Ships Passing: Grand Schooner Adventure in Maine

Out in the sky the great dark clouds are massing;

I look far out into the pregnant night,

Where I can hear a solemn booming gun

And catch the gleaming of a random light,

That tells me that the ship I seek is passing, passing.

-Paul Lawrence Dunbar-

The American Eagle anchored in Castine, Maine.

The American Eagle anchored in Castine, Maine.

I’ve just returned from one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had; sailing around the coast of Maine on the schooner the American Eagle.

My husband’s family took two weeks in an epic RV journey from Arkansas to Maine to board the schooner for a four day cruise. Though we stopped many places along the way, the point of the trip was retracing the footsteps of his grandparents, who boarded the same schooner years ago.

The American Eagle is a 90 foot restored fishing schooner first launched in 1930. Captain John Foss purchased and restored the ship in 1984 and has been captaining cruises ever since. The American Eagle is designated as a National Historic Landmark and she doesn’t disappoint. With varnished wooden deck and masts, gleaming brass accessories and four sails, the ship is an amazing sight. As we set sail from Rockland, passengers on other boats pointed, waved and snapped picture after picture. I could only imagine what we looked like cruising under full sail.

Mast - American Eagle - Ships Passing -

Earlier this summer, Uncle B gave me and my husband sailing lessons to help us feel more experienced for this trip. Though it worked, and we were able to identify many parts of the boat and various tacks, sailing knowledge didn’t prepare me for the rest of the adventure.

We had 25 guests and six crew aboard for this four day sail. Yes, 31 people confined to 90 feet of ship. Close quarters to be sure. However, the other passengers turned out to be the fascinating part of the voyage I wasn’t expecting. They came from across the country and all walks of life. Doctor, oilman, teacher, marketing specialist. Old school friends, families, couples. Twenty-five people who most likely wouldn’t have met outside of this trip, and who may never meet again.

The first night, while docked at the shipyard, I worked hard to keep names in my head, who went together, who was new, who had sailed before. In the morning, we cruised out of the harbor and past the islands that mirror the Maine coast line, never out of sight of rolling green land and lighthouses. With blue sky and sea, plenty of wind and sun, I felt like I was sailing out of a story or postcard. I chatted with one passenger after another, their lives opening before me like the beginnings of books I would never have the chance to finish.

Sailboats At Sunset - Ships Passing -


My husband and I shared our stories in return: what we do, where we’ve traveled, how much we know or don’t know about sailing, about Middle Eastern politics, about this or that. It felt refreshing to be thrown together with people so utterly unknown, where lives are blank pages again and the story unfolding is one we’re all sharing together.

Hannah, a crew member and fellow aspiring author, swapped favorite books and authors with me, a conversation we returned to again and again throughout the cruise. Scott shared his experiences working overseas and we spoke of languages, travel and the intricacies of world politics. Veteran cruise guests Mark and Carol spoke of previous trips, especially the first one where they got engaged, twenty-five years ago.

Gazing out to sea - Ships Passing -

The second night we anchored in a nice, sheltered cove and rowed to a rocky private island for a lobster bake. The veteran lobster lovers showed us the best way to crack the shells and extract the meat while I tried not to look my meal in the eye. That night, an orange full moon rose above water so still, it was a near reflection of the night.

The next day we sailed past islands and boats and lighthouses and buoys and, though many on board chose to soak up the sun with a book in hand, for once in my life I couldn’t read. I left my books stowed in my cabin and moved about the ship, from the bow, where a crew member always kept watch, to the stern, where Captain John pointed out landmarks and told stories, and sets of binoculars invited you to examine the coastline in detail.

Sailboats at Castine - Ships Passing -

We anchored near a little town called Castine and rowed up to the dock in shifts to roam around. David and I hiked to the top of the town to examine the remains of Fort George, where the British handed the Americans the worst naval defeat in history until Pearl Harbor. The drawn out battle happened 236 years to the day we were there, and “permanently damaged” Paul Revere’s reputation for his part in the defeat. His reputation seems much recovered.

We spent that night in a much broader inlet, and after a delicious dinner (I’m not sure how chef Andy managed to make amazing meals in the tiny galley, but he did), Captain John read a story and several poems. I woke up early to catch the sunrise (and sunrise does come early in Maine). As we set sail, fog rolled in and one by one, we added layers of warmth to our clothes and peered into the thickening mist.

American Eagle Collage - Ships Passing -

The crew took turns sounding the foghorn, one long blast and two short, to alert nearby boats we were under sail. Though we could no longer see land, the sailing was fantastic, with a strong and steady wind. The boat heeled with every tack, catching water through the scuppers once, and causing us to stagger sideways like drunken sailors when we moved around the deck.

We came out of the fog into bright sunshine and another little cove with lobster boats zipping around us. Several of us changed to swimsuits, mustered our courage, and walked onto the bowsprit to the “pulpit,” the tiny platform at the end of the bowsprit. The water looked very far away, but with most of the ship watching, I literally took the plunge into frigid water.

Guests on the American Eagle - Ships Passing -

Our last night aboard ship, someone broke out folk song books and we sang together. Outside of church and campfires from long ago, I never sit around and sing, especially with people I hardly know. Yet that night we did, song after song, and the water carried our voices to ships and shore.

Mark, on returning from below, said, “From far away, you all sound kind of nice,” which brought a lot of laughter and more songs. We were reluctant to end the night, which signaled the end of the trip, but finally we had to break the magic and head below.

I fell asleep thinking how remarkable it is that in a few short days you can form connections to strangers that feel strong and kindred.

The next morning found us motoring through deep fog and a rolling sea that left me parked in the center of the boat, fighting my first and only bout of seasickness. Our fog horn blasted every two minutes as Captain John monitored the navigational system and called out, “Boat, port side,” and more to his crew. We all strained to spot the invisible vessels until they appeared, turned and slipped back into the fog like the seals that occasionally popped their heads above water.

After a deluxe brunch I could only half enjoy on my unsettled stomach, we began gathering up bedding and belongings and returned to our shipyard. A flurry of activity, photos and goodbyes, and the twenty-five guests hurried away as the crew readied for a quick turnaround with new guests boarding that evening.

Lantern over the sea - Ships Passing -

We dispersed, exhausted, in twos and threes and sixes, to other parts of this country, still feeling the thrill of the journey and the unsteadiness in our legs. Never again would this group of people come together in this way, but we carry the magic of a four day journey at sea with us wherever we go. We are, as Henry Longfellow wrote long ago:

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,

Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;

So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another,

Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

Sailing Guests American Eagle 7-31-15

Crew and Guests of the American Eagle July 31st-August 4th, 2015.


Group photo courtesy of Helen Nickel. All other photos copyright


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