"Are we ready on the throoooat?" yells Robert Wheeler, the longhaired first mate on the schooner Victory Chimes, exaggerating his twangy Texas drawl. It is late morning, and the 132-foot historic schooner is anchored outside Bass Harbor in Maine's Penobscot Bay on the second day of a six-day sail.
"Ready on the throat!" we answer, gripping the lines used to raise the sails with both hands.
"Are we ready on the peak?"
"Ready on the peak!" say the passengers on the other side of the deck.
"Ready on the throat! Ready on the peak! Let's haul away toooogether!"
With Robert's command, six of us pull the heavy lines hand over hand and in unison to lift the schooner's canvas mizzensail. "Heave! Heave! Heave!" We grunt with each tug on the increasingly tightening halyard, our shoulders and backs feeling the brunt of the work.
A vacation of . . . physical labor? Not necessarily. For paying customers, working aboard the Chesapeake Bay-made Victory Chimes is purely voluntary. You can do nothing more than read or nap on deck. Or you can take a more active role and work alongside the deck hands to hoist and furl the sails, coil rope and even polish brass railings. Your choice.
You needn't go all the way to Maine to make those choices, either. The Victory Chimes will sail to the Chesapeake for a series of cruises this month and next spring. The special trips commemorate the centennial of the schooner, a national historic landmark vessel built in Bethel, Del., in 1900 to haul lumber and other cargo around the Chesapeake.
Life on the schooner is not much different today than when it first sailed the Chesapeake, save for such technological advances as showers on deck and electricity in the cabins. Living on a schooner, even just for a few days, simplifies life. You wake when the sun wakes, eat heartily, work hard and sleep when the sun sleeps.
If the sun streaming in my cabin porthole didn't wake me each morning, I would rise to the sound of the yawl boat's motor when the captain, Kip Files, took his 9-year-old basset hound Zephyr to shore. Coffee was served on deck, where sleepy-eyed passengers stood against the rail in wrinkled sweat shirts and shorts, hands cupped around mugs.
A generous breakfast awaited in the saloon at 8 sharp: French toast, eggs, freshly made doughnuts or big bowls of homemade granola. Guests ate family-style, not worrying that real butter and crispy bacon weren't norms in their diet.
After breakfast, crew members lifted the anchor and we got underway. Those who wanted to help hoist the three sails could; other guests retreated to a bench or grabbed a mat and stretched out on the aft house, where they listened to the enthusiastic captain tell stories that he has told, no doubt, hundreds of times. But Files was such a good storyteller that each tale--including how he and co-owner Capt. Paul DeGaeta saved the Victory Chimes from being converted into a floating restaurant in Japan--sounded brand new.
I spent the morning spying porpoises and seals through a borrowed pair of binoculars and scanning the nearby islands for lighthouses, fishing villages and palatial summer homes. We ate lunch on deck, and afterward, many passengers retreated to their cabins for naps. I spent the afternoon reading, sketching and chatting with other passengers--and getting too much sun. When the captain decided it was time to anchor around 4 p.m., I helped furl the sails, folding them accordion-style atop the booms.
We spent a couple of hours in the town of Wooden Boat, Maine, but everyone made it back to the schooner for the lobster "suppah." With three or four lobsters available to each passenger, few people made it to the corn on the cob.
After dinner, we gathered on deck for coffee and rich desserts and to watch the sunset. Layers went on; I grabbed a sleeping bag to help me fight the cool night air.
Conversations quieted to just above a whisper, kerosene lanterns glowed and folks drifted to their cabins. By 9 p.m., I found myself alone on deck.
I climbed atop the deck mats piled under the mainsail and curled under my sleeping bag. I marveled at a planetarium-like sky above me and listened to the water lap against the side of the boat. Aside from the gentle sweep of a faraway lighthouse torch, the night was perfectly dark. With the Milky Way blanketing me above, I fell asleep watching satellites pass through the glowing constellations.
Ways & Means
GETTING THERE: The first of the Victory Chimes' Chesapeake Bay cruises--Oct. 13-15--departs from Baltimore and arrives in St. Michaels (as part of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race). Passengers are responsible for their own transportation to Baltimore and from St. Michaels. Trips on Oct. 20-24 and Oct. 29-31 each start and end at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. To reserve: 1-800-745-5651.
BEING THERE: The Victory Chimes' Chesapeake cruises will be nearly the same as the Windjamming-style trips it does in Maine, aside from the lobster dinner and potentially shorter sailing days, says Capt. Files. Passengers board between 6 and 8 the night before and return before noon on the final day, having sailed to Solomon's Island, Cambridge and other Eastern Shore points. Trips cost $400 to $725 per person, including meals from breakfast the morning you sail to breakfast on the day you return. More details (and next spring's schedule, to be posted after Jan. 1) at www.midcoast.com/vchimes/.WAYS & MEANS