It’s not too late to sail the Maine coast on board a tall ship – the season lasts into October, and it’s a surprisingly affordable vacation.
The first New Englanders arrived under billowing sails and somehow it sticks in our blood. Even though commercial ships have abandoned sail, vintage and new sailing ships still ply New England waters, allowing 21st-century travelers to experience “green tourism” the way it was done a century ago.
The heart of sailing country
Maine’s deeply indented coastline provides the perfect place for recreational sailing. Long deep bays run inland for miles, in many ways reminiscent of the fjords of Norway. From Portland north, long arms of water reach inland creating peninsulas that stretch out into the ocean. The largest of these watery arms are Penobscot Bay — an immense body of water that starts far inland at Bucksport — and a trio of bays further east — Blue Hill, Western and Frenchman — that surround Mont Desert Island.
These waters provide more than enough space for entire fleets of sailing ships to let loose their sails and fly with the wind. Although there are sailing charters available elsewhere in Maine, the two major embarkation ports are Camden and Rockland, both of which are on the west shore of Penobscot Bay. Both towns are great places to explore, Camden being the more upscale and tonier and Rockland a more “Downeast” home town place. Rockland also has a more artistic side with the highly regarded Farnsworth Museum and several art galleries showing outstanding traditional and contemporary works. The Farnsworth alone is worth a trip to Rockland.
Finding your personal sailing ship
Finding the right sailing vessel is important. Think of each ship as an individual, different in size, layout and personality. Most ships are sailed by their captain-owner and a small crew that does everything from setting sail to cooking and even entertainment. Cabins are small and tight even on the larger ships like Victory Chimes, but comfortable; you will not spend much time there. These are fun, casual and kick-back cruises, so you won’t need much baggage.
Where to look
A favorite one-stop-shopping place is the Maine Windjammer Fleet, an association of eight independent tall ships that sail out of Rockland and Camden. Their website has a page showing the details of each of their members, so you can pick the one that fits you best. Wooden-hull Victory Chimes, built in 1900 and beautifully restored, is an historic landmark and the largest ship in the fleet – with three masts. Her experienced Captain Kip Files was honored to be chosen to sail the fully restored Charles W. Morgan from Mystic Seaport. In addition to sailing on Victory Chimes, I have sailed Angelique – easy to spot with her deep red sails that are unique in the fleet. Built in 1980 and beautifully maintained, Angelique is steel hulled and a joy to sail on. These two ships are the largest in the fleet, but the other six have their own attractions. A bit smaller, they carry fewer passengers and are more intimate, a great choice for a family or smaller group of friends. Another source is the confusingly named Maine Windjammer Cruises, a company with three vessels, The Grace Bailey, Merchantile and Mistress, all sailing from Camden.
What to expect
These cruises are totally casual, so forget dressy and think jeans, shorts and T-shirts. Life aboard is laid-back. If you feel like helping to raise or lower sails you are encouraged to join in, but no-one will think you a slacker if you don’t. Meals are family style, with hearty and delicious foods celebrating the maritime legacy of the Maine coast. Most cruises, especially the longer ones, will include a lobster bake on the beach of a deserted island, a memorable experience. There will also be shore excursions: a cruise on Angelique allowed us to drop anchor and visit the fascinating Wooden Boat School on Deer Island, and if you are lucky you’ll have a romantic overnight in Pulpit Harbor.
The Maine coast is east of the rest of New England. From Boston take I-95 north and at Portland follow I-295. Just beyond Freeport look for the exit for Route 1 east to Bath and beyond. A few miles east of Waldoboro, Route 90 will be on the left. If headed to Rockland ignore Route 90, if headed to Camden take Route 90, a shortcut that saves a few miles. From Western Massachusetts use Route 2 or I-90 to I-95. From Connecticut take I-84 to I-95 north.