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Sailing back in time on a historic schooner

BY Susan Nerberg

23rd Jul 2023 Life

Sailing back in time on a historic schooner

Susan Nerberg takes a trip back in time on a historic schooner departing from Camden, Maine, destination unknown

Standing beside the tall ship's mainmast, my shipmate and I reach as high as we can. With a nod, we grab the halyard—the rope used to raise the main sail—and pull hard, throwing our weight to the wind. “Heave!”

Just as our knees are about to hit the deck, two of my fellow sailors—we are 20 passengers in all on this three-day cruise—spring into action, grabbing the rope and taking their turn pulling it down. “Ho!”

And so we go, back and forth: “Heave!” “Ho!” “Heave!” “Ho!” Slowly, the main-sail rises up the mast until it’s flapping in the breeze, waving goodbye to the port of Camden in the eastern US state of Maine.

Captain Garth Wells gives us a thumbs up. But when we start looking for a comfy spot in the sun to relax, Brent, the first mate, shakes his head. “Fore-sail!” he yells. We haven’t finished our work just yet; time to hoist up sail number two, on the mast in front of the main-sail. Luckily, it’s a bit smaller.

Raising the sails on a historic schooner - sailing on a historic schooner

First Mate Brett and passengers raise the sails

As the Lewis R French, our 30-metre, two-masted schooner, sails out onto the glittering Penobscot Bay, cellphone reception cuts out. “There goes connectivity,” says one of my fellow passengers, a man in his 50s from Arkansas, as he stows his phone with a sigh. It’s hard to tell if he’s miffed or relieved about losing access to social media. The only wavelengths at our disposal now are the ones beneath our feet.

As Camden’s white clapboard houses and tidy gardens, with hydrangeas the size of apple trees, blur into the background, we leave behind other modern conveniences. Built in 1871, the Lewis R French was designated a historic landmark by the US National Park Service in 1991. As America’s oldest schooner, the ship operates much as it did in the19th century. It has no electric motors, not even a winch for hoisting its 280 square metres of sails and weighing the 77-kilogram anchor. There’s no fridge—our food and beer are kept cold in iceboxes on deck.

"Camden’s white clapboard houses and tidy gardens, with hydrangeas the size of apple trees, blur into the background"

The Lewis R French is a time machine that connects me and the other passengers with the rhythms of centuries gone by. It syncs us with the ebb and flow of daylight, with cool sea sprays, creaking masts and twinkling stars

The tempo is laid back enough to help overcome my feelings of reluctance—not quite fear—about the sea. A landlubber born and bred in Sweden’s boreal forest, I’ve always preferred to sniff the salt-sprinkled air from terra firma rather than spending time in, or on, the waves.

When Captain Wells explains that this boat was made for cruising the relatively calm waters closer to the shore, carrying cargo from port to port rather than plying the open ocean, I feel relieved. “We think of her as an 18-wheeler carrying everything from lumber to fish and Christmas trees,” he says. Cruising on a windjammer, as these traditional sailing ships are known, along Maine’s coast is like seafaring with training wheels.

Going with the flow

The late-summer breeze propels us forward, and soon the swell lulls us passengers into a state of relaxation. The four-person crew, however, doesn’t rest. First Mate Brent and the deckhand, Oona, are coiling ropes neatly so no one stumbles over them—this, I learn, is called “faking the lines.” (I’m adding a lot of sailing lingo to my vocabulary on this trip.) In the galley below, Derek, the ship’s cook, is well on his way to becoming a hero in our eyes, baking bread and making potato-leek soup using a wood-burning stove.

Captain Wells, manning the wheel, scans the horizon. A nautical chart held down with a magnifying glass is splayed beside him. He grew up sailing, and after working as a mate on the French for five seasons, he bought her in 2004 with his wife, Jenny Tobin.

Captain Wells sailing the historic schooner

Captain Wells at the helm of the Lewis R French

I ask where we’re going. “In that direction,” he replies, pointing toward Vinalhaven, one of the biggest of the nearly 2,000 islands scattered across Penobscot Bay.

That’s about as specific as he gets. “I don’t think I’ve ever ended up where I planned to go when first setting out in the morning,” he says. “You never know where the wind will take you.”

It’s part of what makes this trip so great. For many of us, our day-to-day lives are hyper-planned, from meetings to workouts to dinners with friends; even a “spontaneous” beer with a buddy might not happen unless it’s in the calendar. Here on the water, we literally go with the flow.

"You never know where the wind will take you"

That doesn’t mean modern devices have been completely banished onboard. Captain Wells keeps a GPS and a radar in case of an emergency, as well as a VHF radio for communicating with other boats.

And while passengers are asked not to make calls on their cellphones (some do get spotty service), using them for things like taking photos is permitted. There’s even a generator to power lights in our sleeping quarters and the ship’s two “heads”—bathrooms in landlubber lingo—one of which has a freshwater shower.

The Lewis R French also comes with a yawl boat, which hangs from the rear. Equipped with an engine, it can push the schooner in calm weather, sort of like a reverse tugboat. But we don’t need any help today—thanks to the steady breeze, we’re making good progress through the Fox Island Thoroughfare, which separates the islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven. The fishermen who live on Vinalhaven are descendants of the 19th-century crews that made Penobscot Bay one of the first commercial lobster grounds in Maine.

Cooking lobsters - sailing on a historic schooner

Lobster is served on Hells Half Acre

We drop anchor just off the tiny island of Hells Half Acre, close to two larger islands called Devil Island and The Shivers. I prefer not to imagine how they might have gotten their names, focusing instead on the promise of the all-you-can-eat lobster bake that awaits us on shore.

Hells Half Acre, I discover once we are shuttled ashore in one of the rowboats from the Lewis R French, has a misleading name; it’s more like heaven. The beach we land on is draped with rock-weed, a type of seaweed found along the northern Atlantic coast. Higher up, we step on a slab of granite that’s been shaped by the tide into a smooth, terraced ledge—perfect for hanging out and playing Frisbee.

Derek barbecues hot dogs, hamburgers and veggie skewers over a portable grill and hands out cans of Moxie, the state’s official soft drink. It tastes like root beer mixed with a splash of wintergreen, bubble gum and bitters—I take a sip and conclude that you probably have to be a local to enjoy it. Captain Wells and Oona plop lobsters and corn on the cob into a cauldron filled with boiling seawater. Once the shellfish have turned as red as the setting sun, they’re poured out on a bed of rockweed. We gather around, sit on the beach and dig in.

Finding your sea legs

If anyone thinks they ate too much on Hells Half Acre, where we anchored for the night, the following morning presents an opportunity to burn the extra calories. It turns out that getting ready to sail again takes considerable muscle power—in the absence of a winch, the anchor has to be lifted manually. When the call goes out for volunteers, I raise my hand, along with three others; after gorging the previous day on not only lobster but also Derek’s sourdough bread slathered with butter, I feel I need a workout.

I take my place at the cranking lever, which moves like a seesaw. With two of us standing at either end, we start pushing in turn, up and down, up and down. It’s heavy going; First Mate Brent explains that the anchor is lodged in mud, which offers the best holding power.

“If it rests on rock, which is marked on the nautical chart, the anchor might drag across the seafloor, causing the boat to drift,” he says. Sand is not as firm as mud, and the anchor can slip if there are waves, another cause of drifting.

As the anchor slowly rises, we quickly discover that mud makes for triceps-busting work. Our arms are burning when a fellow cranker breaks into song to help us keep a steady rhythm. Before long, we have composed lyrics specifically for the task at hand.

“Cranky, cranky, who is cranky?” I sing out with Jessica, a local gal working my side of the lever. The two guys on the other side reply: “Cranky, cranky, I’m not cranky!”

The anchor up, we’re soon cruising along at eight knots (15 kilometres per hour), crossing paths with the eight other ships in the Maine Windjammer Association.

One of the other ships in the Maine Windjammer Association fleet

One of the other ships in the Maine Windjammer Association fleet

From my perch at the front of the boat, where the bowsprit extends horizontally from the hull, I can see vestiges of a granite quarry that at one time was a major economic driver for the Penobscot Bay area. Blocks of cut granite still rest on rocky shores.

Because it was located close to the water, making it easy to ship, the granite hewn from Maine’s headlands and islands was used to build famed US landmarks, including the Washington Monument, the Carnegie Library and the New York Stock Exchange.

"The cool wind picks up in force, so I head below deck to warm up"

The cool wind picks up in force, so I head below deck to warm up. In the galley, Derek is cooking—or trying to, standing with his feet wide apart to maintain balance in the rolling swell while prepping our dinner of steel-head trout with pan-seared fennel and smoked basmati rice.

When I tell Derek about seeing the granite blocks, he nods. “The schooner carried up to 30 tonnes of cargo, including granite,” he says. Opening a hatch in the floor, Derek points at dozens of half-metre-long bars, lined up in rows. “But these are made of lead,” he says. “They’re ballast. Without them, we’d flip over.”

Camden, Maine - sailing on a historic schooner

The town of Camden, Maine

It feels good to know that we won’t capsize. So good, in fact, that I finally muster the courage to ask Captain Wells if I can steer the boat. Knowing I will not cause any major harm if I screw up—the captain is right beside me—I grab the helm, a polished bronze wheel about a metre across, by two of its hand grips.

Still, I feel nervous. Sensing my hesitation, Wells tells me the ship won’t turn at the slightest motion of the wheel; there is no power steering. “You need big movements, a quarter-turn, to move the rudder and the boat,” he explains. He shows me where we’re heading, tracing a line on the nautical chart to Gilkey Harbor, about 12 kilometres northeast of Camden. Then he points at a gap between two landmasses in the distance.

I set as my landmark the tallest hill I can see, on the mainland far in the distance. The Lewis R French travels along at the speed of the wind; all I do is nudge it in the right direction. I’m navigating the old-fashioned way, and that’s when I feel it: My landlubber reluctance to go to sea finally ebbs away, like the wake that disappears behind us. I’m a sailor now—and my ship has come in.

© 2021, Susan Nerberg, from "A Tall Ship From Back In Time," Canadian Geographic Travel (June 24, 2021),

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