Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated with sailing ships. There is just something so awe inspiring about beautiful white canvas sails hoisted on tall wooden masts billowing and snapping in a strong sea wind, the wooden hull of the ship cutting through the water. I even like to watch little sailboats bobbing on azure or emerald water on a sunny day. And yet, except for one experience attempting to sail a Sunfish off Captiva Island in Florida, which resulted in running it up on a sandbar, I have had no experience sailing aboard larger sailing ships. That was until I went to Camden, Maine.
On a previous trip to Maine in 2013, I had tried unsuccessfully to book a sail on a windjammer out of Portland. There didn’t seem to be too much interest that time of year, probably due to the cooler fall weather.
In 2014, we returned to Maine and included a stay in Camden. Camden is often referred to as the windjammer capital of the world. During the nineteenth century, Camden’s harbor was full of schooners, sloops and other sailing vessels that were major modes of transportation at that time. Today, it’s beautiful little harbor plays host to numerous historic and championship winning windjammers from all over the U.S. and the world that anchor there during the summer. Camden’s annual Windjammer Festival held Labor Day weekend attracts 100+ sailing ships and thousands of people for the festivities.
Columbus Day weekend pretty much marks the end of the tourist season in Maine and is a good time to go if you want to avoid crowds. I checked online for day sails. During the crowded summer and early fall high season, it is required to book ahead if you plan on going on a day sail. In late fall (2nd week of October), again no one seemed to be showing any interest in booking. Due to strict refund/cancellation policies, I waited until we arrived in Camden to see what was available.
Before you start your day with other activities, it is best to go down to the public landing and check out the tables of the various sailing companies to see which one will have the best chance of actually going out during the day. Of the three windjammers offering day sails that day, I chose the Schooner Olad, which is part of Maine Schooners (www.maineschooners.com). A completely restored, classic yacht built in 1927, the Olad is 57 feet long, seats 22 passengers and carries 1500 pounds of canvas. This is a family-run business and the wife of Captain Aaron Lincoln was manning the table that day. She told me the 3 PM cruise looked like it was definitely going out and that her family was hosting a Danish foreign exchange student and her son would be bringing him along.
Having been forewarned that 2 hour parking (on-street and at the public landing) is strictly enforced in Camden, we parked at the library (one of two free public parking lots).
My husband was obsessing about possible seasickness. I didn’t give it much thought and ordered clam chowder, a lobster quesadilla and hot tea for lunch right before we sailed.
Presenting ourselves 30 minutes before departure, we are given bright green stickers to wear to identify us as paid customers. We board the Olad and sit atop one of the cabins. There is also seating well for 8 with padded backs for more comfortable and stable seats. In addition to the Danish student, there was a convivial group on board including a family with kids and favorite aunts in tow and a couple from Houston who had just come from staying in Bar Harbor for the past week that we chatted with.
We cast off and slowly motored out of the harbor. The 2-man crew made the usual announcements including that no one was to fall overboard; something one would not want to do as the water was 55 degrees or colder that fall day.
If you’ve never been sailing, here’s a caveat about how to dress – warmth and comfort are more important than fashion. It is always colder once you are out on the water than on land. I suited up with water-repellent running pants, a medium weight water repellent jacket and a knitted ski headband to cover my ears. Gloves are good too, but I don’t wear them as I can feel my camera controls better that way. My camera has its own rain jacket as well. For those that don’t dress properly, the Olad provides blankets.
Due to high winds, heavy swells and high tide conditions, the second mate hoists two sails “reefed” (not fully stretched out). We still clipped along at an exhilarating rate of speed. The captain said that they once got the Olad up to 9 knots. That’s fast for a boat of this size.
Remember the no man overboard warning? It starts to get a little dicey, especially for my husband. As the boat picked up speed, we heel deeply. The side of the Olad is inches from the bay’s surface. He had to brace his feet against an ice chest to keep from sliding and falling in. I’m bouncing around all over the place, sliding along the top of the cabin, bracing my body against a mast and taking pictures. I suddenly realized I was grinning like an idiot! What an adrenaline rush! Sun on my face and wind whipping my hair, I was totally in my element, as if I’d been doing this all my life. I had found a new love and now understood why I loved sailing ships so much. Turns out I don’t get seasick.
We slow to see Curtis Island Lighthouse.
Other sites include expensive houses dotting the shore and colorful fall foliage. Due to water and wind conditions, we stayed in Penobscot Bay. When the water and wind are calmer, the Olad sails out further so that you can see Owls Head and the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouses.
All too soon, it was time to return to port. We saw the Camden Harbor Inn, where we were staying that night, up the hill overlooking the harbor. I felt sadness at docking. I’m sure there will be plenty of sailing trips in the future.
The Schooner Olad, sails daily from Camden Memorial Day weekend to mid-October. Seasonal sailing times July 1 – September 15 are 9:45am (morning wildlife cruise), 12 Noon, 2:30 PM & a 5 PM sunset cruise. Off season Memorial Day – June 30 and September 16 through October departure times are 10 AM (wildlife cruise), 12:30 PM and 3 PM. Cost during the 2014 season for a 2-hour sail was $39 for adults, $29 for children under twelve. A photo of you taken during the sail is included. Custom half-day and full day charter sails are also offered as well as special event sails throughout the season and bookings for weddings and private parties. For more information, visit their website at http://www.maineschooners.com/