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Maine coastal cruising

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Did You Know … ?

  • Seven Maine-based windjammers have been designated National Historic Landmarks.
  • Maine Windjammer Cruises was the first to offer sailing vacations in America (1936).
  • Maine has 65 lighthouses on 5,500 miles of coastline.
  • The Victory Chimes is the largest passenger sailing vessel under the U.S. flag, 132 feet long on deck.
  • Portland Observatory is America’s last standing 19th century maritime signal station (1807).

A convoluted coastline

Maine’s coast has what it takes to draw visitors who would board a ship to sail its contours. The vessel could be anything from a windjammer, the grandest of merchant sailing vessels, to a lobster boat doubling as sightseeing transport. Tourist sailings range from half-day outings to full-blown holiday cruises lasting a week or even more.

As to the state’s contours, they are convoluted, which is part of their appeal. Add to that the thousands of islands dotting the coastline, the often-dramatic ruggedness of the landscape both on the mainland and among the islands, plus the mesmerizing wildlife, ranging from puffins to whales.

Which leads to the charms of manmade additions, beginning with the essential lighthouses. Add the port towns with their historic centers set in the safety of bays and coves, plus the sight of boats of all kinds slipping through Maine’s waters.

Many vessels have traditional commercial responsibilities — the lobsters still have to be brought in from the sea — but countless boats were built for and others were converted for the tourism business.

Visitors can book short or long trips with all sorts of themes, including astronomy, birding, fall foliage, food and wine, lighthouses, music, photography, whale watching, writing, yoga and even knitting.

Regardless of any theme, lighthouses and the wildlife are always popular, and the camera likely to be ever at hand. Sailing trips of some length will give passengers time in Maine’s port towns, which offer maritime museums, walking tours, unique shops — and restaurants serving lobster.

There are several events each season built around windjammers; also known as tall ships, most windjammers are schooners. The windjammer name refers to any large sailing vessel offering overnight cruises, and Maine has North America’s largest windjammer fleet (12).Tourists with no sailing experience can participate in the annual Great Schooner Race, North America’s largest annual gathering of tall ships.

Coastal cruising in Maine is seasonal, generally May through November although not all companies offer services as late as that. Weather and sea conditions can dictate schedule changes or cancellations, and temperatures are generally cooler on the water than on land, making sweaters or windbreakers advisable.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Help with hoisting or hauling in sails and coiling ropes during a windjammer cruise. Or take a turn at the wheel.
  • Or, if you want a windjammer experience with more hands-on involvement, book a seamanship cruise that offers instruction in navigation and training in other practical skills.
  • Make this a self-propelled cruise — of sorts. Rent a canoe or kayak and paddle some piece of the coastline.
  • Rent a sailboat to chart your own course on the water and amidst the islands. Take sailing lessons if necessary.
  • Get married while cruising the coast.
  • Participate as an active guest on one of the tall ships in midsummer’s Great Schooner Race from Islesboro to Rockland, described as North America’s largest annual gathering of tall ships. No prior sailing experience is required.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Join a whale watching outing, which seems certain to deliver a lot of other wildlife as well. These may include porpoises, seals, eagles, pelagic birds and puffins.
  • At Bar Harbor, look for a cruise excursion that focuses on lighthouses, plus puffins and seabirds. Another, also from Bar Harbor, combines lighthouses with Acadia National Park. Lighthouses are the central theme of excursions from other ports, too.
  • Meet two goals in one day’s outing — fishing for the big one while taking in Maine’s coastal scene and its islands.
  • Book a multiday windjammer cruise that has a theme, such as photography, bird-watching or even knitting or storytelling.
  • Book an outing on a lobster boat. The captain may haul in his lobster traps for passenger edification, besides giving guests a good look at whales in action and manmade coastal features, especially the lighthouses.
  • Choose a day sail or multiday trip designed as a yoga retreat. These have been offered aboard windjammers, a pilothouse ketch and even a lobster boat.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Book a harbor cruise in any of several picturesque harbors.
  • Use cruising port calls to visit lighthouses of interest, such as the Portland Head Light.
  • Complement any time at sea with relevant museums, such as the Penobscot Marine Museum, or the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath.
  • Join one of American Cruise Lines’ seven-night small-ship sailings along the Maine coast. Blount Small Ship Adventures offers another option.
  • Take the kids on a pirate-themed cruise.
  • Choose the late-day pleasure outing that suits you, a sunset cruise, a dinner cruise or sailing under the full moon.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Maine Office of Tourism at