By Ron Leir
ABOARD THE MARY DAY –
You needn’t call me Ishmael but I admit to being drawn to the sea whenever I feel dark clouds come over me.
And so it was I renewed an old habit when, earlier this month, I fled to the Pine Tree State for a mini-voyage on a schooner.
About 20 passengers, me included, plus a five-member crew, sailed out of Camden, Maine, on the Mary Day, a 90-foot, two-masted wooden boat, for a three day/night cruise around Penobscot Bay (see map). She’s served as a coasting schooner since 1962.
The night before I boarded, I stayed in a Camden hotel and, wandering around the town, I spotted an advertisement for a Camden Shakespeare Festival production of “The Tempest” playing that evening.
Originally scheduled for an outdoor amphitheater (a perfect setting for this play), the production moved to a church hall due to the weather’s uncertainty.
But the players, attired in classic Elizabethan garb, adapted well to the confined space, creatively used their minimal props and even added majestic background singing to the mix.
The two-hour playing time went tempest fugit and, by the next night, I had bidden farewell to Prospero’s magic isle for the real deal at sea.
In case you’re wondering, the nautical excursion I had booked is known as “windjamming” and the Maine Windjammers Association promotes nine member vessels, berthed in Camden and Rockland, for booking sails of varying schedules, from one to six days. (There are a few other boats available as well. Feel free to google Maine windjammers.)
Passengers are furnished meals and sleeping quarters aboard each ship. Without exception, the food on the Mary Day was tasty and varied. Below-deck cabins are equipped with bunks and small sinks. The two toilets (“heads”), which can double as showers, are shared by all. There is also an on-deck spray-nozzle shower (for which a swimsuit is required).
Aside from meal-time, your time is your own and while there is no lido deck to visit, passengers are invited to help the crew put up/take down the sails, coil ropes, take a turn at the wheel (with oversight from Capt. Barry King) and pitch in with meal prep work.
No shuffleboard court or outdoor pool beckons, but there are plenty of board games available in the galley. Mariners can also mingle on the deck, lounge/sleep/read in deck chairs, partake of cold beverages stowed in an ice chest or take a dip in the fr – fr – frigid waters of the bay.
Some brave folks dove in for immediate immersion; I, more timid, descended the ship’s rope ladder before taking a shorter plunge into water 50-something degrees before quickly returning to the deck for a hot shower.
But it was worth it: we had just returned to the ship from a sweaty land trek on the shore of Holbrook Island Sanctuary, a state-sponsored program to protect local ecosystems that support wildflowers, forests and wildlife including deer, fox, muskrat, beaver, otter, porcupine, bobcat and coyote, along with blue herons and ospreys.
Longtime area resident Anita Harris spearheaded the experiment by acquiring land during the ‘60s and, in 1971, she donated 1,230 acres to the state of Maine “to preserve for the future a piece of the unspoiled Maine that I used to know.”
Today, visitors can stroll along roads and old Indian trails that crisscross the sanctuary. One such trail led to a small cemetery, with several headstones dating from the 1800s. Among them were a few with American flags posted, denoting graves of Maine veterans.
At the end of each day, the Mary Day typically drops anchor offshore any of the many islands found in the bay where buoys marking innumerable lobster traps are prominent.
Our first night was spent in the cove of a privately-owned island where we had permission to come ashore at a rocky beach for a lobster bake.
Another day, we visited Isle au Haut, an island that is home to portions of Acadia National Park. Among its approximately 70 residents is best-selling author Linda Greenlaw, who was featured in the 1997 book “The Perfect Storm,” later adapted as a film in 2000.
Greenlaw, whose books have maritime themes, is reportedly the only woman swordfishing boat captain on the East Coast of the U.S.
The island is one of the few in the bay that is accessible by ferry from Stonington, Maine.
From a sailing perspective, our best day was the return to Camden harbor when, aided by strong winds pushing our sails, we were running at seven or eight knots. To be standing on deck, hearing the sails flapping, the wind whistling and the waves washing over is total bliss.