Windjammer Cruise - A Sublime Journey

Maine Windjammer Cruises is not your typical Cruise Line experience!


Author: Bill Federman


The last ship I had been on was a huge passenger liner cruising from port to port in the Caribbean. It had at least one bar on each deck, a seemingly infinite number of restaurants, 24-hour entertainment of one kind or another, and it carried more passengers than the population of the town in which I live.


This was different.


The Mercantile is a former cargo vessel that has been refitted to carry a maximum of 29 passengers around Penobscot Bay from her home port of Camden, Maine. She's a sleek and polished beauty and the sight of her under full sail is breathtaking. She was built in 1916 to carry cargo up and down the Maine coast and in 1989 was restored with a new galley and accommodations. The Mercantile has been a part of Maine Windjammer Cruises since 1942, according to the company's website. In short, it is an anti-cruise ship.


My son and I boarded her on a Sunday evening for a Monday morning departure. We had signed up for a three-day cruise that promised camaraderie, relaxation and a short hike or two on a couple of forested islands in the bay. My son would soon be heading off to college and I figured this uninterrupted time together might be the last we'd get for a while. I also saw the cruise as an opportunity for me to impart my massive store of parental wisdom, even though I knew he'd quickly reject or forget nearly all of it.


We stowed our luggage in our cabin and went topside to meet the crew and the other passengers, with whom we'd be in close contact for the next three days. The crew consisted of the captain, two mates, a cook and a cook's helper. The passengers, who numbered 15, were from as far away as Australia and as near as Cape Cod. The atmosphere could only be described as "mellow" as passengers and crew mingled, getting to know one another, while the setting sun burnished the impossibly picturesque harbor filled with anchored boats of all sizes.


As would be the pattern for the next two days, I was up early the next morning to sip hot, fresh coffee under an awning on the deck while pondering ... nothing, really. I was there to chill out and to be lulled into semi-consciousness by the sun and the windjammer's gentle rocking as she rode the bay's rhythmic waves.


This was a different kind of vacation for us. Our family usually does something physical -- biking on Cape Cod, hiking on Mount Desert Island, climbing in the Adirondacks, for example -- but on this cruise my son and I packed a couple of books, his ever-present iPod, his guitar and not much else for what we expected to be a restful respite.


And that's exactly what we got. We were willing spectators on this vacation, rather than active participants. For diversion, we drank in the scenery and reveled in the novelty of sailing on a windjammer, a new experience for confirmed landlubbers. We spent most of our time looking at things -- seals, porpoises, other boats, distant shores -- instead of doing things. Nothing was required of us except to help the two-man crew raise or lower a sail now and then. We tracked time -- as much as we cared to -- by the ringing of a bell to signal meals three times a day. The captain chose an appropriate spot each late afternoon to anchor for the night and anyone hardy enough to brave the (to me) frigid water dived overboard for a dip. After supper, as darkness fell, most people broke off into small groups to hold hushed conversations beneath an endless, star-filled sky, revealing the kind of intimate information that a glass of wine and the anonymity of momentarily crossed paths bring out. The ringing of cell phones and incoming text message alerts were blessedly absent.


I could get used to this, I thought, as we glided into Camden harbor at the end of our cruise. Life aboard a Maine windjammer, at least as a passenger, was gloriously self-indulgent. I read, I dozed and as I basked in the sun I was able to turn over in my mind matters both large and small, from minor personal concerns to the mysteries of existence. I solved none of my problems and I experienced no epiphanies. But that was OK. This vacation was entirely about the journey, not the destination. And the journey was sublime.


Bill Federman is a Times Union editor.