The Shantyman’s song bellowed across the deck of the schooner, setting the pace of the work to be done on this Maine cruise.
-Who paid out all this chain, boys,
Heave your man spikes down.
-We’ll haul her back again, boys,
Heave your man spikes down.
The anchor needed to be raised after our first night away from the docks, and just like everything else on the 1800s era vessel, it had to be done by hand.
I had volunteered to help the crew, and grabbing hold of one of the large levers of the anchor windlass, I began pushing and pulling to the cadence of the tune. A round of effort matched each line of verse for the better part of fifteen minutes before the anchor was up and secured.
A call then went out for more volunteers to help raise the sails. Long halyards that extended to the top of the masts over old wooden blocks were stretched the length of the boat as the crew divided the volunteers into two groups. One was assigned ‘the peak’, and the other ‘the throat’ as a new shanty began, at a different pace.
The whole scene hearkened back to a simpler time. A time of adventure, exploration, great riches, and the greatest of tragedies.
It was all an adventure for me — new experiences, new places, even a new vocabulary. The pull of the mountains has always been stronger than that of the sea for me, and nearly all of my recreation time in New England has been spent in search of alpine outcropping rather than rugged coastlines. When I was invited by the Maine Windjammer Association to spend five days sailing aboard the Isaac H. Evans in the Penobscot Bay and Gulf of Maine, though, my sense of adventure was piqued.
The Isaac H. Evans was originally built in 1886 in the Delaware Bay, and for years it dredged for oysters there under sail. When powered vessels began to dominate the industry, she retired to Maine and eventually was converted to serve the tourism industry. The sixty-five foot schooner is now a National Historic Landmark, and allows up to twenty-two guests to sail for up to six days.
You can sense her history the minute you walk out on the docks to board her in Rockland, Maine.
Late on a Sunday afternoon, I boarded the boat via a steep ramp from the dock, and found cookies, juices and friendly greetings once aboard. My cabin was cozy; a small room with a window, two beds, a sink, a shelf and a piece of chocolate. I knew immediately that I had over-packed, but fortunately I had the room to myself.
After settling in, Captain Brenda Walker arrived and called everyone to the deck for introductions. Her love of her boat and sailing was immediately obvious as she welcomed everyone, laid out the protocols and expectations, and introduced her crew of five, who would sail for the guests the following morning.
The first evening would be spent at the docks, leaving me free to explore the area around Rockland. I took the opportunity to drive up to Camden Hills State Park in hopes of catching the rise of the supermoon, but clouds came in early, so I headed back to the boat. The tide was in, and the ramp to board was far less steep than earlier, the novelty of which reminded me of just how green I was at anything maritime.
On the boat’s deck, a concert had broken out. Every trip aboard the Isaac H. Evans has a theme, and this trip would be the folk music cruise. Sailing with us was noted musician Hank Cramer, a true storyteller through music who is known for his songs of cowboys, soldiers and sailors. His genuine connection to his music, garnered from former avocations in his venturesome life, was evident as he sang the evening away.
The crew of the Isaac H. Evans also exhibited great musical talent, lending voices, guitar and even competently played musical spoons that had been borrowed from the galley. Songs that evening ranged from sea shanties to Jimmy Buffet, and the fun, lively atmosphere was great for getting to know the people with whom I’d be at sea with for the next few nights.
Morning came early the next day, as I was awakened by bustling activity of all kinds. The call of a loon, seemingly right outside my cabin, first caused me to stir, but I quickly became aware of drone of the lobster boats that were moored around us beginning to head out for the day. Squawking gulls followed their departure out of the harbor, as hopeful as the men and women aboard for traps full of catch.
Friendly “hellos” from new friends greeted me on the deck. Coffee and fruit had been laid out, and the galley crew were cooking up a storm for breakfast. I found myself in a wooden rocking chair in the boat’s stern, watching the morning mist dance and drift in the early morning sun, and chatting with the other guests.
I spent a lot of time in that chair that morning, as the crew readied the schooner for departure. Sailing, I learned, was an experience that evolved slowly. It was nearly 11AM before we were under sail that morning, and every morning. Lines needed attention, sails needed tending, everything appeared methodical and procedural to the crew.
It didn’t really matter what time it was when we got going though, as we had no real agenda, and no real destination. We went where the wind would take us. Captain Brenda joked that you could ask her anything — about her boat, sailing, her life — except where we were going. She had a long mental list of great anchorages, and assuredly, we would make it to one.
At times, the wind was strong and steady and the boat would haul at eight knots, thrillingly flying between countless islands. Other times, a lighter breeze would be indecisive in direction, causing sails to suddenly come about. And on occasion, we went nowhere at all, waiting for the wind, drifting in the current amidst a beautiful landscape. In a real pinch, one of the boat’s dinghies had a motor that could be used to tug the schooner if winds turned flat, as they did on a couple of afternoons.
As we sailed, the crew enthusiastically shared their knowledge and experiences with the guests. Captain Brenda was — under her watchful eye — always willing to share the wheel and show guests how to sail her vessel. She’s a patient teacher, a trait that she relies on when assembling her crew for the season. She values work ethic, personality, curiosity and even musicality more than past sailing experience. That calculated gamble pays dividends in the quality of experience that her guests receive.
Though only some of her current crew had past experience on boats or ships, all of them expressed to wanting a future with them.
Aiden Ford, the first mate, who at all of eighteen years old has been sailing with the Isaac H. Evans for five years, runs the foredeck while the boat is under sail. She’s a remarkable, strong young woman with an interminable love of sailing and the sea, and in incredible confidence in her role on the boat. She looks up to her Captain as a role model of the position she aspires to, and is a diligent student of her teaching. While sailing, communication between the two is instinctive, reactionary, and largely non-verbal across the sixty-five foot schooner, but the tacks and jibes were always precisely executed.
Jimmy Millard, the deckhand, is spending his first season on a sailboat, after working a crew aboard a paddle-wheeler in the Pacific Northwest. At only twenty-two, he has lived a hard life. He was a non-traditional student, but his acquired knowledge would render him a formidable Jeopardy contestant. Quick to learn the tasks put before him, he’s gained a notable repertoire of experiences as a musician, artist, cook, and construction worker. But it wasn’t until he found the sea that he found himself. On the Isaac H. Evans, he is kept busy with sail-work, maintenance and cleaning, but also has an important role in hospitality, which he handles with humor and a quick wit.
Evident as well was a strong sense of the community among the crew: Jimmy’s wife provides childcare for the Captain in her home while she is at sea, and she and Jimmy, along with their young son, stay on the boat when it’s at dock.
Rounding out the crew are the folks in the galley, where Shawn Daniel is in charge. Shawn is a fascinating character who was green in his first season on the water. He’s a self described traveler and hobo, who by twenty-three had seen the country via freight train. He’s made ends meet as a street performer and a musician, but his real talent lies in the kitchen. He’s used his cooking as currency, honing his skills in kitchens across America during in his travels. He prides himself in his ability to adapt, and appeared to be a seasoned veteran after merely days on the job.
The food that came out of the galley was fresh, imaginative, and undeniably delicious. Meals were served buffet style on the deck, and at times I could not stop myself from securing seconds or even thirds. Before the trip, I was admittedly mildly concerned about what kind of food would be served, but on the first morning, when the most extraordinary french toast stuffed with almond and lemon zest emerged, surrounded by Spanish eggs, bacon and fruit, my fears were more than quelled.
After each day’s sail, Captain Brenda would find beautiful and interesting places to drop anchor, and prepare the activities of the evening. A canopy was hung over the deck in case of inclimate weather, and the dinghies were lowered. Guests were allowed to row or sail, and explore the islands near the anchorage. Swimming was an option as well, but the water in the Gulf of Maine remains a bit chilly in June, and no one embraced the offer, even on the hottest of days.
One evening the crew ferried all the guests ashore to a stone beach on a small, uninhabited island for a wood-fired lobster bake. A large pot filled with whole ears of corn and dozens of fresh lobsters was set over an open pit fire. While it cooked, fresh seaweed collected from the beach was placed over the meal to trap the heat. Once ready, the pot was overturned and the lobsters laid beautifully upon the sea-fare bed. Having our Captain serve lobster and champagne on the beach as the sun began to set over the island was the definite highlight of the entire trip.
While the crew prepared for evening meals and activities, the guests often came together for an informal cocktail hour. I found it intriguing to hear what brought people to the Isaac H. Evans for this trip. Many were here as fans of Hank Cramer and came to hear him play. Some had never been to New England before.
Five of the guests were more than just fans of Hank though, as they served overseas with him in the 72nd Signal Battalion in the late 1970s. The six men had kept in touch after their service, but had not been together as a group in over 30 years. It was heartwarming to hear their stories, and watch as they reminisced together.
The story that brought Hank to the Isaac H. Evans ran deeper as well. When tracking his genealogy, he discovered that his cousin from an earlier generation, George Vanneman, was the boat’s builder in Cape May. He connected with Captain Brenda via the internet, and the idea of the folk cruise was born. Hank will be sailing with the Evans twice this year, adding authenticity to the atmosphere of his family’s old schooner.
The youngest guest on the trip was twelve year old Michael Mckeen, accompanied by his father. Vacationing in New England, the two had set their sights on adventure. Chats with Michael throughout the trip highlighted the challenge that we all grappled with on the trip — letting go of some of the modern conveniences to which we’ve grown accustomed. Perhaps too accustomed. He spoke of learning to budget his time on his iPhone, after his iPad ran out of juice the first day. Having long been an avid reader, Micheal proudly completed four books on the trip!
Everyone aboard found their own ways to relax during the day. There was cribbage, cards, books, music, and conversation. I found myself drifting into an afternoon nap while under sail each day. Sometime below deck, sometimes above. I marveled at the wildlife as we sailed past many seals and porpoises, and once a nest of fledgling bald eaglets.
Lobster boats frequently worked around us, tending to their pots, and once in a while we would pass by another windjammer from the fleet, with friendly waves and cameras at the ready.
From time to time we would go ashore, most notably once to explore a granite quarry one afternoon, another morning to visit the town of Stonington on Deer Isle.
The four day Maine cruise aboard the Isaac H. Evans passed quickly, and the last night brought a celebration of our time at sea. Billed as a talent show on the daily board, the crew performed skits and sang for all, and served as an opening act to Hank’s most formal performance of the week once night fell. Perched above the deck on the canister holding the inflatable dinghy, he paired songs with tales of maritime history well into the night. As he played, a cool fog enveloped the boat, and the beacon from a lighthouse on a neighboring point punctuated the thick air. The whole scene was markedly quaint and idyllic.
The next morning we were back at the dock by 10AM to depart and bid our new friends farewell. A real sense of community was forged at sea over the course of the five days spent together. Brenda and Aiden wished us well with a song, and Hank graciously passed out CD’s to the guests and crew.
I’d like to thank the Maine Windjammer Association, and specifically Captain Brenda Walker, and her crew on the Isaac H. Evans for the invitation to sail with them, and for the incredible time that I had while aboard. The trip was a great introduction to a side of New England I had never experienced. The taste of the sea expanded my travel palate, and left if far from quenched.
Perhaps, moving forward, the mountains will see a bit less of me!