Bookworm Turns Boatswain A Maine Sailing Odyssey Begins
While the rest of us sweat in stuffy cubicles, schooner bums live a life that, for many people, is the ideal vacation. Is it as fun as it sounds? Is a steady salary, health care, and a 401K adequate compensation for a life not lived? I'll find out this su
Four years ago, I was an unemployed New Yorker. The publishing company I worked for had been purchased by a rival, and I was laid off. When I cleaned out my desk, I promised myself that unemployment would be an adventure; I'd emerge from the experience a better man. My plan was simple: I'd keep a close eye on the job boards, but I'd also run five miles a day, write 2,000 words of fiction every morning, and reconnect with my dog - the poor mutt who'd spent most of her days shuttered in our studio apartment like a latchkey kid.
The unemployment got off to a good start, but within two weeks my resolve had evaporated like a New Year's resolution. My writing languished, and the dog and I fought for space during long hours on the couch. Before long, I was devoting entire days to scouring the job boards, clicking the browser's refresh button with the obsessive regularity of a lab pigeon.
Five months later, the endless clicking paid off. I answered an ad for a book editor in Rockport, and soon packed my belongings for Vacationland.
In my new job, I edited how-to books on boating. My nautical experience up to that point included canoes, a handful of ferry rides, and little else, but my new employers were willing to take a chance on a noob like me. I was learning quickly - seemingly by osmosis. By editing nautical books, I could soon name every part of a sailboat and I'd learned coastal navigation - without ever leaving the dock. My head was swimming in the arcane lexicon of the sea. It was interesting, but largely useless to me at the time.
Midcoast Maine was a welcome change from city life, but it wasn't easy. My wife and I had never been social butterflies, but our first summer in Maine was nonetheless lonely. The demographics here seemed eerie. Camden, for instance, was almost like the village in Temple of Doom. Instead of finding a town with no children, however, we stumbled into a community nearly devoid of twenty- and thirtysomethings. Camden may have been full of entitled boomers and despondent teens, but the Gen-Xers and -Yers were largely absent, as if they'd been driven out of city limits by pitchfork-wielding mobs.
As it turned out, the Gen-X/-Yers were simply schooner bums; they spent their summers crewing the windjammers on Penobscot Bay. When autumn rolled around and the boats were winterized, the schooner bums came ashore, and the community was suddenly bustling with people our age.
Throughout that winter and spring I'd see the schooner bums around town and at parties. I think I became a bit of a curiosity to them: I was the new kid who knew all about sailing, but had never raised a sail. I was a poseur of the highest order, and, in some strange way, that superlative earned me a measure of respect.
Suddenly, in these settings, my book knowledge was useful. Schooner bums, as a rule, talk solely about boats. They are passionate about sailing, about wooden boats, about the wind and waves, and their passion is infectious. Although I couldn't fully relate to the stories I was hearing, I could at least understand the vocabulary. The schooner bums, knowing this about me, didn't have to alter their conversations to be inclusionary - like some host family that talks of only the weather to their foreign-exchange student. The schooner bums' stories of life on the Bay intrigued me, and I pestered them with questions whenever I could.When summer hit, the schooner bums returned to the Bay, the town demographics slowed down again, and I continued editing nautical books. On warm afternoons, the sun would bake the pine pitch on the spruce bark outside my office, and sea breezes would carry the pine-and-salt aroma through the open window. I'd take deep breaths and wonder what the hell I was doing. Why was I indoors editing another stilted manuscript while my peers were "reading from both pages" on a downwind run? While the rest of us sweat in stuffy cubicles, these schooner bums lived a life that, for many people, is the ideal vacation. Is it as fun as it sounds? Should I drop everything and take a chance on the schooner life? Is a steady salary, health care, and a 401K adequate compensation for a life not lived?
Summer after summer, as fair breezes blew into my office window, I tortured myself with these same questions.
This summer, however, will be different. This summer I will endeavor to answer these questions. My job editing nautical books, like 603 other jobs within the parent company, has ended. I've been laid off again. But rather than sit around the house and endlessly refresh job listings, I'm going sailing. Through the generous help of the Maine Windjammer Association, I've been booked on twelve trips this summer. Finally, after four years of learning about sailing in books, I'll have an opportunity to put this esoteric knowledge to good use. This time, my unemployment will be an adventure.
Over the next six and a half months, I will follow the schooner bums. I'll get to know the captains and crew during spring fit-out. I'll meet the passengers when the trips begin in late May. I'll sail the cool waters of Penobscot Bay aboard all twelve of the ships within in the Maine Windjammer Association, and I'll acquaint myself with each ship's unique personality. In the fall, I'll follow the crews while they prepare the ships and stow the gear and put the boats "to bed" for winter. Along the way, I'll continue to pester the schooner bums with my endless questions. What's it like to cook meals for 20 on a wood stove? What's it like to douse a topsail while teetering precariously from ratlines 60 feet off the deck? What's it like to compete against two dozen other captains during the annual Great Schooner Race?
Twice each month between now and mid-October, I'll answer these questions by posting stories, videos, and photos to downeast.com.
This is "Berth of the Cool: A Maine Windjammer Journal." I hope you'll join me.
End Entry 1
March 30, 2008
Ben McCanna is a freelance writer, editor, and videographer. He lives in Rockland. Through June 30, 2008 register to win a weekend schooner vacation aboard the Grace Bailey, courtesy of Down East. Enter to win here; one entry per person, per day, please.
- By: Ben McCanna