The Isaac H. Evans under sail. Photo courtesy Maine Windjammer Association
“Camping on the water.” That’s how the website describes a sailing trip aboard the Isaac H. Evans, a 126-year-old schooner that departs from Rockland, Maine’s harbor and sails around Penobscot Bay. On board are 20 lucky passengers—including me and my husband—and we’re in for a historic sailing experience.
The Evans was built in 1886 for oyster-catching and hauling, but nowadays it’s outfitted with small bunk rooms with electric lights. For four days in early June, it was home to me and Ken. We were keen on doing an unplugged, historic sail—a unique way to have a vacation. (Trips range from just overnight to a week in length; we chose the four-night adventure.)
Owned by Captain Brenda Thomas and her husband Brian, also a captain, the Isaac Evans is wind powered, although the gasoline-powered yawl boat—aptly named Tug ’n Grunt—pushes the boat when the wind dies. So not only do we get to enjoy an experience from days long past, but schooner sailing is eco-friendly too: very low carbon emissions. For more on this, see “15 Reasons to Take a Wind-Powered Schooner Trip in Maine.”
All Hands on Deck
On the morning we leave Rockland Harbor, Phil Bidwell, our first mate, instructs passengers on how we can help the crew of five to raise the sails. Helping out with the sailing is completely optional—but learning about sailing is half the fun! So, we all pitch in and line up along the rope lines to raise the giant mainsail, which is surprisingly heavy. We were advised in advance to bring gloves to keep from getting rope burns from the thick rope, which furiously whips through our palms.
Guests help the ship's crew hoist the sails. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach
Once all the sails are up, we glide along so smoothly that I can hardly feel the movement. As the crew bustles around, we watch as the lighthouse passes by. Twenty minutes after setting sail, two porpoises swim in tandem along the starboard side.
Already on the first day, I realize the pleasures of living on a historic boat: watching seabirds patrol for fish, seeing seals snoozing on rocky islands, gliding into quiet coves, skimming across the water, having your morning coffee on deck as the sun rises over the forested island hills.
There are other schooners to watch as well. We’re lucky enough to be part of the Maine Windjammer Association’s Schooner “Gam”: a rendezvous of all the ships in the association. So on our first day, we see a dozen other schooners sailing on the horizon—all heading to our meeting point in Gilkey Cove.
Schooners, I discover, are gloriously graceful with their angled sails, their sleek lines, and their slim prows. And, because she’s mostly made of wood, iron and brass, the Isaac Evans has an organic, living, breathing quality. I can see why our crew is passionate about what they do—even though they work super hard for long hours.
For the Love of Schooners
For Ken and me, the charm of the schooner sail is the relaxation and slow-down factor. It’s the sort of vacation where you can leave behind the 21st century for a simpler time. It’s amazing how quickly we forget about electronics and world events and just slip into a rhythm of the sun and moon, wind and tides.
Mostly, our daily routine centers around meals—which are incredible. Our cook, Wally, coaxes fresh-baked culinary delights from the belly of a 1905 cast-iron stove they call Glenna. (The stove is a Glenwood brand.) To give you an idea of the good eats, here’s a sampling of our saliva-stimulating menus over the four days: Maine blueberry pancakes, lobster quiche, fresh fish chowder and cornbread, haddock stuffed with crab, pork loin and biscuits, and strawberry rhubarb pie.
Wally is assisted by deckhand Aiden, a 17-year-old young woman who really knows the ropes—she’s been sailing since she was a little kid. For activity, there’s swimming, fishing, and rowing to uninhabited islands and hiking their rocky shores — but nobody minds if you lounge on deck and watch lighthouses drift by.
All of us passengers—even the kids—got to take a turn at the boat's helm. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach
Outdoor Living on a Historic Schooner
What I love most about my schooner sail on the Isaac H. Evans is the ocean and being in nature. As a landlocked Coloradoan, I can never get enough of the ocean. If I don’t get to the sea at least once a year, I feel bereft. And the ships of the Maine Windjammer Association make a total oceanic adventure possible. (Because the weather was cool and rainy for two days of the sail, the water was too chilly for me to literally immerse myself in the salty waves. Wading had to suffice.)
The flip side of our outdoor sailing experience can be dealing with foul weather. We contended with almost two days of rain and cold, and spent them huddled around the woodstove in the bunk area or helping the cook in the toasty-warm galley. On one particularly blustery night, our group of sailors gathered around the table, swapped stories, sang songs, and got to know each other better.
Luckily, Ken and I had brought our long underwear and wool hats—I had even purchased some Wellies for my feet (very little call for them in dry Colorado!)—yet still there were times when I was cold during this sail in early June.
During our four-day excursion, we learned to follow our course on the nautical chart, furl the sails, hoist the anchor and coil the ropes. Though purely optional, playing sailor is half the fun. Even mundane chores — vegetable chopping, dishwashing — are more fun at sea.
And to top off the excitement—and clinch the authentic Maine experience—there’s a lobster bake on the beach of a pretty little island. (More on that in a later post!)
—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and erstwhile sailor
Next post: “Lessons in the Simple Life: Maine Schooner Style”
The Isaac H. Evans is a member of the Maine Windjammer Association (MWA), a fleet of more than a dozen schooners built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are a bit fancier than others; a few have engines to fill in with sail power. Some do not take children under 16.
MWA schooner trips last from two to six days, sometimes include special themes. For instance, the Isaac H. Evans offers cruises with live music, knitting, pirate adventures, puffin excursions, lighthouse spotting, photography and full-moon night sailing.
Maine Windjammer Association members "raft up" for the annual Schooner Gam in Maine's Penobscot Bay. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach