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Hands-On, Feet Up on a Schooner Sail

A party of 12 coasts care-free, some lending a hand hoisting sails on an old-fashioned Down East cruise

February 04, 2001|KARIN WINEGAR | Karin Winegar is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn

PENOBSCOT BAY, Maine — The first mate and I waded into the sea with a basket, scooping up salt-fragrant green handfuls of clean, knobby seaweed for the lobster bake.

When the wood fire in the beach pit was white-hot and crumbling, we placed the seaweed on top and fanned out ears of sweet corn still in their silky husks, heaps of slick black mussels bristling with limpets and a mass of dappled, dark green lobsters. A quart of melted butter bubbled in a pot; a cooler held soft drinks and beer. The ship's dozen passengers spread out on the sand, savored the waves and fire, sipped and waited.

While the food steamed, I walked over a sandy rise and away from the cove where our schooner, the Kathryn B., rocked at anchor. Slipping off my shorts and sweatshirt, I stepped into another cove in my tank suit and reef-walking shoes. When the water was thigh-deep, I bent over and floated, watching the vast mosaic of the sea bed--a pale lemon-colored crab, wide ruffled ribbons of kelp, snails striped like cinnamon Christmas candies, iridescent flashes of small fish.

I had sailed Penobscot Bay on the Kathryn B. previously, in the warmth of a Down East summer. This time I wanted to see what it was like in autumn, timing my visit for a full moon and the color change in the forests sloping down to the bay.

So for a long weekend in October, my friends Linda Strande and Judy Olausen and I joined others on this replica of a 19th century Yankee coasting schooner.

Maine claims more islands--4,617 by some counts--than other states on the Atlantic coast; 1,800 of them lie in Penobscot Bay, between Port Clyde in the west and Brooklin in the east; only 400 are larger than an acre.

The cove where I floated was a speck in the bay's 1,000 miles of corrugated coastline, which hold a forest of seaweed and underwater canyons providing a haven for colonies of fish, sea urchins, clams, crabs and lobsters.

I stood up and heard the keening whistles and peeping of unseen sea birds, the flap of the ship's enormous red and white pennant. Back over the sandy rise, my fellow passengers were happily swapping recipes for lobster, now heated to a bright red.

"We could split 'em like the French do in the West Indies and put 'em on the barbie," said our captain, Gordon Baxter.

Gordon and his wife, Kathryn, built their schooner in 1995 with an eye to history, safety and the cruising comfort of 10 to 12 passengers. The ship's hull is steel instead of wood; three 63-foot masts carry 3,000 square feet of sail, including a main sail, mizzen sail, foresail and several staysails.

The comforts below the 80-foot deck--large berths, airy private cabins with private heads (toilets) and showers--are uncommon in the schooner cruising world, where older, more traditional ships carry as many as 30 passengers, cook with a wood stove and may have showers and a head on deck.

The fleet that sails Penobscot includes a few replicas like the Kathryn B. as well as more original schooners than any place else in the country. Only about 18 authentic vessels survive, a remnant of the thousands of originals.

The freight trucks of their day, Yankee coasting schooners hauled coal, lime, cod, granite, timber, potatoes and passengers along the coast until they were supplanted by steamships and railroads in the early 1900s. The ships we pass or glimpse--including the Stephen Taber and the Lewis R. French, both launched in 1871, and the Grace Bailey, which dates to 1882--are floating National Historic Landmarks.

Back at the lobster bake, I stabbed my cold beer into the cornmeal sand. Butter ran down a fistful of lobster. My plate wobbled under a load of hot corn, steamed clams and tender new potatoes.

"Gordon, I've been eating lobster for 21 years in Maine and this is the best I've ever had," said passenger Jean Des Jardins.

It was. I had two, knowing it might be a long time before I could return.

The food fueled our work on the ship. Hauling lines, I felt my back, legs and arms strengthen and my palms toughen as we followed the captain's commands: "Slow down peak." "Take up throat." "Sweat yours up." (Lower the outside edge of a sail, raise the inside edge where it attaches to the mast, and pull the halyard to raise the sail higher.)

On the largest schooners, some passengers are essential to raise the sails. Pitching in is optional on the Kathryn B. On this trip many of us--my friends and I, plus couples from Maine, Delaware, Virginia and New York--helped.

It takes no sailing experience to grab a line and heave as directed, and the crew teaches interested guests how to tie knots and coil ropes. You don't have to be physically fit or a keen sailor; anyone who would rather loll and read or nap is welcome to do that too.

To complement our at-sea experience, Linda, Judy and I had arrived in the Kathryn B.'s home port, Rockland, a day early to explore. It's a town of about 8,000 people, an hour and a half drive northeast of Portland.

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