Sailing with schooners

Sailing in company with the likes of the schooner American Eagle always adds drama to a Downeast cruise. Photo by David Buckman

While cruising and solitude seemed a good strategy for steering clear of the pandemic this summer, there was no sailing away from the evidence of it in the light cruising traffic, abundance of vacant moorings, folks in masks, and the absence of the Penobscot Bay schooner fleet.

We missed sailing in company with these living, working anachronisms from the 19th century, which was a time possessed of a certain drama, and produced vessels with clouds of sail and stately manners rich in history, beauty and native art. Metaphors for the age of sail, they were part of a transformation in how people did business, wielded power and understood each other.

All of that and more seems to loom large when a schooner materializes on the horizon, and we are transported back in time about as authentically as one can be. Schooners speak to the boldness, spirit, industry and intelligence of the coastal culture. They address Maine particularly – her boatbuilders, vessels and sailors having given an exceptional account of themselves.

Schooners are deliberate creatures. They don’t seem to do anything quickly. The word “grace” comes to mind of their manners. The mate and I remember vividly one of our first close encounters, well before electronic devices offered comfort of any sort. Navigators of a low order, we were sniffing our way by watch and compass through a dungeon of fog in a tatty 18-foot sloop. Approaching Bass Harbor Bar, feeling lost in space, we blew our foghorn every few minutes.

Suddenly Leigh said with a certain urgency, “David, there might be something out there.”

“Something what?” I replied incredulously.

“I’m not sure, she responded, her voice trailing off, then adding unsurely, “It might be a ship.”

“A ship? A ship!?” I replied, my heart and thoughts racing.

The moments of silence that followed were pregnant, then the mate responded with a certain excitement in her voice, “It’s a schooner, and its coming close,” she declared, pointing to starboard.

So it was a few seconds later, as though it were a cinematic special effect, that the Mary Day magically appeared. I had just managed to process that fact when Leigh surprised me again, exclaiming, “Look, there’s another one,” as the Angelique, with her tanbark sails, appeared in a dream-like abstract rendering.

There’s an impressive power to these vessels in a breeze. We encountered the 92-foot schooner, American Eagle, off Stonington, Maine a few years ago. Reaching off to the east, we hung onto her coattails for a bit, then the southwester freshened and she began making more than 10 knots of it, her energy and purposefulness as organic and heroic as could be imagined

Schooners are physical creatures. Their system loads are high and they demand both brute strength and finesse. Seasoned skippers and crew handle their charges with a deft touch. One foggy July evening while anchored in Bucks Harbor we watched the lean, black, schooner J&E Riggin sail in, strike stay sails, sweep into the wind, ease the gaff, let the anchor rattle overboard and settle back on her ground tackle as though it were an unhurried dance.

There’s a particular beauty to a schooner bending to a breeze. The creamy arc of her sails seems nothing less than poetic. Fair winds, friends. We look forward to crossing paths again.

David Buckman and his wife Leigh sail a Folkboat out of Round Pond, Maine.