My first morning aboard the Angelique, I gathered on deck with fellow passengers to exchange waves with people on fancy yachts and lesser vessels as our tall-masted beauty wove its way toward the mouth of Camden Harbor — like a celebrity quietly leaving a dull party.
Then, humming the tune from “Camelot,” “What do the simple folk do ... ,” I settled on a seat in front of the elevated helm. From there, I could listen to captain and co-owner Dennis Gallant call nautical commands to his crew (they number seven) and any passenger eager to learn the ropes, er, lines.
Above me, seven massive red sails filled with wind. The graceful ship responded, carving through the waters of Maine’s Penobscot Bay with a gentle, rhythmic bobbing of its bow. Precise destination, unknown.
When was the last time you didn’t know where you were going? Not “lost,” which can be fun but seldom happens anymore because of spoilers such as cellphones and GPS gadgets. I mean embarking on a journey with no set itinerary.
That happens every day on windjammer cruises in Maine. Old-fashioned sailing vessels such as the Angelique and eight other schooners that make up the fleet of the Maine Windjammer Association are at the whim of wind and tide. Their captains engage in an affable dance with Mother Nature whenever they leave port.
The boats sail the Maine coast by day — past unspoiled islands and long-standing lighthouses, plus the occasional seal and bald eagle. At night, they follow the breezes and tides to a quiet harbor or uninhabited island.
Home to more than 3,000 islands, the Maine coast is one of the world’s most scenic sailing areas, which drew my friend and me to the picture-perfect harbor of Camden, and the good ship Angelique.
On board, modern touches
With her tall wooden masts and furled ocher sails, the Angelique was easy to spot. Built in 1980, the 132-foot ketch was modeled after 19th-century vessels that once hauled granite, lumber and other goods.
Those ships had sails treated with reddish-brown tannin to prevent mold; on the Angelique, the sails are a historic touch. Though she looks like the ancient windjammers, the Angelique is outfitted with modern safety features and amenities such as showers and heads (toilets). The 16 cabins below decks are small, but have sinks, comfy double bunks, reading lights and room to stow suitcases.
As the ship got underway that first morning, Dennis turned the helm over to Richard Lubell, a social studies teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y., and a longtime recreational sailor whose face lit up with delight. Then he talked to me about the Angelique.
A Maine native, Dennis had been first mate on the Angelique for 10 summers before going on to captain a variety of boats all over the world. “When I returned to Maine, I realized it doesn’t get any better than this,” he said. “No place is more beautiful or more conducive to sailing.”
He and his wife, Candace, now own the Angelique and relish earning a living at something they love. The crew shares their passion, which quickly rubs off on passengers.
Our good fortune became even more tangible when our first lunch was served — tossed salad, clam chowder, biscuits and cream puffs for dessert — all made from scratch. It was one of many extraordinary meals to emerge, as if by sorcery, from the tiny galley. The chef shops for locally sourced ingredients before each voyage and tailors his menus accordingly.
Lobster was, of course, on my mind. It was hard not to think of it as we passed through masses of colorful lobster trap buoys and watched lobstermen setting and emptying traps.
Soon, Dennis promised. Every cruise hosts a classic Down East lobster bake; ours was coming.
The first afternoon passed quickly as we chatted with our fellow passengers; watched for whales, bald eagles and porpoises, and lent a hand with the lines. Well before sunset we anchored in Mackerel Harbor, a quiet cove on Swan’s Island, which is home to 300-plus lobster-fishing families.
Taking dinghies to shore
The following morning we sailed over to Bass Harbor and boarded a chartered bus for a tour of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. From the top of Cadillac Mountain, highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard, we looked down on the popular tourist town of Bar Harbor and the islands offshore. Our driver entertained us with the history of the island and “insider” stories of famous local families (Vanderbilts, Rockefellers) and celebrities among the summer set (Susan Sarandon, Martha Stewart, Tom Selleck).
Back on the Angelique, we sailed under a brilliant blue sky. Dropping anchor off Bear Island, we rowed the dinghies over to the granite shore, where the crew steamed fresh corn and lobsters over a driftwood fire. At last! Lobster never tasted so good. Stuffed from our feast, we rowed back to sleep on the boat.
The next morning, after a breakfast of heavenly homemade crêpes, we stretched our legs with a visit to the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine, where students were building a dory.
As we sailed west through Eggemoggin Reach, crew members lowered the tops of the masts so we could pass under the Deer Isle bridge. When we reached open water again, the Angelique embraced the 25-knot wind like a dowager raising her skirts to run. Ten knots (11.5 miles per hour) seemed a blistering pace as she heeled to starboard and the water became a blur. Our skipper grinned ear to ear, especially when challenged to a friendly race by the 145-year-old Louis R. French, the country’s oldest commercial sailing vessel.
Rounding Isleboro Island, we anchored in Gilky Harbor near Scout, a 148-foot luxury yacht owned by one of Maine’s billionaire summer folk. Kirstie Alley and John Travolta are among the celebs with homes on Islesboro, but we agreed that no finer fare was being consumed on the island than the pork roasts our chef had cooked overnight, served with handmade pasta and salads.
In the morning we would sail back into Camden and go our separate ways, but as the sun set we lingered on deck and in the salon — a sort of living room — to reflect on our windjammer experience.
A woman from Colorado adored the gourmet meals. Richard, the longtime sailor from Brooklyn, talked about the great people such cruises attract. And we all agreed that we’d do it again, if life’s prevailing winds allowed.
Dale Leatherman is a freelance writer and former president of the Society of American Travel Writers. She lives in West Virginia.