I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and sky. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…
I need the sea because it teaches me…
Several months ago, when we were all still in scarves and snowboots, hiding in coffeehouses for warmth and comfort, I agreed that I’d go sailing in June. I got a message from friends that they had finally fulfilled their lifelong dream of owning a windjammer. It was like coming home for them…having served as First Mate for many years on this particular boat, the Captain knows this schooner like the back of his hand. He and his wife have kept all of the things that past passengers have known and loved about the Windjammer Angelique…the wonderful food, the scenic routes, the first class treatment of the guests, and the cruise schedule. This schedule includes sails for the Road Scholar program (what used to be known as Elderhostel). Road Scholar cruises have a historian and a naturalist on board, and I was asked if I’d like to the naturalist for one of the cruises.
Although I give a couple of yearly informal lectures about seal stranding assessment, and enjoy talking about marine mammals to anyone who would listen, I am not a trained naturalist. I’m a veterinarian. So I was slightly worried when I walked out of the coffeehouse that afternoon, bundled in my scarf and boots, and wondered whether I’d regret agreeing to this, come June. But I love to be out on the water, and it was a nice way to reconnect a bit with friends. And of course, I love to talk about seals and whales!
So, here I was in early June, with backpack, binoculars, and marine mammal guides in tow, boarding the Windjammer Angelique for 6 days. 24 passengers were joining us from all over the country. For most of them, this was the first time they had been to the Maine Coast. A few had never been on a tall ship. One passenger was in his late 80s. (He was an inspiration over the entire trip…he moved about the ship as well as anyone, joined in every activity, called out cadence whenever we rowed the dinghies to shore, and was my dance partner at the deck party!)
Over the next week, we (along with the fantastic crew) talked about seals and sailing, porpoises and ports, whales and wars. The historian and I gave small lectures and talked to the passengers on deck while the Captain and crew taught the basics of sailing. We enjoyed some gorgeous sailing days…with the boat taking on a comfortable heel on several afternoons. An evening lobster bake on one of the Bay’s many tiny uninhabited islands was a quintessential taste of a Maine summer tradition. Trips to Castine and Stonington allowed for some leg stretching and wandering. Castine in particular, is known for it’s turbulent history…having been under English, French, Dutch, and American occupation in it’s early days. It was also site of a British fort during the American Revolution and was at the center of the ill-fated Penobscot Expedition (for an informative, well researched, and easy read about this moment in American history, read Bernard Cornwell’s The Fort).
The first night was a unique experience for all of us. As it was one of the first sails of the season, the ships of the Maine Windjammer Association all dropped anchor in peaceful Gilkey Harbor, Islesboro, and tied together for a gam. A gam is essentially a deck party. Passengers and crews boarded each of the ships to mingle, music was played, grog was imbibed…all beneath a sunset soft as a butterfly’s wing.
Seeing all the masts stand beside one another made me wonder what harbors of old looked like. Accounts recall “forests of masts”…I can only imagine. We are so fortunate to have these tall ships in this area of Maine. To see them in harbor or under full sail against a backdrop of granite and pine coastline makes you question whether it is 2014 or 1814.
Mid May to mid June is harbor seal pupping season. Pups are only dependent on mom for the first month, but we were still expecting to see pups with the adults. The Penobscot Bay has a very healthy harbor seal population, so I knew that seal sightings were assured. We were not disappointed! In fact, we saw so many seals that a few of the passengers were bored by them by the end of the cruise. Each time we sailed past a rocky ledge, there they would be, hauled out…sausages in the sun!
Harbor porpoises, however, they never grew tired of. Small, quick, and relatively shy of boats, porpoises will silently appear…dorsal fins cutting through quiet waters….and then disappear just as quickly.
Standing on the gently rolling deck one evening, watching the sun set off the port side and the moon rise off the starboard, smelling the sea and evergreens, hands wrapped around a mug of coffee…I couldn’t help but feel blessed. Watching the passengers discover this place that I call home for the first time allowed me to see it through refreshed eyes. Sometimes, a journey’s destination is just a return to home.
For more information on the Windjammer Angelique, schooner cruises in Maine, Camden, etc: