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Arts & Culture

The History of Maine's Tall Ships

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Once, thousands of wooden sailing ships raced up and down the eastern seaboard in hopes of being first to market with their cargo. Centuries later, just a handful of these majestic ships survive. Nowadays, instead of carrying fish, granite and lumber, these venerable tall ships sail the bays of Maine, transporting guests back to the golden age of sail.

Most of these ships are schooners, which have at least two masts, with the shorter mast forward. They were first built in the 1700s, designed for speed and minimal crew. In their heyday, schooners were the workhorses of a young and thriving America, carrying everything from coal and oysters to bricks and Christmas trees.

By the 1930’s, however, commercial sailing ships couldn't compete with trains and steamships and were on the verge of abandonment. The rapidly dwindling fleet would have died out altogether had it not been for the vision of a man named Frank Swift.

An artist from rural Maine, Swift saw the beauty in these old ships and wanted to preserve them as examples of America’s maritime heritage. Confident that the lure of the sea and the graceful lines of a salty old schooner would appeal to “rusticators” who sought to escape from the hustle and bustle of the cities, Captain Swift offered his first windjammer cruise in 1936. According to Swift, “We had only three lady passengers from Boston. The next time, I believe, we took off without any passengers.”

Nonetheless, Swift preserved. For a mere $25 per week, passengers could enjoy the simple pleasures of living aboard an authentic coasting schooner—a windjammer—as they explored the islands and villages of the pristine Maine coast. The term “windjammer” actually derived from steamboat captains poking fun at the old-fashioned schooners, but nowadays it refers to any large sailing vessel that carries guests on overnight sailing cruises.

It took several marginal seasons before the business caught on, but by the early 1940s, Swift had a flourishing business that ensured the steady growth of his fleet. Captain Swift eventually retired in 1961, 25 years after he introduced his first windjammer cruise on Penobscot Bay, leaving a rich legacy in his wake.

Following in Frank Swift’s footsteps, a number of sea captains began offering windjammer cruises of their own in the 1950s. Promoting themselves on informal basis through the 1960s, they formed the Maine Windjammer Association in 1977.

Today there are 12 vessels in the Maine Windjammer Association, seven of which have been designated National Historic Landmarks. The fleet includes two of Frank Swift’s original schooners; America’s two oldest working coasting schooners built in 1871; an oyster-fishing schooner; a Gloucester fishing schooner; a three-masted ram schooner and a racing yacht. Since 1960, four new vessels built specifically for windjamming have been added to the fleet.

For more information about windjamming in Maine, contact the Maine Windjammer Association at P.O. Box 1144P, Blue Hill, Maine 04614, 1-800-807-WIND or check out the website at www.sailmainecoast.com.