"Ready on the main?"
"Ready on the main."
"One-two-three . . . HEAVE!"
"One-two-three ... HO!"
"One-two-three . . . HEAVE!"
"One-two-three ... HO!"
Ahhhh . . . the morning call and response. We help pull the mainsail up as our wooden vessel creaks and moans in response, listing slightly as it begins to cut through the waters. Our captain, John Foss, withdraws a rolled-up chart from his open shelf in front of the wheel and spreads it before him. "Where shall the winds take us today?" he asks aloud rhetorically in his characteristic quasi-formal manner.
Nary matters to me, I feel like responding in archaic English as our 92-foot schooner, American Eagle, heads up to ward Eggamoggin Reach. The waters are blue-black, dotted every few yards with floating lobster trap markers. The sounds of trappers' putt-putt motorboats checking their catch competes with the call of the osprey and barking harbor seals.
Monday morning last August, standing on deck with the wind whipping my hair around and flattening my jacket hard against my chest, I see Penobscot Bay come to life--and so do my 20 shipmates, coffee mugs in hand, warming to the sights ahead. Our six-day sail has begun.
A week of urban detox, that's the promise--and the worry. Can I keep from getting bored, can I handle being in close quarters with total strangers, will I overeat, will I get lazy? But between marveling at the craft we are on and trying to comprehend the beauty of the setting, my need to know quickly melts away.
For the others, from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, this is picturesque East Coast as it always has been: Yankee territory. Nothing nouveau riche about it. Actually, we are told, it's the true riche who own many of the weather-worn summer homes we see on island shores.
The forested dark hills of the Maine coast are in perfect harmony with all that surrounds us: the rocky islands, the boats at anchor, another white-on-white seaside town standing out from the green landscape off in the distance.
For me, the lone Californian, it is a refreshing world away from the sleek, unadorned fiberglass yachts ringed in chrome that crowd the marinas of the Southland. And a world away, too, from the oil-derrick-dotted Pacific waters they often sail. Mercifully, there's not a condo in sight.
Right away, it had seemed the right choice to take the longer cruise instead of the three-day sail, the other option offered by all 13 "Tall Ships" in the Maine Windjammer Assn. The American Eagle is among these 19th-Century-style schooners. In my eyes, they all look to be something out of a Herman Melville novel with tree-trunk-sized masts, thick vanilla-colored canvas sails and all their creaking and moaning, whether dead in the water or clipping along.
Obviously, Foss was no Captain Ahab; the chances of our getting scurvy were nil, as was the threat we'd have to swab the shellacked wooden decks, polish the endless brass appointments or anything else. The amiable, six-person crew was kept ever-busy on those chores.
Foss reveled in his role as commandeer and storyteller. It was no surprise to learn that several of the guests aboard were repeats. The first morning's bit of local lore, as we passed Crotch Isle, was a tale about Italian immigrant stonecutters working on the now-dormant island quarry who became so angry working for a sadistic foreman, they blew him up along with the marble. Their handiwork graces the exteriors of many a New York, Philadelphia and Boston bank building; their descendants also run some of the better restaurants on the mainland, Foss said--not that anyone was ever hungry for better food than we were already eating on board.
Two meals into our sail and I was fast relearning what real home cooking was: French toast, fried ham, cut melon for breakfast; corn chowder, spinach salad, whole-wheat biscuits and brownies for lunch. The only time besides mealtime that any of us saw Annie, the ship's 21-year-old cook, was when she came up for her "daily exercise"--to help raise and lower the heavy sails. We also came to appreciate that "exercise" as the mellow days went by, with our tummies ever full, happy and expanding.
As it was, an unseasonal storm slowed our passage for a day and a half at the outset, sticking us in gloomy Mackerel Cove and making Annie's galley the place to play games and cards, read, keep warm and breathe in the aromas of another fine wood-stove-cooked meal. Taking to one's tiny cabin, even in a rainstorm, was not an option. The sleeping quarters were not exactly claustrophobic--the round skylight was a definite plus--but there was really only enough room to brush one's teeth and turn around to find the bunks right in your face. It was either the galley or the main cabin at the stern of the boat.
Little groups form quickly under these circumstances. Three women, traveling alone with their teen-age sons, found much to talk about. A couple of widowed lawyers from Boston hung out and smoked cigars together on deck under the tarp. (Thankfully, no smoking is allowed below deck.) My companion, Jock, and I became fast friends with Maureen, an accountant with Dunkin' Donuts, and Andy, chief graphics designer for an advertising company--both from Boston, both single.
To help keep ourselves entertained, we even looked to the boat's "library"--actually only a shelf--and pulled down Edith Hamilton's book on Greek mythology to read about Narcissus. It was Andy's idea: "Don't you remember being forced to read this in ninth grade?" (I didn't.) "There are some very cool stories in here." And he was right.
When the sun broke through on Wednesday morning, it was all bodies on deck. The six retired passengers seemed to cope better with being indoors, but the rest of us were ready for adventure.
As we sailed north from Bass Harbor on Mt. Desert Island to the lovely, pre-Revolutionary War town of Castine on the mainland, nothing failed to amuse or entertain us. We passed Smutty Nose Island, held our breath as our mast just cleared the bridge at Bayard Point, and went camera crazy when two dolphins were spotted 20 yards off the bow doing a kind of tango--one up/one down, one up/one down, one disappears, the other continues. His (or her) mate resurfaces and they begin again.
The evening ended with a few of us rowing to shore to check out the one trinket shop (I couldn't resist the bars of tomato-red soap shaped as lobsters), a fast walk around town and then twilight at the local pub for some brew and darts. It was raining as we rowed back.
By morning, now Thursday, the weather had done another switcheroo. It was hot-hot and we had to motor to get on course: south to Stonington on Deer Isle. This turned out to be a glorious day, beginning with fresh blueberry pancakes, bacon and grapefruit juice. Always coffee and tea, too.
We baked under the sun; the cushions were all claimed by 11 or so. By midday, the conversations almost stopped while everyone, it seemed, was napping. We enjoyed a couple of Rolling Rock beers and Andy pulled out the Greek mythology anthology again and dived into the story of Odysseus.
My ambition to get through four books by trip's end (Rudyard Kipling's "Captains Courageous," brought just for the title, was one) turned out to be way off the mark. My concentration level was negligible.
The trip into Stonington, a depressing-looking fishing village whose era had long passed, didn't raise my energy level any. My energy boost came from rowing back to the American Eagle, now anchored in a cove at nearby Russ Island, that was in the middle of what had become windjammer central. The party atmosphere on other boats with cocktail hours, which Foss did not encourage on his, spilled over to the whole bay.
As the music blared and the voices carried our way, we headed out in the opposite direction to Russ Island, a nature preserve with shy sheep. Two seconds on shore and I was scurrying up to the top for a look-see. The summit of the island (which takes a laughable 10 minutes to achieve) offers a vista that is worth a panoramic camera. Little islands everywhere on the horizon, perfectly placed, with pine trees on some, others barren--and only beautiful windjammers anchored in the cove in the near distance.
Down East natives probably have a way to describe this kind of natural epiphany; I call it nirvana.
Only the promise of the lobster bake back on shore got me to descend. We had dragged dozens of these live crustaceans alongside the boat in traps for a day and their doom was sealed. Later that evening, a few of us gluttons (I consumed three, dipped in melted butter) took the rowboat out to work off dinner--and to drink in the twilight of this special place. For whatever reason--the blood- red sunset, the food, the setting--it was on this night, after several nights of pleasant chatter, that things really loosened up. Spirits were high and spirits came forth. People's private stock (Foss provided wine for two meals only) was brought out.
My favorite character on the cruise revealed himself this evening. He was a man in his early 40s who quietly sipped whiskey out of a flask all day and then surprised everyone when he brought a guitar out on deck and sang the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden" at the top of his lungs, his wife doing harmony. The rest of the evening, everyone joined in a riot of horribly sung rock standards--James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, the Beatles--that must have caused lobsters for miles around to cover their antennae with their claws.
Our departure from Russ Island in the morning saddened me.
Friday turned out to be windy, so Foss chose a leisurely start time of around 10 a.m., heading into the wind and west to Penobscot Bay. He was quite chatty, happy to be actually sailing hard. He joked, somewhat derisively, about imagining a real wooden boat "on the coast"--meaning the West Coast--among all the "plastic" ones (even if he later admitted he's never been to "the coast").
Foss makes no bones about his love for wooden boats. The American Eagle, actually a restored 1930 fishing vessel, is designated a National Historic Landmark, one of six in the windjammer fleet. He might have been too intimidated by math to pursue a degree in naval engineering, but after graduating from Bowdoin College in Bowdoin, Me., with a degree in art and architecture and three years in the Coast Guard, he was undaunted in his zeal to acquire and operate a Maine cruise ship.
"After all winter and most of the spring, the feeling of putting away the sandpaper, the paintbrushes, the cans of varnish and getting back out on the water sailing . . . there's no better feeling," he said. "These boats will always be in the background picture of chamber of commerce brochures. . . .You know, it feels great to be part of that scene."
It's a feeling apparently shared by his fellow windjammer captains, who heralded the American Eagle's arrival on our last night in cozy Gilkey Harbor off Islesboro Island--the captains shouting greetings to Foss from their moorings just a few hundred yards away. Jock, who is a professional photographer, climbed to the top of our mast to capture the many masts of the other historic schooners silhouetted against another blood-red sunset. On a hot rumor by a crewman, some of us turned the other way to scope out the shorefront mansion that Kirstie Alley bought. (Huh? . . . So, it seemed, even Mainers succumb to idle, useless Hollywood gossip.)
The last night, like many last nights, was semi-quiet. Some stayed on deck and drank; Foss read Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" out loud in the galley. I chose to join the reading.
My eyes closed toward the end and I was aware I was sleepy, but happy. Tomorrow we would raise the sails for the last time.
California? I wanted to whine like a child: "But I don't want to go home."
Jammin' Down East
Getting there: The Schooner American Eagle is docked at Rockland, Me., alongside The Lewis R. French, another windjammer. The 13-member Windjammer Assn. offers three- and six-day cruises on both vessels from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Both boats are minutes off Maine's coastal Route 1, about 1 1/2 hours' drive north of the Portland Airport, or use the Mid-Coast Limo service; $55 round trip.
Rates: Cabins are double occupancy and most have bunks. Those with double beds are at a premium--although not more expensive--and go first, assigned upon request. Early summer and early fall rates are slightly lower than peak summer rates in July and August. Per-person cost is $365-$395 for three-day cruises, $545-$645 for six-day cruises. Where possible, the association will arrange for same-sex singles to bunk together. Event cruises are no more expensive, but are more popular and fill up earlier; they include Windjammer Days to Boothbay Harbor on June 21, the Great Schooner Race on July 5, Swan's Island Music Festival on Aug. 2, Wooden Boat Sail-In on Sept. 13, and Fall Foliage weekends beginning Sept. 27. There also are special weeks that offer "heart healthy" meals.
Amenities: Great food, great vistas, but a schooner is not a luxury liner. There is one freshwater shower at the foot of the main steps leading into the galley, and two toilets cleaned twice daily. Wine provided at two meals, otherwise passengers must bring their own liquor. Only electronic devices with earphones are allowed. Smoking above deck only.
For more information: Call the American Eagle offices at (800) 648-4544 or (207) 594-8007.