — like brick, lumber, and coal — along Maine’s eastern seaboard. However, the recreational windjamming industry didn’t really start in earnest in the state until 1936 when cargo-carrying vessels were converted to passenger ships to show people the coast.
During that time, people wanted to “escape their urban hellscapes” and “rusticate in an inexpensive way,” Barnes said.
Since being established in 1977, the Maine Windjammer Association has carried on the tradition of offering people an adventurous, all-inclusive sailing experience, without the cost of owning or chartering a private yacht. The association is an alliance of nine mid-coast Maine windjammers that are independently owned and operated, but work together to bring awareness and sustainable practices to windjamming in the state.
As a Canadian, I had never heard of windjamming, but assumed that residents of Maine, which has the largest fleet of windjammers in the United States, would be more familiar with the experience.
It turned out, that wasn’t the case.
“Many Maine residents have actually never seen their own state from the water,” said Nicole Jacques, public relations director of the Maine Windjammer Association. “Most people are aware of the maritime industry and culture, but many haven’t had the opportunity to be part of it.”
The challenge is deciding which one to go on.
“Choosing a windjammer is like choosing a dessert — they’re all wonderful, but one may satisfy your craving more than another,” Jacques said. “While most of the windjammers are either historic coasting schooners or more modern vessels based on the 19th-century designs, each of them has a very special personality and history.”
Themed trips include music, hiking, gastronomy, nature-watching, art, yoga, and photography. They also host several events such as the Gam, a gathering of the entire fleet of windjammers, which are rafted up alongside each other for an evening, in a secluded location, so you can explore all nine boats, meet the other passengers, and enjoy music and food together. In July, the association hosts the Great Schooner Race, a regatta for all the windjammers, which compete for an annual trophy.
You can also “windjam” on individually operated boats or small fleets in other parts of the country and in Europe.
MORE ABOUT VISITING MAINE
The Maine windjammers depart from Camden and Rockland, which are within about 15 minutes of each other, and about 90 minutes by car northeast of Portland, the most populous city in the state. The Stephen Taber offers three- to seven-night experiences, some with special themes, as well as some longer specialty cruises.
A windjammer trip starts at about $850 USD, with costs varying depending on the vessel and the length of time you sail.
Vacay.ca Contributor Diana Ballon’s trip on the Stephen Taber was hosted by the schooner’s owners, who are members of the Maine Windjammers Association.