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Arts & Culture

The History of Maine's Tall Ships

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Before the advent of steamships and trains, thousands of wooden sailing ships could be seen racing 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 old tall ships sail the bays of Maine, transporting guests back to the golden age of sail.

Schooners are identified as having at least two masts, with the shorter mast up forward, and were designed in the 1700’s for speed and minimal crew, and were the workhorses of a young and thriving America. Carrying everything from coal and oysters to bricks and Christmas trees, these wooden sailing ships were the fastest means of transportation.

In the 1930’s, however, schooners couldn’t compete with rail transportation and steam power, 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 by the name Frank Swift.

An artist from rural Maine, Swift saw the beauty in these old flagships 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 couldn’t 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.