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Arts & Culture

Maritime Heritage & Shipbuilding

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Sailing ships and sailing men will sail the open waters, where the only thing that matters is the wind inside the main…

— Chorus, Days of the Clipper, by Steve Romanoff of the Maine-based folk trio Schooner Fare.

With nearly 3,500 miles of coastline and 32,000 miles of rivers, it's no surprise that Maine's maritime heritage is as deep as its waters are blue. It's a heritage that spans from the Native Americans, who crafted birch bark canoes to the skilled shipbuilders who turn out state-of-the-art warships at Bath Iron Works.

Maine's maritime heritage includes such historic events as the construction of the Virginia of Sagadahoc, a 30-ton pinnace built in 1607-1608 by Popham Colony settlers; the first naval battle of the American Revolution, when a ragtag group of Machias settlers captured the Royal Navy's Margaretta; and the launching of the Ranger, an 18-gun sloop-of-war built and launched in Kittery, in 1777, and commanded by John Paul Jones.

And we're only getting started.

Dotting Maine's coastline are 64 lighthouses and signal towers, including Portland Headlight, commissioned by George Washington and first lit in 1791, and the 1807 Portland Observatory, the only extant signal tower on the eastern seaboard.

Poke around coastal Maine, and you'll find life-stations and fish-processing plants, some now turned to fancy lodgings; herring weirs and lobster pounds, a testament to the sea's bounty: grand sea captains' and shipbuilders' homes, some that have been converted to inns, others open as historic house museums. You find fishermen's shanties that now house chic boutiques; antiques shops brimming with maritime-related treasures; and the remains of a canal and lock system that linked inland waterways to the sea.

Some of the best places to catch a whiff of Maine's brine-scented maritime heritage are at the Kittery Historical and Naval Museum; the Maine Maritime Museum, in Bath; the Penobscot Maritime Museum, in Searsport; the Maine Sardine Museum, in Jonesport; and the numerous local history museums that all but overflow with nautical treasures along with exotic goods and fine antiques brought home from far-flung locales. And don't forget the fabulous maritime-related art on view at Maine's art museums.

Exploring Maine's maritime heritage isn't just about seeing, but also about doing. Sail along the coast aboard a member vessel of the famed Maine Windjammer fleet, nine of which have been designated as National Historic Landmarks. Explore coastal nooks and crannies and discover working harbors, where lobstermen and fishermen unload their catches. Join an excursion boat, and perhaps even experience what it's like to haul a trap or set a sail. Prowl in and around historic forts, each strategically positioned to defend Maine's coastal and inland waterways. Attend one of the many boatbuilding, lobstering, and fishing festivals that are on seasonal calendars in many coastal communities.