Sailing the Maine Coast: Schooner Time Downeast

By Kent E. St. John
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor

Capt Doug at the helm. photos by Kent E. St. John.
Capt Doug at the helm. photos by Kent E. St. John.

The sails were filled with the wind and the cobalt ocean lapped at the Heritage’s bow. Through the fog, the masts of the Schooner American Eagle lagged behind. On occasion, the chilly Atlantic sprayed my face.

Traveling in the mode of a bygone time reminds me of man’s need to move. Below in the galley, the wood stove was topped with a bucket of fresh chowder and the bowls put out for immediate consumption.

Stow to Go

Captain Doug Lee reminded us that, “The weather is perfect for what we are doing”. He was right, every time. In six days I went from clear, deep blue sun filtered light to white gray fog banks. It all seemed to be just perfect.

Third generation sailor learns the ropes.
Third generation sailor learns the ropes.

The sky was deep blue as I pulled into Rockland, Maine. The Heritage is mighty on first appearance. At 94’ and gleaming white with smooth lines, she is a site to behold. Below the front mast in the bowels of Heritage was cabin fourteen, my home for the next six nights. Gear stowed I headed to one of Maine’s culinary treats, Miranda’s. in Rockland.

Small size with big ambition and it does measure up. After sating myself I headed back to the Heritage to bunk down.

Sign Up and Ship Out

Early the next morning I was greeted by the smell of fresh coffee and salt air. Breakfast was filling and served in the large galley mid ship, a place that got near and dear to my heart. After rapidly wolfing down fresh blueberries ( Maine’s State Fruit) and an omelet, I dashed off to the local store.

A sure sign I was a first timer; everyone else had already stocked up. Wine and other stimulants are only available if you bring your own, so plan accordingly.Returning to the Heritage I met several of my shipmates. They were a well-mixed group in age and sex.

The only commonality I could find was that the great majority were not first timers like me. Stories of past sails were told to me with enthusiasm, seeing as I was new. (The Heritage has a 60% return rate) One guest was on her 20 th trip. The average was three. As I tipped my last beer, I felt accepted and ready to hoist sails so I slowly headed past the hurricane lamps down below to cabin fourteen. The gentle rocking in harbor was soothing.

Pulling up Stakes

The Heritage sailing off the coast.
The Heritage sailing off the coast.

The mist swirled around the Rockport Harbor as I headed up for a hot shower, one of two on the main deck. All hot water is supplied from the huge wood stove in the galley. The food is also cooked on that same stove. I realized I would love that stove in more ways than one.

The only other harder working piece of equipment was the yawl, Archie. Its powerful engines parted the harbor waters and under a blue sky we headed out past the first of many lighthouses that dot the Maine Coast. At the wheel is the other captain of the Heritage, Linda Lee, Doug’s wife and certified captain.

Bite our Dust

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed several other tall sails, with binocs; I was able to read fast flipping flags. The Steven Taber, Victory Chimes and Angelique seemed to be washing in our wake. The smiles from our crew grew wider; after all, we were to be the lead schooner into Boothbay for the annual Schooner Days. That, however, was in the future.

For now, we passed islands and history and listened to Cap Doug’s wonderful tales told in a style that is dry New England. We find out about Archie—you will have to sail to get the scoop.

Nighttime comes closing in, and it is time to drop anchor. With a picturesque harbor as a scenic backdrop, dinner is served buffet style on deck. It takes three times through to satisfy the sea air appetite. Soon the stars in the sky are matched with their reflection from the bay’s smooth surface. A three-generation cabin provides music nightly.

The patriarch wrote a jingle I grew up with, “Buckle up for safety, buckle up”. His son plays in the galley after dinner, tunes we all know. Grabbed a cookie and headed back to the berth. My legs were adapting to life at sea. I had the first lobster fest to deal with tomorrow, part of the Boothbay welcome!

Sea Food Lover

It turned into a rainy afternoon as we shored up off Cabbage Island, one finger of land from Boothbay. Those ships that I had been studying slowly were anchored nearby, so we hoed down. Bright colored rain slickers scrambled off sleek crafts and into rowboats. It was clear that our boat was in need of rhythm as we spun in circles. It seemed funny since for the last two days we bonded, hoisting sails and heaving ho. (All voluntary—the crew aboard is superb.)

Finally, we got our rhythm and pride; we were to be lead schooner the next day and wanted to make our captains proud. On second thought maybe we just wanted to get to our true version of Red Lobster. The island was filled with locals and sailors and the unmistakable smell of smoking wood and boiling saltwater. As the Maine Bugs (Lobsters) boiled, beers were shared and chatter filled the island.

As if on cue, a giant osprey landed nearby and the dinner bell rang. After visiting in-laws in Maine for years I finally felt like a Mainer. It was grand, and rowing back to the Heritage a pleasure. The late night fog could not dampen a good time.

Champions of the World

Cheering crowd greets the boat at the dock in Boothbay Harbor.
Cheering crowd greets the boat at the dock in Boothbay Harbor.

As I headed up for hot coffee in the morning, I could hear the splash off the bow and port sides. The Heritage was getting dressed up for arrival into Boothbay’s Schooner Days. The crew was washing and sprucing the ship. Above, clear skies tweaked my appetite and I was in passenger mode.

Soon we were cruising the area at a fast clip, the wind and weather perfect. The coast looked pristine and we did also; the day-tripper motorboats were already circling us. Their cameras were clicking and pointing continuously— only Joan Rivers is missing.

These are the Oscars of Maine Schooners. It was show time and we set the course. Blue sky, entourage, and WIND. Rapidly we sailed into one of New England ’s prettiest port villages.

Hundreds gathered as we rapidly approached the dock. Captain Doug yelled, “Anchors drop!” and we were the hit. In rapid fire, the other schooners sailed in. I was amazed at the cry from the crowd.


After preening for the crowd on shore, we piled into the rowboat for the parade and some provisions. Aware of the eyes of the crowd, we were in perfect rowing rhythm. Boothbay appeared to be the quintessential coastal Maine Village.

The time passed rapidly as I explored the shops and made phone calls from a booth. The sound of a brass band filled the air. I rushed to pick up a special bottle of wine for the night, for the fireworks. The food served buffet style on the deck seemed special this night, or perhaps I was just glad to be back onboard.

From our new spot far out on the harbor, the sky slowly darkened and its reflection disappeared on the water’s surface. Minutes later the explosion of color filled the air. I could not stop my childish “oohs and ahhs” and I did not want to. Life is very good on the deck of the Heritage.

Fog Horns

The weather the next morning was the foggiest I’ve ever encountered. It had nothing to do with that bottle of wine finished the night before. Captain Doug’s dry humor shone through as he again stated, “ The weather is perfect for what we are doing”. Now we all understood what he meant when we sailed through glorious sun the last three days. But this day we were to sail all day up the coast. As it turns out he was right.

True appreciation of coastal sailing comes with reality, and great navigational equipment; fog banks are a part of the experience. Granted the cozy galley and woodstove heat made a great retreat, but the big pleasure was on deck in slickers, ears listening for ghostly foghorns.

OD on Lobster

After a rainy night in a sheltered hole, we moved on to a secluded cove for our own lobster bake. The rowboat seemed to ride low in the water due to the heavy load of lobsters. We all had our work cut out to lighten the load, at the least two lobsters apiece. While the crew built the huge fire and gathered seaweed for cooking I explored the empty beach and tide pools. Mostly I gazed at the rocky coastline and back out at the Heritage. The pair was a match made in heaven.

The Routine

Life aboard the Heritage is what you make it. Guests can participate as much or little as desired. The chance to man the wheel of the schooner is thrilling. Navigation fascinating and respect for mariners unavoidable. Three meals are served daily and on deck when weather permits.

Dress in layers as the Maine Coast has several changes of weather daily. Trips ashore shouldn’t be missed as they complete the experience. By all means, do not miss any of Captain Doug’s after dinner story telling. It is an insight to Maine you may never catch anywhere else!

Find our more about Schooner cruising in Maine at Schooner Heritage