When I boarded Mercantile, an 80-foot schooner docked in Camden Harbor, Maine, my iPhone’s battery had about five minutes of life left on it. “Hey—do you have an iPod dock or outlet on board?” I asked a scruffy-looking young man who could have walked straight out of a modern-day Moby Dick casting call.
“Aw, lady, you don’t know how much fun yer gonna have once that thing’s dead,” he said as he took my bag to stow it below.
Part of me wanted to be offended and irate, but really, I was charmed. I was all in for this off-the-charts cruise. I could tell I needed it.
We set out across Penobscot Bay in an easterly breeze, and I was amazed how effortlessly the 95-year-old Mercantile handled. Making an easy 6.5 knots, she cut around the northern coast of North Haven Island to skirt Deer Isle’s western shore. When I remarked that I’ve raced on 30-foot boats that have more electronics than Mercantile, Capt. JR Braugh chuckled and assured me he knew where he was going. “Exactly where are we going?” I asked, innocently enough.
“Oh, it all depends on what I’m feeling like,” he replied.
It was my guess that Capt. Braugh never felt like going anywhere within cell phone range.
By 1600 hours, Pumpkin Island’s lighthouse came into view and we tucked into Bucks Harbor just southeast of the town of Castine. There, travelers bought whoopie pies and beef jerky in the general store while others picked through shells on the beach. That evening, the crew rigged a canopy over the foresail boom and we gathered beneath it to enjoy stuffed haddock and seasonal vegetables expertly prepared in the ship’s massive woodstove by cook Laura Tittle. As we nibbled on a dessert of strawberry rhubarb shortcakes, the sun dipped below the horizon and someone pulled out a guitar.
The Billings family built Mercantile on Little Deer Isle during World War I. They assisted the war effort by providing five ships—one for each of their sons—to transport goods to and from Maine. These ships were the original 18-wheelers of cargo transportation in the United States. For the next 15 years Mercantile transported firewood to lime kilns in Rockport and fish to a packing plant in Gloucester. Often, just a captain and two mates ran her. This struck me as astonishing, considering that during my cruise, Capt. Braugh had all 20 passengers gather on deck to raise or lower a sail. “He’s making us earn our dessert,” a South African guest commented.
That was fine. Laura’s dessert was worth it.
Around the turn of the century, hundreds of schooners like Mercantile operated along the New England coast. Steamships were the preferred method of cargo transport in much of the country, but the beamy schooners with their shallow draft and centerboards reigned supreme along the Maine coast, where the rugged shoreline made steam and rail travel impossible.
Over the years, hundreds of schooners were damaged in wharf fires, after which shipwrights would strip the masts, remove the deck and transform the remnants into a barge. Today, only five of these original coasting cargo schooners remain, and four of them are seen off Maine shores each summer, taking passengers up and down the coast. That Mercantile is still on the water is not only a testament to the integrity of the vessel, but also to the dedication of Capt. Ray Williamson, owner of Maine Windjammer Cruises, who meticulously maintains a fleet of schooners for recreational use. Each summer thousands of tourists come to Camden from around the country for a chance to experience a slower pattern of life, a vacation in tune with the elements.
The second morning came bright and early, with Laura’s lemoncakes and fresh coffee on deck at 0630 hours. We hoisted sail and left the harbor, finding a steady wind from the north. Instead of channeling down the Eggemoggin Reach, we sailed west toward Islesboro, skirting north up the coast and fighting the current and a waning breeze. It’s often said of New England weather that if you don’t like it, wait five minutes. Unfortunately, the axiom didn’t help us, and the wind remained fluky. With temperatures in the 70s and the sun shining bright, we read novels on the deck and watched the first mate splash saltwater on a bucketful of lobsters.
We arrived in Gilkey Harbor on Islesboro at dusk, with Ducktrap Mountain watching from the mainland. Once in harbor, the crew rushed ashore in the tender, taking the tub of lobsters with them. They set up a propane burner and packed seaweed into the tub, steaming the lobsters with corn while potatoes baked on an open fire pit. When served, the food was so fresh that steam still lingered in the air around our picnic table. A stray cat showed up at our ankles, and judging from her pickiness when it came to lobster scraps, I could tell she lived the good life here on this little island. “That’s the first time I’ve ever wanted a cat to take me home with it,” another guest commented.
The next morning, clouds were high in the sky and the water glassy smooth, promising a day of quiet sailing. Mercantile does not have a motor, so first mate Andy had to push us off the mooring in the tender as a group of sunbathing seals barked from a rock. We lazily made our way down the bay back toward Camden.
Maine Windjammers have been sailing these shores for the last seventy-five years, offering cruises in and around the islands of Maine to those who prefer sunsets to reality TV, percolated coffees on deck to Starbucks on the train. As we approached Camden, we noticed a massive cruise ship lurking on the horizon. Not one of us was envious.
To see a full photo gallery of Maine Windjammer photos, click here.