Off the coast of Maine, classic wooden schooners race to the finish line
By Andy Castillo
Leaning casually against the wheel, John Foss, captain of the Rockland-based schooner American Eagle, surveyed a quiet blue sea that stretched out before him.
Ahead, a dozen or so billowing white sails dotted the horizon — the competition.
“Everyone has a breeze, now. Things should even out a bit,” he said. “You read the water and try to find the wind.”
Then he spun the wheel into a stiff breeze that had sprung up from stillness about 10 minutes ago. At the schooner’s bow, Christa Miller-Shelley, the first mate, sensed the 92-foot schooner’s shifting direction.
“Ready about,” she barked. At her call, Crew members Kevin Flood and Asher Heaney jumped to life and took positions beath the jib, a triangular staysail in front of the ship’s forwardmost mast.
With them, I tightly gripped a rough rope, waiting for the next call.
“Tack,” Miller-Shelley said. Beside me, Heaney and Flood tensed in anticipation.
As the hull rotated, the sails fell slack and waves sloshed against the wood.
“Send it!” Miller-Shelley yelled.
The crew exploded into action, loosening some lines and yanking on others. With all of my strength, I pulled hand-over-hand on my rope, pivoting the jib to the other side of the boat, until the canvas again strained against the rope.
With a rush, the mainsails billowed and the American Eagle again surged into the wind.
The Great Schooner Race in Maine
Since 1977, ship captains from across the eastern seaboard have rendezvoused every American Independence Day weekend (July 4) at Penobscot Bay to compete in the Maine Windjammer Association’s annual Great Schooner Race.
The race highlights historic wooden vessels like the American Eagle, a designated National Historic Landmark that was built in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1930 and restored from the water-line up in the mid-1980s by Captain Foss at the North End Shipyard in Rockland.
Foss, who grew up in New York and served as an officer in the Coast Guard, began sailing full time in the 1960s and has co-owned the shipyard since 1973. For Foss and the deckhands, sailing is a way of life.
“I describe this kind of trip as a little bit of excitement and a lot of relaxation,” he said as the schooner settled into the breeze.
The race is also a chance for crewmembers to test their mettle against peers from other schooners. Those who operate the American Eagle, for example, have a particularly strong rivalry with the crew of the Heritage, a smaller schooner of a different class that docks in the same port.
“When you’re going this distance, every (speed) knot counts,” said Flood, a 22-year-old first-year deckhand from New Jersey.
He gestured to ropes along the bowsprit that the crew had loosened before pulling up the anchor to allow the ship’s jib to swing back and forth more easily. Flood noted he joined the crew after traveling on the American Eagle on family vacations for nearly a decade. He learned to appreciate the calming peace of a life lived at sea (albeit difficult at times).
Even during the frenzied race, life on the water kept to a slower-than-normal pace.
Enjoying the Race
Guests, who’d spent a week onboard prior to the Great Schooner Race’s start (sailing up-and-down Maine’s coast, enjoying a lobster roast on the shore of Cranberry Island, watching fireworks over Penobscot Bay), lounged about on deck, reading books and soaking in the sunlight as they leisurely watched the competition unfold.
Around noon, cooks Matthew Weeks and Sarah Collins announced lunch — pork stew with celery, onions and fennel seeds with a romaine-goat cheese salad topped with walnuts and a maple-yogurt dressing — not offerings you’d expect to come out of a 10-by-10 ship galley.
The soup was decadent with a hint of heat and the deck quieted as both guests and deckhands alike savored the soup’s nuanced flavors, which were accented by fresh bread and the sweet salad.
All the while and with a pitched deck, the schooner American Eagle tacked into the wind — accelerating to 9 knots, driven by wind gusts between 18 to 25 miles an hour. (In comparison, Foss said the fastest the American Eagle has ever gone is 14 knots).
A Quieter Adventure
As the race progressed over its 25-mile course, from just outside the bay to the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, mainland worries seemed to slip into the sea. Maine’s rocky coastline slid past. The deckhands called to each other — “Heave, ho!” and “Pull, pull, pull!” — as they pulled in the jib and dressed the schooner’s massive 1-ton mainsail.
An aroma of salty water hung in the air and the only other sound was white-capped waves sloshing against the hull. With the exception of modern-day clothing styles and a few navigational gadgets, the scene could have been captured on a schooner in the 1930s as the crew raced other fishing boats to market.
This authentic aura is intentional, according to Foss.
In his touring business, Foss offers mostly week-long tours onboard the American Eagle (as opposed to day trips, which might yield more money) in order to maximize the schooner’s use. The saltwater preserves the wood, he says, and his business is as much about preserving the ship as it is about earning a livelihood.
But while the sailing lifestyle can seem idyllic, “There’s a lot of work behind it,” Foss said, noting year-round maintenance, repairs, and periodic renovations required to keep the schooner sailing.
Gradually, a few of the stark white sails on the horizon grew larger and our schooner overtook the J. & E. Riggin, a slightly smaller schooner competing in a different class.
Close up, the Riggin stood proudly against a clear blue sky, backlit by a bright sun that shined through its sails. Its hull sliced easily through a gentle sea.
Then a cannon shot rang across the water and a radio crackled to life: Another wooden schooner, the Mary Day, had finished first in our class.
Minutes later, we followed in the Mary Day’s wake and sailed past the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, which was crowded with onlookers who boisterously cheered our finish, honoring the beauty of the historic vessel and the efforts of its captain.
At an awards ceremony later, that sentiment was reflected by a crowd of more than a hundred people. Every vessel received an award befitting a sea captain of old — alcohol.
“We hope you enjoy it,” the announcer quipped. “You’ve earned every fluid ounce.”
How You Can Join the Next Race
To find out more about sailing in the race, visit SailMaineCoast.com and then book a cruise for race week on one of the eight boats in the fleet. Fares start at $1,000 per person for an all-inclusive week of windjammer sailing.
According to the schooner American Eagle’s website, Foss’ schooner sails on cruises of varying lengths, from three to 11 days. Trips include moonlit sails as the weather permits. The schooner also sails down the east coast and across the Canadian border to St. Andrews, Campobello Island, and New Brunswick.
Additionally, the schooner makes an annual trip to Gloucester Mass. to participate in the Mayor’s Cup Race over the Labor Day weekend.
Lighthouses, wildlife, and unspoiled scenery are part of every trip, the website notes.