We board the schooner American Eagle in the late-summer darkness, the last of the 26 passengers to arrive for the four-day Penobscot Bay cruise that will set sail in the morning. Captain John Foss welcomes us. His pride in this ship that his hands transformed from a worn-out fishing schooner to a jewel of the Maine Windjammer Fleet is obvious after only a brief tour en route to our cabin.
In the morning I learn the first truth about windjammers: There may be no finer way to snap awake than to the sight of sunlight on the water, gulls wheeling by, lobster boats chugging to their harvest. We hoist the sails together, nearly everyone grabbing line and heaving to; with the sails snapping, we skim out of the harbor, past Owl’s Head Light, heading to wherever the wind—and Captain John’s whims—take us. “The best cruise is one with no itinerary,” he says.
Most of the people aboard have sailed the American Eagle before. They book the same week each year, like migratory birds returning to the nest. This nest comes with fresh-baked breads, pies, chowders, and stews enjoyed on deck with the sun on your face, and an all-you-can-eat lobster bake on a deserted beach.
Each day we row ashore in a dinghy. The pulling of oars feels as good as a massage, and we stroll along pebbled beaches and narrow island paths, or sit outside cafés in harbor villages whose white-painted houses appear as crisp as the breeze. At night everyone talks softly as though hushed by the blazing stars, the way you speak around a campfire. The dark settles like a blanket. We wait for Captain John to retire to the galley and read aloud to his passengers by lantern light.
On our last day we anchor off Lasell Island. I’ve seen sunsets in South America, in Florida, in the Caribbean, but I’ve never seen a twilight descend like this one. As the colors deepen, everyone grows silent.
Which leads to the second truth: In the days that follow a schooner trip, the irritations of the tiny cabins and the snores of neighbors all fade. The scent of morning at sea, the incessant splashing of water, and the dazzling light of the sun setting behind Lasell Island remain. You’ll return.