Making history is often a matter of how much work one puts in and which way the wind blows. The Windjammers of Maine are a testament to that.
“Windjammer” describes a category of different classes of large sailing ships of the 19th and 20th centuries. In oceanic shipping, they were the workhorses, with high cargo capacity and a unique design that included tall masts with square canvas sails. These were the “tall ships” of the time and were highly admired by the public. It was a romance that would prove remarkably enduring.
As the crew starts to set the headsails, the jib and the staysail – and I turn off the wind just enough – there’s a feel. The boat starts to heel, the lines start to stretch. That’s the spot. There she is again.
Brenda Thomas, Windjammer Captain
The Maine Historical Society’s Steve Bromage explained how the shift of industrialization from the eastern seaboard to the expanding west also ushered in the first wave of the tourism and vacation culture in Maine: “Rusticators had begun to find Maine before the Civil War. Then after the war, for the next fifty years or so, things really expanded.”
Not everyone will be familiar with the term “Rusticators.” Natalie Springuel of the University of Maine’s Sea Grant Program elucidated its origins: “People were exposed to the beauty of the coast of Maine through the artists of the Hudson River School and other painters. Artists would go back to Boston and New York City and Philadelphia and show their paintings – beautiful, highly esteemed works of art.”
It didn’t take any more convincing than that for people of means to begin a steady stream of travel to Maine. For many, it became a pilgrimage, a glorious way of escaping the turmoil of the city to a simpler, more idyllic and, yes, rustic world. Being people of means, many of the Rusticators built summer homes on the islands and the coastline. Many of the homes remain today, along with the echoes of that time.
One of the echoes would be the sound of steam engines powering the new vessels that carried people and cargo to Maine. To the captains of the old sailing ships, it must have seemed like the edge of the world had been reached. But for a few who still looked for a world beyond the horizon, a new life awaited – for themselves, and their beloved ships.
“There were some really innovative people – boat captains – who saw there was a way to make money using their ships differently,” said Natalie Springuel. “Instead of hauling cargo, they started bringing people onto their boats. Thus, the Windjammer as a tourism opportunity was born.”
Full speed ahead to today. There are upwards of a dozen historic Windjammers offering, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would otherwise require a time travel machine. New models of these storied ships are being built every year.
Sailing among the islands is a great way to take in the Maine coastline in all its rustic glory. But rest assured, even as you’re feeling the exhilaration of your life, these grand ships offer creature comforts, whether it’s a day trip or one that includes several nights.
On deck, the breathtaking coastal views and appearances by seals, porpoises and even whales are garnished with fine food and drink. Beneath the deck, handsome galleys and cabins of varnished wood are waiting, with walls that could tell stories if only they could talk. As living history, maybe they will.
Natalie Springuel wouldn’t be surprised. “Many of the Windjammers are National Historic Landmarks,” she said. “They're beautiful, and labors of love, with captains who have restored pieces of history.”
Windjamming Penobscot Bay:Listen to Episode 2