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On a Windjammer cruise in Maine, passengers knit a seaworthy yarn

Andrea Sachs, WASHINGTON POST

Updated: Thursday, October 26, 2017, 12:48 PM

Maggie Radcliffe (center), the knitting instructor on the J&E Riggin, knits with the other cruisers during a weeklong sail on Penobscot Bay in Maine in September 2017.

Capt. Annie Mahle stood on the deck of the J&E Riggin and welcomed more than a dozen passengers already knuckle-deep in the theme of the September cruise.

As the guests knitted and purled, Mahle described life aboard the 1927 National Historic Landmark two-masted schooner with no engine and marine plumbing. She discussed the toilet, which requires vigorous hand-pumping, and bathing options, which include a rinse with a water pitcher and a shower in the narrow head. Then she introduced the instructor, Maggie Radcliffe, who explained the even greater challenges of sailing around Penobscot Bay in Maine.

“Don’t put your knitting on the bench,” she warned. “It could go overboard, and then you have to wash the salt out of it. And knitting needles can roll on deck and out the scuppers. And put your gear in waterproof bags.” She glanced knowingly at the waves playing patty-cake against the hull.

Radcliffe, of Blacksburg, Va., was leading her 10th knitting cruise on the Riggin, and for our edification, she had brought samples of her work, helpful handouts, and several salty yarns from previous trips. On one cruise, she told us, a passenger’s project blew over the railing and unraveled in the water. Radcliffe hauled in the yarn hand-over-hand, like a fisherman pulling in a net. On another voyage, a knitter’s wooden needles fell overboard and were lost at sea. Fortunately, the cruiser had a spare pair.

“It’s very rare that you find a cruise without knitters,” said Radcliffe, who first taught on a Holland America ship in Alaska. “It’s a very convenient thing to do with your hands while you’re looking at the scenery.”

Mahle and her husband, Capt. Jon Finger, arrange at least three knitting cruises per season, which runs from late May through early October. Several of the trips sell out. On the Labor Day voyage, 16 passengers — all women, plus one husband — represented a mix of first-timers and returnees. The veterans were easily identifiable: They had Riggin Relic patches on their hats, which they earned on their third sailing, and modeled their creations (beanies, scarves, shawls) from past voyages.

“Initially, I came for the knitting and the adventure,” said Teresa Kendall, a four-time cruiser from St. Louis. “Now, I could easily come sailing without the knitting.”

elizabeth poisson / The Schooner J&E Riggin The J&E Riggin is a 120-foot schooner and a National Historic Landmark.

Sailing and knitting might not seem like obvious hobby-mates: Sharp needles plus swells could equal an accidental stabbing. But sewing has a long seafaring history. Those nets and sails of yore didn’t stitch themselves. Radcliffe also told me that the marlin spike originated as a seaman’s pointed tool for untwisting rope before it migrated into knitting circles. And when not harpooning, whalers knit. Perhaps Melville got it wrong and Captain Ahab wanted to catch Moby Dick to measure his neck for a scarf. Sailors and knitters also use similar knots. To make a hat, Radcliffe taught me to cast on with the same knot the crew used to secure the fenders.

And yet, despite the relative harmony on the seas, the knitters will occasionally incite a small mutiny.

“Sometimes, we call out, ‘Ready about’ and we will hear, ‘I have to finish my row,’ ” said Mahle, who was working on a shawl called Waiting for Rain. “So we tell them, ‘Finish your row and then we’ll lower the sails.’ ”

The 120-foot schooner is based in Rockland — a staging ground for several Windjammers, including the 19th-century Stephen Taber — where Annie and Jon fell in love with historic vessels and each other. On the day of departure, the cruisers on neighboring boats relaxed in the morning sun before casting off their lines. Our group, meanwhile, dashed into town for last-minute supplies at Over the Rainbow Yarn. On the counter, the employees had laid out totes containing skeins, a gift for the sailors.

“Souvenir yarn!” exclaimed veteran cruiser Kendall, as she passed a display of Made in Maine products.

The Riggin had arranged for the shop to open early for us, knowing that this was our only chance to buy materials before setting off for the week. (The store’s owner, Mim Bird, teaches on the June knitting cruise.) Most of our overnight stops — Bucks Harbor, Pulpit Harbor, and Owls Head — were short on shopping opportunities. We could stock up on beer, lighthouse magnets, and fishing line at the general store but were out of luck if we needed stitch markers or crochet hooks.

The group happily skipped through the thicket of yarn and tools. Lesley Watts of Cambridge, Mass., eyed a kit called the Lobster on the Rocks Hat. Christina Cardone of Philadelphia headed for the ball winder. (On the Riggin, I looped the hank around the legs of a bar stool in the saloon, a Maggie Radcliffe-tested trick.) I picked up a starter pack because — big confession — I have tried knitting only once. In a pretrip message, Radcliffe suggested we bring along any unfinished projects. I resurrected a nubby green scarf I had started on a long-ago visit to the Rockland-Camden area. The purple plastic needles resembled a Pompeii artifact, frozen in the same stitch for nearly a decade. Back on the schooner, with our packages stowed away in our berths, we took our places on deck. Some passengers settled into stadium seats beneath the boom; others sat on benches wedged between the rigging. Fingers moved rhythmically, hypnotically.

The sails puffed. Abstract shapes started to transform into recognizable forms. The bowsprit bounced in the waves. I sat quietly, hands still, a nest of yarn in my lap.

“Is there any knitting going on?” Radcliffe shouted over the wind. “Should I be circulating and mentoring?”

By the time we reached Warren Island, our first anchor site, my fingers were fluttering, too.

If you have cruised on a large vessel or chartered a sailboat, consider yourself pampered. The Riggin has more in common with camping than traditional cruising. The most modern amenity on the former oyster dredger is an iPhone charger attached to a 12-volt battery.

The Riggin can carry up to 24 guests, who sleep in 11 below-decks cabins accessible by steep steps. A sign reminded us to descend backward; the “or else” was implicit. In the morning, we resembled prairie dogs, popping out of our holes for coffee and homemade toaster tarts or steel-cut oats with Maine blueberries. On sold-out cruises, strangers will sometimes bunk with strangers in staterooms containing two or three beds. Returning guests will room with friends they haven’t seen since the last knitting cruise. Depending on the cabin, they often have to take turns standing.

The Riggin’s matchmakers had originally paired me with a Virginian named Turtle until they discovered that she was traveling with a North Carolinian sheep shearer named Charlotte, so I scored my own room in the bow. The sleeping section in the ship’s nose accommodated four cabins, plus the captains’ digs. I met Lesley, my across-the-hall neighbor, while she was debating the upper vs. lower bunk. In my stateroom, a leak over the top bed made the decision for me. I stored my bags around the wet spot and placed my knitting paraphernalia on a shelf by my feet. The cabin was snuggly, especially when I built a cocoon out of the two sets of wool blankets and quilts. I didn’t even have to risk cold feet to brush my teeth. I could reach the sink from my bed.

Unlike on the major cruise lines, we didn’t receive newsletters under our doors listing the day’s events. No ballroom dancing or zip lines or even swimming, unless you cared to brave the frigid Maine water. The Riggin’s main activities could fit on the corner of a cocktail napkin: Sleep, eat, sail, knit. The quartet repeated itself several times throughout the day.

Eating started early, with breakfast served at 8 a.m. Mahle is an accomplished chef who has published several cookbooks. (She sells them on board, along with Riggin clothing and souvenirs, and Maggie Radcliffe’s books.) Before every meal, which she signaled with a ring of the bell, she would describe the menu in the voice of a town crier delivering urgent news.

Mahle and her assistant, Betsy Maislen, a retired nurse from Vermont, cooked on a Cottage Crawford woodstove that, under their command, performed like a Viking range. They assembled elaborate meals, such as a New England boiled dinner with brisket brined in salt and pickled with spice; a medley of savoy cabbage, onions, and kohlrabi harvested from the captains’ garden in Rockland; homemade Irish soda bread; and for dessert, raspberry galette with ricotta and maple cream. Annie and Jon don’t serve alcohol, but we could bring our own. Every night was open bar, with the knitters sharing their cider, boxed wines, and vintages purchased at the Rite-Aid in Rockland.

We ate all of our meals on the ship except at Warren Island State Park, where the crew ferried over the fixings for a lobster bake by dinghy. Before motoring over to the picnic grounds, Captain Finger ran down the items we should bring ashore: “Knitting, good footwear, bathing suit, something warm to wear, and cold beverages of sorts. But you don’t need your mugs.” (Each of us adopted a mug that served as our drinking vessel for the week.)

Carol Thomas, a New Jersey garden center owner on her eighth Riggin cruise, prioritized the list. “The two most essential items are knitting and wine,” she said. “Maybe that explains why my knitting is so erratic.”

At the state park and on the ship, Radcliffe held classes based on this year’s theme, “Knitting Without Boundaries.” (Translation: Knitting without a pattern or plan, which is how I roll anyway.) She taught us to knit triangles, squares, and crescents, and how to make sweaters with boat necks, evening bags with tassel closures, and shawls with eight balls of yarn. She personalized the lessons to address our specific projects, such as Teresa’s sweater, Lesley’s sock, Turtle’s water-bottle carrier, and my scarf. She would interrupt herself so we could watch lobster fishermen haul up their traps, help the crew raise the 500-pound anchor, or refuel after an intense knitting session.

“Do you want hors d’oeuvres or do you want to hear Maggie talk?” Mahle asked during our evening in Smith Cove.

Our answer: Both.

We knitted anytime and everywhere. Before breakfast and after dinner. In the saloon warmed by the stove and crush of bodies, and on the deck lit by gas lanterns and the rising moon. When the boat was heeling and when it was as still as a pine tree on a windless day. Alone and together. As bald eagles were our witnesses, we knitted.

I completed my scarf on the second day. Dinah Smith, a Vermonter logging her third schooner cruise of the summer, knitted me a fastener. I called my creation the Donna, a cowl-neck version of the Dickie. The next day, I made a hat that I accessorized with a sailboat-shaped button purchased in Rockland. I wore it the entire next day, as armor against the chilly fog. At this point in the cruise, I was adept enough to knit, talk, and gaze at the landscape without dropping too many stitches.

On the final night, we gathered below to hear Annie sing and Jon strum guitar. Around the room, knitting needles clicked softly. Like the slap of the waves and the creak of the masts, this was the sound of sailing.

If you go

J&E Riggin knitting cruise
Captain Spear Drive, Rockland, Maine
800-869-0604
mainewindjammer.com
Owner-captains Annie Mahle and Jon Finger have planned several knitting cruises for next season. The four-day cruises depart June 13, 17, and 27 and cost $803 per person. The six-day cruise with Maggie Radcliffe departs Sept. 3 and costs $1,108. Price includes all meals and onboard accommodations the night before setting sail. The J&E Riggin offers other theme cruises, including photography, cooking, and rug hooking.

Andrea Sachs, WASHINGTON POST

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