OZ On The Water


When I was invited to spend a week sailing off the coast of Maine, I expected to make witty conversation as I toasted nattily-clad fellow passengers with a glass of vintage champagne. You know, like Walter Cronkite, or one of the Kennedys.

The Schooner American EagleAfter all, what did I know about sailing? I grew up in Kansas and Nebraska, two states that are about as removed from the ocean as the Sahara is from the North Pole. 

So you can imagine my surprise when I boarded the American Eagle, an authentic Maine windjammer. Seventy-five years ago she was hauling fish from one port to another; today she carries passengers on cruises around Penobscot Bay.

Despite the loving restoration done by Captain John Foss, nothing can change the fact that I was going to be sleeping in a cabin carved out of the old cargo area, the same place that was once filled with dead fish.

Like Dorothy, I wished I were back in Kansas.

The first night I cracked my head when I sat up in bed. No headroom.

The second day I strained my back when I helped hoist the sails. No know how.

There were only a few canvas chairs on deck, so I found a place on the floor. Whoops — on the deck.

"Wicked nice, isn't it?" asked one of the passengers, a born-and-bred New Englander who'd been sailing all his life. Wicked? That's when I learned that "wicked" means "very" in New England-speak and “cool” in hip-talk. But I’m neither a grizzled Yankee nor a young chick, and where I come from, the word "wicked" is used to describe the Witch of the West and serial murderers.

But by the third day I was sea steady if not exactly sea savvy. When the wind blew hard, the boat seemed to fly, skimming over the water with deck tilted and passengers cheering and laughing. But mostly it moved slowly, giving a sensation of drifting—and dreaming.

Captain John invited me to help steer the ship. Me? Was he crazy? Then I noticed that there was no wind. I laughed, took the wheel, and posed while my husband snapped a photo. I looked for all the world like a seasoned sailor.

Several mornings we anchored near small towns, and a crewmember rowed us ashore. It was early June, and the residents were sprucing up their homes after the long winter. People were busy painting, planting and playing. We tried to talk to a man who was freshening up his boat. He was polite but taciturn, and it was obvious that he considered us a frivolous distraction. Aha, another lesson. There’s truth to the stereotype of the industrious Yankee.

Finally we stopped trying to jump-start conversations and contented ourselves with climbing the steep hills, poking through shops that were too cute by half, and sharing steamy cups of chocolate.

In the afternoons we usually explored one or more of the 3,000 islands that are off the coast of Maine. I collected rocks on one deserted island; we had a lobster bake on another. Captain John spread a blanket; the crew fixed the lobster.

Except for the 11 American Eagle passengers and the few crew members, there was no one else on the island. Indeed, there was no one else in sight other than two fishermen way off in the distance. We ate in silence, listening to the sound of the water, and I began to realize that I was getting used to a life devoid of constant chattering.

Somewhat to my surprise, I was glad to return to the ship. What was it Dorothy said? That there was “no place like home?” By now I had learned to hoist the sails, keep my head down when I sat up in bed and take a shower in a stall the size of a telephone booth. With my new-found proficiency, the boat was beginning to be my home-on-the-sea, a place where skies were blue, the clouds [of everyday life] were far behind me, and everything seemed possible.

In the silence of the night I could almost hear Dorothy singing — If happy little bluebirds fly… Why, oh why can’t I?

I was in no hurry to go back to Kansas.

View Photos 

Andrea (Andy) Gross has seen komodo dragons in Indonesia, taught English in China, trekked in Bhutan and climbed a windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa (population 650)—proving that it’s just as possible to find good stories in Iowa as in Indonesia. Her travel articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States as well as in several foreign countries. www.andreagross.com 

photos by onebrowncookie and courtesy The Schooner American Eagle.

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