"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." Helen Keller

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A Sailor’s Life: Penobscot Bay


When you are a deckhand working on a schooner that is sailing off the mid-coast of Maine and you hear your captain give this command, you jump up and run/climb/pirate down to the deck as fast as possible without a moment of hesitation.

It doesn’t matter if you are eating corned beef hash, polishing a brass cannon, in the galley washing dishes, asleep in your little hole of a bunk, meditating, or taking care of business in the head. When you hear “ready about,” you run.

You do not pass go; you do not collect $200. You are a lowly deckhand, and your hands must be on deck, ready to tack, jibe, crawl up the topmast, or haul the lines with every ounce of strength in your body and then some. You are barefoot; your ratty, dirty clothes are always damp, and your hands are callused and leathery from the lines. You are always the last in line for the shower and for meals, and you are always the first in line for anchor-hauling and dish washing. You wake up before dawn to scrub the deck and stay up late into the night, closing the hatches and blowing out the oil lamps. You must be ready to entertain the passengers on the command of your captain with stories, songs, antics, or puppet shows. Your work is your life; you live on the boat and have only sixteen hours off a week. Despite the immensity of what you are earning in experience, your salary is approximately one dollar an hour.

And people pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to live a week in your life. They sign up to sail Penobscot Bay on a real ship, with a real crew, and be a real sailor. Most will say it is the best vacation of their lives.

Tall ships sail up and down the coast of Maine from May to October, carrying captains, crew, and customers to spotty islands, rock-cropped lighthouses, and ridiculously quaint New England villages. These schooners are no luxury cruise ships; there are no sequined dancers, eat-all-you-can chocolate buffets or bingo games. This is not a shopping-mall travel experience; there is absolutely nothing to buy. These are not smooth, sleek fiberglass wenched-out showboats but decades-old windjammers with wooden hulls, hemp lines, whiskey barrels for water storage and wood-fired stoves. There are no traditional showers, the cabins are tiny, and privacy is an absolute illusion if anything. Dinner is a lobster and clam bake on the beach, bare-handed and messy with crustacean goo dripping down your elbows (all Mainers know that a wash in the salty Atlantic beats a lame lobster bib any day).

From Boothbay to Bar Harbor the schooners ride the Atlantic with itineraries set only by the wind and tide, and travelers sign up to sail on the Timberwind and the Stephen Taber to live the life of a sailor for a week. Penobscot Bay is regarded by the world-cruising community as one of the top three places to sail in the Atlantic-triangle loop along with the Mediterranean and the Caribbean; sailors treasure the sure waves of the icy north ocean more than a cold PBR or a hot shower. For one week, you are a sailor, you are as free as a leaf on the wind, as a dolphin at the bow. You look out onto the glassy ocean and know that the whole world is laid out before you, and the sunset will pull you forward to your next horizon. You are a sailor.