Even though I lived in Massachusetts for two years in high school, I never made it to Maine. For years it remained a background image of rocky coasts, lobsters and Stephen King.
So when my nephew planned to get married there in July, my wife, Elena, and I figured we'd fly there a week before the wedding to tool around.
We ended up in the pretty little harbor town of Camden, boarding the 115-foot Mercantile, a tall schooner built in 1916 to haul cargo. We joined 20 or so other sailing fans for three days of navigation around the approximately 1,000 islands off the coast near there.
Our boyish-looking captain, a Californian named J.R. Braugh, told us this well-kept wooden relic used to be loaded to the hilt with hardware, lumber and textiles, plunging the deck perilously close to the water line. Only three hardy dudes sailed this warhorse in those days.
It was hard to believe when you looked up and checked out all the rigging.
Planted at the helm, J.R., in his wet-weather gear, looked like an L.L. Bean model. His face was creased in concentration as he eyed the wind direction, always keeping the big sails rounded with air. He's a new-age throwback to the gnarled cappies of yore. When he yelled a command to a deckhand, he did it politely. Still, it was easy to see he's got salt in his blood. You got the feeling his passion was to show us, his passengers, that on the open sea, the old raw-boned Mercantile is nimble. She's ready to fly with the wind, and knife through the heaving sea with beauty, power and grace.
Each morning, after checking the weather, wind direction and tide information, J.R. figured out where among the scattered islands he'd sail for the day.
He has two 20-ish deckhands. There was Ben, a quick-witted, bearded redhead from Seattle who sported a tallish knit cap. The first morning, getting no help washing breakfast dishes on deck, Ben broke out in a tortured, off-key yell of the song "All By Myself." Which brought a rush of sudden volunteer help wanting to make him stop. He was quick to say "Careful now," right after a passenger stumbled on deck or took a head bop on a low beam. He teased everybody with his high-pitched girlish giggle, which invited more laughs.
The other deckhand, Joey, had sad brown eyes and a flashy smile. He's a local, but looked like a Hawaiian surfer. Jeremy the cook is a pensive Johnny Depp lookalike who plucks his guitar during breaks. His upbeat college-kid helper, Garret, kept things loose with one-liners delivered with a stand-up comic's timing.
Jeremy and Garret worked in the close, hot galley below decks, cooking for everybody on a woodfired stove. They cranked out carb-heavy tasties like blueberry pancakes, chili, lasagna, cornbread, brownies, veggies and, on one night, lobster, marinated steak, corn on the cob and salad.
We passengers willingly chowed down, but also pitched in to hoist or trim the massive canvas sails, or manually crank the winch to haul up the ship's monster iron anchor.
This was camping on the sea, with pint-sized sleeping quarters tucked under decks -- not for the obese or claustrophobic -- and scary hand-pump toilets. Only one shower for the whole ship, just off the galley. The only other way to wash up was to pour boiled water in a bowl and soap up.
In close quarters like this, you got to know people. You eat and drink together, play chess, cards and guitar. The only other Californians were from Pasadena, a mom and her teen-age son, who asked myriad questions about the ship and sailing. He learned the rope routines to lift and drop the sails. During a quiet time I saw him practicing French with his mom. This was no TV junkie.
Everybody else was from the Eastern seaboard or the Midwest.
Andrew, a marketing consultant from Long Island, had his kids in camp and was on a getaway with his wife. A big talker on all subjects who sounded like Elliott Gould, he shared his booze with all at cocktail times. He's a Yankee fan, hates the Mets, and as a marketing consultant, was frank about what he does. "I get people to buy things they don't need, can't afford and will never use," he said.
"You work for Sharper Image?" asked Elena.
Back on shore, the ground felt tipsy for a few days. We made our way to Pemaquid Point, where my nephew married his beautiful Maine-raised bride amid a hearty lobster feast and clambake overlooking the ocean.
Maine is a country unto itself, with hearty people used to brutal winters and verdant summers. Mainers don't easily let outsiders in, as if they doubt anybody is as tough as they are. And they may have a point.
They order "shot stacks" of pancakes and tell visitors "the lobstah's wicked good." Yes, it is. Maine is worth the trip. Just go in the summer.