On a Maine windjammer, feasts of food and scenery

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Among the stops is the picturesque Isle au Haut, Maine, an island with scenic hiking trails - and artisanal chocolates.

It's a classic summer day in Maine. Sunny but not hot. Breezy but not cold. From my perch on the deck of the schooner Lewis R. French, I watch the New England scenery slip past: lighthouses, evergreens, tawny-colored shorelines of massive rocks that appear to have been scattered by giants playing dominoes.

Our third day on the water has been quiet, even uneventful.

Until now.

Garth Wells, the captain of our tall ship, has spotted another vessel. The crew and my fellow passengers are hankering for a food fight. Steering the French so that the wind fills its billowing sails, Wells puts us in hot pursuit of the Stephen Taber.

People are grabbing leftover corn bread from lunch as ammunition.

The Taber evades our first approach, then suddenly turns back in our direction. The ships slide into position beside each other, and my comrades let loose their starchy projectiles at the Taber's passengers. We're laughing so hard that we almost miss the return fire. I freeze as I spot a piece coming straight at me, but someone whacks it away.

Then we and the Taber go our separate ways, two ships passing in the, well, broad daylight.

We aren't taking ourselves too seriously here, so if your idea of a sail involves white slacks and a sweater knotted around your shoulders, a windjammer cruise might not be for you.

I've never had much interest in conventional cruising. I don't want to be on a big, impersonal boat with thousands of other passengers and only sea on the horizon. But a Maine windjammer cruise seemed right up my alley. I've always wanted to visit the Pine Tree State, and what better way to see its natural splendor than from the deck of a small sailing ship.

Eight old-fashioned ships known as windjammers offer overnight trips off Maine's mid-coast, from Boothbay Harbor to Bar Harbor. I was drawn to the Lewis R. French for its history - built in 1871, it's one of the oldest.

A sense of humor is a must aboard the French. Not 10 minutes after checking into my cabin on a balmy August evening, I've already hit my head going up the ladder onto the deck. And that cabin? It's tiny. But, hey, the idea is to be on deck the whole time, right?

On our first evening, we stay docked in the French's home port of Camden, Maine. With lanterns glowing romantically around us, we're feeling each other out. Have you ever done this before? What brings you to Maine? At 10 p.m., quiet hours start - "quiet" on the boat being a relative term.

The walls are thin, the cabins packed close together. You can hear everything. After listening to someone's, uh, resonant breathing for an hour, I head back up to the deck.

The cool air is a balm to my restlessness. A flash catches my eye. It's a shooting star, I think.

Oh, Maine. You big show-off.

Aboard the French, we wake to the muffin of the day, placed out with coffee and tea by 6:30 a.m.

That's only the start of our daybreak feast. The main attraction is blueberry pancakes, prepared on an antique wood-burning stove in the cozy galley.

The next agenda item is safety, as explained by first mate Zach Simonson-Bond, a surfer look-alike with a silky-smooth singing voice that he serenades us with as we raise anchor each morning. We learn about the location of rescue equipment and what to do in a man-overboard situation.

Then, it's time to leave Camden, and the crew divides us into teams to raise the sails.

We're not using them to their full extent yet. To get out of the harbor, we're being pushed by the Greyhound, the motor-equipped yawl that the French tows for those times when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate. Such as today.

But that's OK. One of the beauties of sailing on the French is that there's no set schedule - incredibly liberating for a traveler. We go wherever the winds and Wells direct us.

Turns out, I spend most of my time on this trip looking up. I've loaded my Kindle with books, but all I want to do is admire the scenery. We're never really out of sight of some kind of island, whether big, small, tree-covered or barren. I'm constantly searching for wildlife. No whales here in Penobscot Bay. Plenty of porpoises, though.

The French, overhauled for tourists about 40 years ago, is easy on the eyes, too. Her shiny wood deck is 65 feet long, above which rise six sails that measure 3,000 square feet in total. The ship, with a blue-and-red hull, is only 19 feet at its widest point. Down the middle of the deck run the protruding roofs of our cabins, which double as seating.

Wells bought the French in 2004 after spending five years as its first mate. His wife, Jenny Tobin, who can also captain the French, handles most of the onshore operations.

Seemingly only minutes after breakfast, it's time for lunch, which always consists of soup, bread and salad. Today, we have sweet, chunky, dilly tomato soup and grilled cheese, gooey with crisp edges.

The winds finally pick up and spirit us away to our next meal. Each French cruise has one lobster bake, and tonight's will take place on Pickering Island.

Once anchored, we take rowboats to the beach, where we set about entertaining ourselves. Professional foragers Marion and Marty Bush of White Plains, N.Y., venture into the woods and return with a haul of chanterelle mushrooms. Others search for mussels. I pick around large stones, looking for sea glass.

A parade of food cycles on and off a rudimentary grill, while the lobsters and corn steam over a separate fire. I opt for a Maine red hot dog, per Wells' recommendation. He also impishly goads me into trying Moxie, the official state soft drink. What a setup! I can barely stop myself from spitting it out. I like to think of this hazing as my initiation as an honorary Mainer.

What's next?

On our second day on the water, we anchor off Isle au Haut. The sparsely populated island is about 11 square miles, about half of which is part of Acadia National Park. Some passengers plot hikes. I'm captivated by Simonson-Bond's rapturous description of Black Dinah Chocolatiers, an artisanal shop in this unlikely location. Once on the island, I head straight there.

Thick woods line the mostly traffic-free road, with occasional breaks in the forest that afford postcard-worthy water views. I swipe berries here and there from wild bushes. My appetite is inexplicably bottomless on this trip.

After my chocolate hit, I turn around to explore in the other direction. I pass a postage-stamp-size post office, a red rowboat overturned in front of a gray-shingled boathouse, a twinkle-light-filled wedding, and a one-room schoolhouse.

Back on the French, our anchor point is perfectly situated for sunset viewing. How does Wells plan these things? Or maybe every summer evening in Maine is like this, tinted in burnished hues of red and gold. We're all soaking it in and nibbling antipasto when we're shaken out of our reverie. Cannon fire! Not from hostile parties, but rather the large house we're floating in front of. A tradition, apparently.

That night we're treated to fireworks, probably for the wedding. Those of us still awake - it's only 9 o'clock or so - lean back and watch them sparkle against the inky sky.

By Day 3, we've all figured out whether we're sailors or watchers. I choose to observe, not just because I'm clueless about the terminology and mechanics, but because there are so many aficionados who clamor for the chance to work the ship. I do find my niche, though: helping lay out and clean up our buffets.

As the days add up, we bond over shared interests - home towns, hobbies, pets. Such a diverse group, too. There are scientists, retirees, writers, and alpaca farmers. The people I was anxious about spending four nights cooped up with now seem like friends I've known for years.

I'm comfortable enough with everyone that I hardly blink when Wells, kidder that he is, suggests that I be the "sitter" on the hand-cranked ice cream machine. That I can do! That night, we feast on sundaes.

Frozen milk gives way to the Milky Way as darkness descends off the coast of Islesboro. Simonson-Bond guides us through the constellations, weaving in tales from mythology.

There are fireworks again, off in the distance, but the only show I need is the real-life planetarium overhead. This I could get used to. Open sky, open water, open mind.


Windjammer Cruises

In 2015, the schooner Lewis R. French will offer three- to six-night cruises ranging in price from $575 to $1,025 a person. Cruises are available from late May to early October. Best to reserve far in advance.

Phone: 1-800-469-4635

Online: www.sailmainecoast.com or schoonerfrench.com