"Heave Ho!" yells Robin Briggs as we put our backs into raising the mainsail. There are 12 of us strung along two lines like wash hung out to dry, an accountant, a computer saleswoman, an air controller, a T.V. cameraman and, among the others, me. Let's face it, we're a sorry-looking bunch of landlubbers.
For a moment I flash on Blackbeard prodding me onto a board hanging over the briny with the point of his razor-sharp cutlass.
Fortunately those days are over. This crew is here by choice, not shanghied for duty in some sin-ridden port of call. The Nathaniel Bowditch is no Man O' War but a noble Windjammer plying the Maine coast under a full complement of sail streaming from its two sturdy masts.
"Heave ho," shouts Robin and, wonder of wonders, we get it right. The gaff slides smoothly up the mast, the sail unfurls, fills and tugs the Nathaniel Bowditch close to the wind. "That's it!" she yells, grinning from ear to ear. "You got it! Heave ho! You got it!"
Great, I think, as I lean panting against the rail. I have to come all the way to Maine to get the old heave ho.
With an overall length of 108 feet and a 21 foot beam, the Nathaniel Bowditch should look enormous. Perhaps because it's first seen from above at the dock in Rockland, the 72 year old schooner appears, if not small, certainly modest in size. To feel its masts soaring over the deck you have to walk down a steep metal ramp and climb aboard. Even then you're likely to be distracted by a heaping plateful of home made cookies and the warm welcome of First Mate, Joe Hoy.
Then you'll want to scramble below to find your cabin. If amidships the inscriptions on the doors read Bashful, Grumpy, Sleepy, Dopey, Happy and Doc. The head is called Snow White. Down here the hull curves sharply inward so the upper bunks are set back from the lowers. Despite the illusion of space there is no doubt that these staterooms are for sleeping and little else.
"My kingdom for a cup of coffee!" cries a schoolteacher from Pennsylvania at 7 the first morning. "It isn't worth much but I'd give it all for a cup of coffee."
His kingdom is secure. Tousel-haired Chef Monty sends up the brew while he prepares bacon and eggs and blueberry muffins. As he refills cups Monty tells the story of an old salt who comes down to the galley and says, "The captain wants a cup of coffee. But he wants it the way I like it and he wants me to drink it for him."
Captain Gib Philbrick (not the captain in the story) is the perfect skipper - old enough to inspire confidence yet young in spirit. A shock of corn-yellow hair spills over his forehead toward bright blue eyes. A ready grin splits a face that has seen plenty of weather.
"Around the corner is the Humbolt Current," he says with a powerful Down East accent, explaining the blanket of white that keeps us in Rockland. As he predicts, it lifts and the crew prepares to cast off.
We motor toward the Rockland lighthouse and Captain Gib asks for volunteers to raise the mainsail. With the innocence of children, most of us step forward. Suddenly nautical terms are tossed around like confetti. First Mate Joe and Second Mate Bob position themselves by the halyards. At a signal from the captain they pull and we pull, raising the gaff at the "throat" and "peak."
"Give us a song, Robin," Gib calls and the cheerful woman who has been making fruit salad for lunch jumps on the cabin top. "Heave Ho and up she rises," she sings at the top of her lungs while we tug and strain and the great sail inches upward.
"How come you're not helping?" someone asks two passengers who are chatting by the rail.
"We're supervising" one says, and resumes the conversation.
The mainsail raised, it's on to the staysail, foresail and jib, the last flying from a long bowsprit jutting over the sea. The wind fills the sails and the Nathaniel Bowditch heels to port. Our hearts race from exertion, pride and excitement at the sheer beauty of this noble vessel parting the waves as she was born to do.
Unlike most Maine windjamamers, the Nathaniel Bowditch was the private yacht of a Boston lawyer, winning the race to Bermuda in 1927. During World War Two she was requisitioned by the Navy to patrol for enemy submarines. After the war two fishermen dismasted her, fished with her until she was of no further use and abandoned her.
Needless to say she was rescued and in 1975 became the property of Captain Gib and his wife, Terry. "I learned to sail on the mountain lakes of Maine," Gib says. Later he bacame a teacher and fishing guide. But logging was taking the forest and guiding along with it so "I came down to look at the schooners and I've been here ever since."
"In the Age of Sail, the late 1800's and early 1900's, 15,000 sailing vessels went by Owl's Head light, comin' and goin'," says Gib. "They'll talk to you, these boats, they'll talk to you. Somebody built in little ideosyncracies and you do what the vessel tells you."
At the entrance to Pulpit Harbor we slip by a small craggy island where two osprey chicks peek at us from a ragged nest. "Almost 400 years ago," Gib says, "Champlain's journal mentions 'birds of prey' on this very rock."
Beyond a gap in the coastline a half dozen sailboats ride at anchor. Grey shingled houses with neat white trim sit in the forest, windows facing bright lobster buoys bobbing on the water. "I haven't been here in a long time," says Rick, an eco-scientist from Boston. "There's nothing like it."
Since we have time before dinner, some of us take the dinghy to look at the houses we've been admiring from shipboard. Scooped out of the conifers are ponds ringed with wild iris, buttercups and daylilies and dusted with pink waterlilies. Meadows of waving grass sparkle with orange and yellow daisies. Along quiet roads New England cottages with pure classic lines look out to sea. The feeling of peace as we roam the fields and rocky beach is a siren song telling us to leave it all - whatever that might be - and settle down right here.
After a lasagna dinner we gather on deck to wait for strawberry shortcake. Suddenly there is a roar of a cannon. Across the bay a puff of smoke rises from the Kathryn B., a three masted schooner resting at anchor.
"Shoot back!" Bob yells.
"Give them the women," someone suggests to mixed reviews.
"No," says Monty, emerging from the galley wielding a soapbrush over his head. "We'll scrub 'em to death."
The next morning Sandy asks the second mate where we are going. "I don't even ask," Bob answers.
"I don't know myself," says Captain Gib. "We're heading east and we'll see how far the wind will take us."
"Is this Penobscot Bay?" Iris asks.
"Yep," says Gib. "This is a big area. There's 30 miles of islands between the mainland and the open sea. You could fit the whole U.S. Virgin Islands in the East Bay and again in the West."
Later during the sunny afternoon a fog bank suddenly appears on the horizon, swallowing the islands in its path. The Nathaniel Bowditch is charging close to the wind, spray flying from her bow.
"Ready about!" Gib calls and Joe, Bob and Chris run to their stations by the jib and foresail sheets. "Hard a lee!" and the Nathaniel Bowditch turns slowly into the wind. The great wooden booms swing over the deck, over bodies sprawled on the cabin top, and come to a halt on a beam reach.
"No sense sailing where you can't see," the captain says as we head toward clearer weather. Now we have an idea of the dangers seamen faced when in moments every sight and sound could quickly disappear.
"Were there many wrecks in those days?" John asks.
"Lots," says Gib.
Behind us the fir-tufted mound of Mark Island rises above the fog. Silhouetted in front is the Kathryn B. on the course we've just left. As we watch she slides into the whiteness, losing her hull. Then each of the sails on her three tall masts melts slowly away until nothing is left but the haunting call of the Mark Island light.
After lunch Captain Gib fires up the engine and we motor into the fog. 30 minutes later someone shouts, "I see her," and everyone hustles to the bow. Dead ahead a ghost ship materializes where the horizon should be. It's the Victory Chimes - three masts, 170 feet long, flying 6,500 square feet of sail - and she's bringing us dinner.
Bob and Nyle hop in the dinghy and make the passage to the great ship, returning with two large wooden crates. They're lifted on board and opened to reveal 30 glistening "bugs," lobsters fresh from the bay.
Looking like Ahab in a black slicker and wide brimmed hat, Gib steers the Nathaniel Bowditch past small islands startlingly green in the soft white light. Single lines of 4 and 5 ducks race over the waves like arrows piercing the stillness.
The scene shifts to Calderwood Island. On a half moon beach a tall kettle sits on a driftwood fire. We reach into the pot for mussels that Gib raked up a half hour earlier. Steamed with onions in beer they are pungent with the taste of the sea.
But the mussels are only teasers for the main course. Joe and Bob lift an enormous vat onto the metal grate that rests on the fire. When the shallow pool of seawater begins to steam, Gib throws open the wooden crate and tosses in the lobsters, all 30 of them. Then he piles on seaweed, a mound of glistening green ropes, to keep in the steam.
20 minutes later Gib digs in and spies a bright red shell. Off comes the seaweed, out come the lobsters and here come the passengers of the Nathaniel Bowditch. In a semblance of order we line up while Gib cracks claws and cuts slits in tails. Then we sit on rocks and logs and tear out the succulent meat with our hands.
There's melted butter of course, but as Gib says, "By Gawd, if these things need their flavor enhanced, it ain't by butter!" And darned if he isn't right. By the time nothing is left but a heap of empty red shells, the butter pan is still almost full.
The last day dawns grey and hopeful. We ride at anchor with 21 other tall ships, all here for the twentieth annual Great Schooner Race from North Haven to Rockland. One by one the great sails are hoisted by passengers whose skills are almost equal to our own. Lo and behold, as the sails come up, so does the wind. Is this an omen?
At 10:30 a cannon blasts somewhere in the fog. The race has begun. To call it a heart-stopper would be a slight overstatement. The promising wind has left for parts unknown. Soon the voice of the captain of the Victory Chimes comes over the radio: "Our sails are just slattin' around so we're motor sailing."
On comes our engine. The race, apparently, is over. Just as well, the tension was becoming unbearable. Joe says, "For the last 3 or 4 years it's started out a race and ended up a parade of boats sailing about."
But what a parade. Off to starboard the monochrome sea is strung with magnificent ships, vast triangles of sail overarching their hulls. With her three great masts, the Victory Chimes stands alone like an old maritime print. Penobscot Bay looks as it must have in the fabulous Age of Sail.
"I'm just a ship passing through myself," Gib says in a rare serious moment. "I just want to leave the Nathaniel Bowditch better than I found her."
With sentiments like these there'll be windjammers on Penobscot Bay for a long time to come.
THE NATHANIEL BOWDITCH offers 3, 4 and 6 day cruises from June through September. Contact Terry Philbrick at 800 288-4098 or 207 273-4062, P.O. Box 459, Warren, ME 04864-0459.
WHAT TO WEAR:
Casual clothing that can be layered since Maine summer nights can be cold. Sneakers, jeans, tee shirts, shorts, long sleeve jersey, warm sweater and/or windbreaker, rain slicker, bathing suit, camera, flashlight, sunglasses, sun block, hat and insect repellent. Most passengers wear the same clothes more than one day, so pack light.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Colgan Air, 800 272-5488, has several daily flights from Boston to Knox County Airport, 2 miles south of Rockland. At the airport: Taxi, 800 539-5001, shuttle service, 207 596-6605, limo 800 937-2424, and rental cars - National, 207 594-8424 and U-Save, 207 594-2268.
By car (4 hours and 185 miles northeast of Boston): Take interstate 95 north to Route 1 in Brunswick, then follow Route 1 north to Rockland. Bus: Concord Trailways provides regular service to Rockland. 800 639-5150.
TO SEE IN ROCKLAND VACINITY:
Bancroft Gardens on the oceanfront. Merryspring Park's 66 acre garden. Rockland and Owls Head lighthouses. The Farnsworth Art Museum contains a distinguished collection of American art, including works of N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. Shore Village (Lighthouse) Museum.
WHERE TO STAY IN ROCKLAND:
The Limerock Inn, 800 546-3762, is a charming bed and breakfast. The Navigator Motor Inn, 207 594-2131, is also conveniently located near the windjammer docks. For more accommodations, contact the Rockland Chamber of Commerce, 207 596-0376.
WHERE TO EAT IN ROCKLAND:
Cafe Miranda, 207 594-2034, features homemade pastas and local seafood. The Waterworks Pub, 207 596-7950, is a fun place with a Scottish pub. The Landings, 207 596-6563, is right on the water and serves a wide selection of traditional seafood dishes.
NOTE: Rain and fog are possible, bringing sailing to a halt. The single shower on the Nathaniel Bowditch is on deck. Cold weather may mean not bathing for several days. In other words, windjamamers are not cruise ships, but the many who love them come back year after year.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
To book passage on the Nathaniel Bowditch, call 800 288-4098. The Maine Windjammer Association, P.O. Box 1144P, Blue Hill, ME 04614. 800 807-WIND. Contact them for information about other schooners, the annual Schooner Race and other special events.
RECOMMENDED READING: "Windjammer Watching on the Coast of Maine," by Virginia L. Thorndike. Down East Books, P.O. Box 679, Camden, ME 04843.