The Great Schooner Race: Aboard the Windjammer Lewis R. French
The Lewis R. French did not win the Great Schooner Race of 2013. But no one really minded in the end. Certainly not us, having spent an immaculate day sailing Penobscot Bay aboard the oldest schooner in America, sleeping in the sun, listening to the alliterative language of ships, and eating delicious things.
Not the other passengers, guests who, having only spent a week living and working aboard the wooden ship seemed completely installed in a life at sea. Not even our Captain, the affable and sinewy Garth Wells, who started his relationship with the boat first as a member of her crew, before purchasing the vessel and taking the wheel as captain.
It was all done in the spirit of good sport, from the race’s madcap start with a meeting of the captains a rowboats ride away from where the ships were anchored, to the laconic finish near Rockland Harbor.
A schooner race is not a sprint. Sometimes, I forgot it was a contest. And while captain and crew were working constantly for the entire four and a half hour voyage, making small adjustments to the mainsail, deciding when to tack, beseeching the wind to catch our sails, there was ample time to look, really look at the blue sky, the flags waving against slow moving clouds, the pine trees standing cool, coniferous sentry on every island, and the spectacular view, in every direction of these gentle, majestic-masted creatures. The 37th Annual Great Schooner Race was a rather civilized and jolly endeavor. And it all began fairly early in the morning.
We boarded the motorboat Jackie Renee at 8:30 for a forty minute fast ride from Rockland to Islesboro, where we were to meet our Windjammer, the Lewis R. French. Whenever I am back again on the water, I realize I’d forgotten how giddy I feel there. Zipping over waves with wind in my hair and sea spray on my face is so exhilarating.
It was already eighty degrees on land, a gorgeous 5th of July. On the water, you feel sun without heat. All around me, everyone was smiling into the experience, so I closed my eyes and waited. We arrived near Isleboro, the lovely, moneyed island, and were handed over to our company for the day.
They’d been underway for about six days and were a tight group who welcomed us aboard, showing us the ropes and galley, the head, and how to wash our cups. There are nooks and crannies everywhere on ships where things are stored, lines and charts and swinging booms. There is a lot to look out for, and a lot to overhear. The captain calls an order, and the crew calls back. These passengers, on vacation from places like Iowa and North Carolina, had become a seaworthy team that moved in unison, chanting “two,six, heave” as they pulled to raise the sails.
As soon as we found our place on deck, it was time to slowly go. The Lewis R. French is in the “Coaster” class, with the Stephen Taber, as well as the Victory Chimes, Mercantile, Grace Bailey and the Isaac H. Evans. The French is the smallest schooner in the Coaster Class.
There was very little wind in the beginning. So I found my way down to the small kitchen, where Amber the chef and Louisa the temporary mess mate gave me peach muffins with warm butter and lemonade. The girls happily explained the difficulty of cooking, especially baking on an antique iron stove that has to be constantly fed with wood, and how when the ship tilts and heels, pies and chickens, and once a lasagna can come shooting out into the room in a most dangerous fashion.
They showed me where they slept and where they kept their dry ingredients, in cupboards and under benches. Everything is shipshape, tidy and sunny. Though it was only 10:30, they were already preparing the next meal. In the meantime, a basket of fresh fruit, biscuits and jam, coffee and the aforementioned muffins were available for anyone hungry between breakfast and lunch.
I really love these kids who crew on ships. They have all this youthful vigor and Greek beauty, with salty hair and worn boat shoes. If I were any younger I would be there all summer myself, tan and strong and funny, although I am not a great one for sleeping in a cupboard.
I admired their workspace and cheerfulness, and thanking them, climbed up into the bright morning.Back up top there was some action, as the Heritage blew by with big-bellied sails.
Sailing, I am learning, is all about little maneuvers. It might have seemed as if we were drifting aimlessly, but Captain Garth was paying close and careful attention to the elements and their impact on the sails of his beautiful ship. Our aim was Rockland Harbor, and we were getting there, deliberately, if slowly.
And as any sailor will tell you, the journey is the destination. Or, the destination is the journey. When you are sailing, you are forced to wait. Wait for wind or other weather. We are not in control. We must be patient and watchful. A schooner race is slow, and not necessarily steady. When there is a gust you must make the most of it, and act quickly, guess what moves your rivals may make, and stay the course. Sure, under power the trip from Islesboro to Rockland is just over half an hour, but there is absolute poetry in the sails and details and dynamic interplay along the way. Eventually you will arrive at your destination. There were moments I thought about jumping overboard and swimming to shore; I had to remind myself to be patient and just be.
Just in time, before I made any rash decisions, the bell was ringing. Time for lunch. The girls had prepared a perfect feast, and we lined up with the others with our bowls and mugs.
In a huge wooden bowl, they served a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, the true food of the gods. And with it there was a rich split pea soup; the recipe, Amber explained, was her mother’s. I was very impressed by the soup’s deep flavor, which I thought for sure had to have come from a ham bone. In fact, it was completely vegetarian, with pieces of vegetables cooked al dente, instead of mushy. I couldn’t believe how hungry I was, having done little but lay in the sun, first on the starboard side, then port, explore the 64 feet of deck, and chat leisurely a little with the other guests. It was all very taxing.
Still ravenous after my generous portion of soup and salad, I moved on to bready things. The whole-and-buckwheat bread was spectacular, very New England, brown with just a touch of sweetness. It was cut into thick slices and swiped with butter and jelly.
I had a piece of fruit, eyeballed another muffin, but to avoid making a pig of myself, waited instead for brownies. A lovely German woman explained how well they had been fed aboard all week. There is an early risers continental breakfast with coffee, followed by a proper meal, which is often “Lewis R. French Toast,” I am happy to report. Followed by a snack, lunch with dessert, a mid-afternoon snack, and then dinner. You will be well fed and very content. The food is good, so very good.
The entire experience is simply, beautifully good. It is restful. It is serene. There are no cell phones, no televisions, no iPads or distracting screens of any kind. You are trapped on a floating, swaying, living, breathing boat with yourself, your thoughts and your family, if you choose to bring them, a captain, a few young mates, and others who have chosen the same trip out of time.
It is fathoms away from the real world. All cares and concerns seem like memories from another life. And this transformation occurs within hours, not days. By the end of our one day cruise, I felt at home being barefoot on the polished deck, climbing up and down the stairs to below, washing my dishes in a three bucket system, watching the leftovers become food for fish and birds thrown over the side, but really, there is very little waste.
By the end of a week, you learn to listen more, to take only what you need, to take up less space, need less, want less, and enjoy the space in between ports. In every direction, the view is spectacular. The Great Schooner Race of 2013 ended with grace and good sportsmanship as we gathered to applaud the Mary Day, the overall winner of the day, as we sailed slowly by. We dropped anchor in Rockland Harbor, near the jaunty marina park.
Captain Garth ferried us back to shore in his dinghy at five in the afternoon; the sight of the Lewis R. French and the glimmer of our day at sea began to vanish almost immediately against the unreal horizon.
My thanks to Captain Garth, all the crew, and Meg Maiden of the Maine Windjammer Association.
Disclaimer: We were invited aboard the Lewis R. French by the Maine Windjammer Association, to sample their on-board menu, with no further obligation to cover the topic on our website. All photos and opinion are my own, and I have not been otherwise compensated for including them here.