At Sea on Penobscot Bay

A southern landlubber finds love for the sea on a Maine windjammer cruise.

Story: Stephen McGehee

 I am waking to the clatter of pots and pans coming down the companionway as Jack and Jerika start on the day’s food preparations. The rattle of the lids on the cast iron range brings back childhood memories of old women’s kitchens in fading, unpainted Victorian houses and the wood cookstoves they fed with sticks of oak, split just so. Looking out from the bow of the Grace Bailey, it feels strange to be moored in Penobscot Bay, Maine with the kitchen sounds of my childhood Arkansas childhood.

Jack and Jerika have schooner coffee and hot water on deck at 6:15 or so, followed shortly after by pans and platters of coffee cake, muffins, crunchy baked things to munch on as the early risers sip stout sea coffee and attempt great and small philosophical debate on the sunrise. The distant crow of a rooster from the tiny island rising up in the quiet harbor heralds the beginning of a new day. 

I find my washbasin and climb on deck to get water to wash the sleep from my eyes and then walk back to the coffee pot. Some of the passengers choose to dilute theirs; I’m guessing that weak coffee is just part of their Michigan life. The sun has just risen over the island to the east,some 30 miles out from our homeport of Camden, is dotted with lobstermen and their crews pulling pots and harvesting the lifeblood of thousands of Maine families. 

Serene is not the word for this. We are cut loose from the world for these five days and are surrounded by calm water and 10 smaller sailboats that have shared this little harbor for the night. There’s small evidence of life on these smaller boats, but the laughter of a child carries over the water. We are curiosities, I guess…tourists on this big schooner. We had to slip through a narrow channel into this tight harbor and have the respect of the smaller boats. The Grace Bailey has never moored in this harbor. We came in at low tide and have less than eight feet of water under our keel. Our captain knows his ship and has confidence gained over many years on this boat.

 I am a traveler by nature. Here, I am fifteen states and 1,600 miles from my electrical contracting world in northwestern Arkansas. This is a Grand Adventure, a once in a lifetime journey to a distant land. My teenage years were spent on the same ocean in Daytona Beach but this is entirely different. The cold of the North Atlantic is pushed back only briefly by summer’s heat. The birds, mostly gulls, are accompanying us, squawking every now and then telling tales about a teenage girl who, during the Depression, rowed two miles from land to an island to harvest gull eggs so they had something to eat. 

The rest of the passengers are now up and about. We were getting used to basic life lessons aboard a schooner. The cables and wires and tubes coming into our homes and lives back home are all missing here. Water comes with effort – whether just getting a drink, or a bowl of water to wash your face or the pump-scrub-pump-rinse of the semi-regulated foot shower located right around the corner from the banter and sounds from the galley. Everything here is close and personal. I cannot imagine a relationship meltdown occurring here. Everybody on board would be in on it. Meanwhile, the feast called breakfast is coming up from the galley to be spread out on the hatch cover: quiche, bacon – not too crisp – sweet rolls, bread, muffins, platter after platter.

After the breakfast dishes are washed and everything passed below, the summer morning is now fully underway. Quiet conversations with my companion and other passengers abound about the courses of our lives as we seek to find common ground. We are a diverse lot; a Boston fireman with his cutie-pie wife, schoolteachers, ex-Marines, and a philosopher or three, an airline pilot and his wife about to liquidate the big house in St. Louis to buy a sailboat and spend the rest of their lives sailing the East Coast. We converse with a college-level English teacher who is shocked and appalled at the deterioration of the language, the culture, and particularly, the breakdown of education. There’s the marketing executive for Heineken with a Park Avenue office and a 2.5-hour commute to a Connecticut home…lots of train time in the laptop & iPod zone. Lastly, a writer from Cape Cod and her companion, this burned-out electrician, she coaxed from the Ozarks.

As the day warms, we raise the anchor and the motorized runabout pushes the Grace Bailey out into open water. The stout among us pitch in on the capstan to raise the 400-pound anchor. Crew and shipmates join in to hoist the mainsail. We all get on the line and raise the huge sails each morning, and then, in the evening, work together to tuck and fold the 3,800 square feet of canvas properly on the spar as the sails are lowered. We are spoon-fed sailor lingo and bad elephant jokes. The crew, besides being knowledgeable and hardworking sailors, are interesting humans with diverse backgrounds and their own unique perspectives on this thing called life.

Later in the afternoon of the second day out, we approach and set anchor on the lee side of an island. After a short while, our sister ship, The Mistress, sails into the harbor and anchors nearby. The Grace Bailey and The Mistress are two of the five schooners that make up the fleet at Maine Windjammer Cruises which sails out of Camden, Maine. The Grace Bailey is a 19th-century sailing ship with a rich history. Built in Patchogue, New York in 1882, the schooner is listed as a National Landmark. She sailed to the West Indies in the Fruit Trade and carried granite to New York City to be used in the building of Grand Central Station. The Grace Bailey is the real thing, and you know it the minute you step foot on her broad wooden deck. 

The galley crews of both boats ferry food, supplies, and passengers to shore for the lobster bake. We feast lavishly on lobster and all the trimmings. Just offshore and a short distance away, a young couple and their little girl make their own quiet preparations for the night. Though a good size, their boat is tiny compared to the 123-feet of  The Grace Bailey – yet still a world away from a midsummer’s evening at the mall.

The sun is high, and the captain and crew have us heading out to more open water. We are at the mercy of the wind, as sailors have been for 1,000 years; tacking this way and that, going west to get north has changed little over the centuries. The main change has been the superb electronics and charts that feed continual information to aid the crew through and darkness. 

The day is balmy, and in the words of many locals, quite beautiful weather for an August day. At lunch, we are treated to yet another sumptuous feast. Haddock stew, the makin’s for BLTs, a half dozen other dishes, possibly four different entrees grace the hatch…and the food keeps coming. 

This is the third day out of Camden. We had spent the night before in Brooklyn Harbor offshore of the Wooden Boat School. While the passengers are perusing the bookstore and taking advantage of the cellular coverage, Chef Jack is going to the store to procure treats for lunch and dinner. Back on the boat, after our land break, we make our way into open seas through tiny inlets with narrow passages between islands dotted with mansions high on the hills. The view from the deck is magnificent, and the wind generously fills the sails. 

As we cruise about the bay, I reflect on the days leading up to this time on the water. The voice inside my head is telling me that, for years, I have needed this. Sea breezes, lobster, and Dark n’ Stormys (a mixture of dark rum and ginger beer) – immersed in this mid-coastal vacation, driving quiet back roads to spots like Liberty to explore a three-story building filled with old tools. We have spent several weeks exploring this country and the seaside.

Our journey began in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where we meandered the narrow twisting streets of this seaside town. We gorged ourselves on every type of seafood imaginable. With a restaurant or bar every 50 feet, we didn’t have to go far for entertainment!

We spent an evening at Lyman-Morse boat builders in Thomaston, where we boarded the 63-foot ocean cruiser Kiwi Spirit. The highlight of the evening (more so than the Kiwi Spirit or late-night fireworks display) was meeting the iconic (and charismatic) marine photographer Billy Black. There are some great stories packed into this paragraph. You’ll want to follow the links and read them!

They’ve been building boats in Thomaston since 1604. The history here is palatable; you can taste it, the place is so old. The next day we arrived in Camden for the annual Penobscot Bay Rendezvous and a chance to visit and board world-class sailboats. 

But I digress…back to the Grace Bailey. We find shelter each night in a different harbor, some tiny, some large. There are often other boats nearby, but we mostly have the bay to ourselves. By now, the passengers are comfortable with each other. We’ve learned the sailor lingo. And have mastered the art of taking a shower while pumping water with one foot on the pedal! 

We are treated like royalty by Jack. He and Jerika have cooked continuously every day. We’ve been surprised with meal after meal of every kind of food imaginable. Muffins and scones in the morning. Cookies and cake in the afternoon. Each meal is like Thanksgiving dinner. It’s amazing how much food these two people produce every day from the ship’s icebox and 80-year old cast iron range. 

I have enjoyed getting to know the other passengers but, now, I am getting to know the crew. They are mostly 20-somethings with years on the water, this boat, and Penobscot Bay. Very refreshing to see the life and sailor skills possessed by these energetic young men and women. We had ample time to witness how hard they work. Hoisting the sails and anchor along with countless other daily chores came naturally to their practiced, calloused hands.

Our cabin is tiny, about 40 square feet, and we have only the smallest of floor space – the balance of the room taken up by the berth. We stashed our gear under the bed, feeling thankful we had packed light with warm clothes and plenty of lip balm. It is a long way to shore to run out of sundries. This was a new way of roughing it.

We spend little time below except for sleeping; the seascape is too spectacular to miss any of it. We’ve had little rough water as the ship has sailed in the bay and not ventured out into the Atlantic. It is fascinating to see from the deck the many points of interest we had traveled to on land before the cruise. Did I mention that there is a lighthouse on every point of land? Most have been there for 150 years or longer to warn mariners of the dangerous rocks that have claimed many an unprepared or lost ship. Though, it makes you wonder when you see places with names like Cuckold’s Light as to what went down there all those generations ago. 

Most fellow travelers turn in when darkness sets in. There is little activity after 10 pm. The crew lights lanterns as darkness falls. My companion and I spend sweet, late-night moments sitting on the deck with the gentle rocking of the boat and night sounds as moonlight illuminates the deck and water below. 

It’s day five, and we have made our way back to Camden Harbor. The wind is a brisk 25 knots. The ship is heeling, the sails pregnant with purpose. This boat likes this kind of day. The Grace Bailey has been on the water for more than 130 years, and a stiff wind eats the miles. It’s what she was built for. Sailing into the harbor for the last time, I take in the quaintness of the Camden harbor filled with tall masted ships. I have been here before, in another life, another time. And, I will surely return.  



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