Sailing On The Victory Chimes at Maine

Sailing On The Victory Chimes at Maine. This is part two of my article on enjoying food and some photography along the coast of Maine.

A Voyage on the Victory Chimes
A Voyage on the Victory Chimes

“I want two teams of healthy, happy, halyard haulers!” It’s time to raise the sails on the Victory Chimes, which is the largest passenger-carrying sailing vessel presently registered under the American flag. Our ship has been pushed, shoved, and butted clear of the wharf in Rockland, Maine, home port of the Victory Chimes. Now, it’s time to employ the Chime’s only source of built-in propulsion, the winds of Penobscot Bay.

Victory Chimes boat
Jon Finger, first mate of the Chimes, soon has a dozen willing pairs of hands lined up on each side of the ship. No brawny seamen here, just your average summer travelers, on board for a few days of briny adventure and a taste of history. We’re all ready to join in the fun of getting a huge sailing ship under way.

No easy task. The Chimes was built in 1900, long before the days of tall aluminum masts, roller-furled sails, and motorized winches. To obtain enough sail area, these old ships employ huge “gaffs” (a long wooden pole), to support the top of the sail (hence, the term, “gaff-rigged schooner”).

To haul up the sail, you must pull up the gaff. A similar pole, called a “boom,” holds down the sail, keeping it taut against the thrust of the wind. When you haul up the sail, it pulls up the boom. On the Victory Chimes, there are three such sails: the foresail, main, and mizzen sails. Together with their gaffs and booms, they weigh over two thousand pounds. We have our work cut out for us.

Our Instructions from The Victory Chimes Crew

The working crew of the Victory Chimes now takes us in hand to explain the procedure for raising the sails. One halyard (hauling rope) pulls up the “peak,” or outer end of the gaff, while the other halyard controls the “throat,” the wishbone-shaped end which slides up the mast.

“Haul on the peak!” Our group strains on the thick line, and the gaff rises up toward the vertical, the sail starting up with it.

“Haul on the throat!” We rest, while the other gang pulls to raise the other end of the gaff. We’re a good crew. The people at the front of the line haul so fast that I’m left pulling on a line that’s full of slack. My efforts propel me backward, and I land in a heap on the deck, while the heavy rope piles up in my lap. I think I’ve just failed my first seadog test.

To proceed upwind, sailboats need to transfer the lateral push of the wind into a forward motion. A flat-bottomed hull would be pushed sideways. Large, modern sailboats use a heavy keel, which also serves as a counterweight. The Chimes, however, was built to sail shallow waters. She has no keel, but employs a centerboard, which is lowered, just like my dinghy.

“The cabin portholes must be dogged down when we are under way, or the sea will invade your bunks when the vessel is heeling”.

Strange language they speak, here in Maine. Literally translated, it means, “Close and lock the windows in your hotel rooms when the ship is moving. The force of the wind makes it tilt over, and the ocean will spill through the windows if they’re open!” We’re also told to avoid topside areas painted red, during the times the ship is maneuvering. The booms swing across the deck at this time, and taller seafarers might suddenly find themselves foreshortened.

This will be a cruise with a difference. Our vessel is not a shiny reproduction, a fancy toy designed to cater to tourists. Victory Chimes started life as the Edwin & Maud, hauling lumber and general cargo from the Carolinas to New York.

She was a working lady, and still carries memories of those hard days. On one of the original beams at the stern companionway, impact scars from loading heavy timber baulks can still be seen. Our accommodation for the next three days is a living museum.

The Chimes is built of wood, wire, tar and rope. Her pulleys (called “blocks,” as they’re carved from blocks of wood) look like they’ve been used for a century. Her sails are still made of canvas. Only her lines (halyards, sheets, and stays) are made of modern materials, as it’s now impossible to obtain hemp rope.

Despite the traditional materials used in her construction, Victory Chimes carries modern radar, radio, and satellite navigation equipment.

We’re in company with five other schooners, that escort the Chimes out of harbor, before breaking off to pursue their own destinations. Rockland is home port to thirteen sailing schooners and claims to be the “windjammer capital of the world.”

The sight of a fleet of wooden vessels, pennants flying and sails bellied out with wind, lifts the spirits of everyone on board. These graceful boats, and other tall ships like them, are the last vestiges of the era of sail. When they’re gone, only photos and history books will remain, to remind us of what used to be.

What a photographic opportunity! White sails against a polarized blue sky, dynamic angles as graceful hulls heel to the press of wind. A short telephoto lens lets me fill my frame with the excitement of sailing history. I’m trying to keep my horizons level, while flitting from one composition to the next. Sailboats make unstable gun platforms, no place for a tripod.

These ships are expensive to own, expensive to run. At Wiscasset, the hulks of the Hesper and the Luther Little, two old square-riggers, lie rotting in the river, abandoned derelicts. Victory Chimes must pay her way or suffer the indignity of a similar fate.

By our patronage, we’re taking an active part in preserving a small bit of history.

Sailing is a silent sport. No roar of engines, traffic whizzing by on either side, or whine of tires on pavement. We hear only the creak of the old bones of our ship, wind whistling in the rigging, and the helmsman’s orders to the crew.

“Ready about … helm’s alee” . . . Over we go on the opposite tack, changing direction to avoid a small island or to approach a narrow channel. I’m invited to “take the wheel” of Victory Chimes, while Captain Paul de Gaeta checks his chart. It’s interesting to discover the Chimes needs no helmsman. Her balance is so good that she’ll sail the same compass course for ten minutes without correction.

Where are we going? We don’t know. The captain doesn’t know, either. Earlier, Paul advised us that, “Where we go depends on the winds and the tides,” but we didn’t take him seriously. Now, he cheerfully confesses ignorance of our final destination for the fourth time.

We relent, and stop pestering him. How delicious, to set out on a voyage with no fixed objective! Only those who have explored backcountry roads without a map, or wandered a river with a canoe and a fishing rod, can know this feeling. For all of us, tied to schedules and marching to the tick of the clock, this is never-never land.

Quite a number of us explore the delights of “standing rigging,” through a variety of camera lenses. An old ship is a cornucopia of still life studies for artists and photographers, and we’ll burn up a lot of film in the next three days.

Lunch is announced by the ringing of the ship’s bell. Salad, warm buns, a marvelous savory soup, and hot chili materialize by magic from the tiny galley below. Everyone dives into the communal ice chest for their favorite grog. A huge amount of food vanishes in the twinkling of an eye.

This sea air certainly stimulates the appetite! Soon, only a pile of dirty paper plates and a lot of satisfied smiles mark the effort of feeding forty people in the brisk wind of a sailing ship’s passage.

. . . And we are sailing. The Chimes is heeling over at about ten degrees, and the landlubbers have learned not to put their drinks on the deck. There are lots of gulls in hopeful pursuit of scraps, and several paper plates have tried to fly with them.

Where else can you enjoy a picnic while the scenery flows by you? At night, we are again in the company of ships, large and small. Stonington’s yacht harbor is full of pleasure craft and working lobster boats. The tunk-tunk of inboard diesel engines plays metronome to the rattle of steel lines on aluminum masts and an endless chorus of screeching seabirds.

The gentle rocking brings on torpor. Allison and I retreat to our cabin, for a pre-dinner snooze.

We’re sharing a cabin the size of a large broom closet, that contains a double bunk and a sink, and little else. Suitcases go under the bottom bunk, and we soon learn to pre-plan our wardrobe for the day. Rainsuits, hats, and extra sweaters dangle from a host of hooks, installed on the bulkhead for that purpose.

When one of us dresses, the other must lie on a bunk, or take a hike. With some practice, it might be possible to leap directly from your upper bunk into your trousers, hanging on a hook below you. We’ve shared many a small tent on canoe trips in the past. This is just camping with a difference, and it’s quite as much fun.

Allison has opted for the bottom bunk. She is confident that, if our one hundred seventy-foot hotel commences to roll heavily in the six-inch waves of Stonington Harbor, she won’t be thrown very far from her bed. She is oblivious to the fact that the bottom of my upper bunk is but six short inches above her nose.

The dinner bell rouses both of us, with a start, from our slumbers. I hear a thump, and a squeak, and lean down to render first aid for a bruised forehead. We’ve both read of the hazards of long ocean passages, the dangers of “rounding the Horn.” Allison has joined the walking wounded.

Gathered around the tables in the Grand Salon of the Victory Chimes, we attack plates of steaming Maine lobster. All heads turn to the miniature galley, from which Mary Walker, our cook, has quietly emerged, bearing more food. Her homemade bread and chowders, her soups and her soufflés, have claimed our total allegiance, and we rise as one to give her a standing ovation.

Next morning, the early risers are huddled before the mast. They’ve already discovered the first coffeepot, set out with mugs and milk, for those photographers who chase the sunrise.

My morning ablutions are brief. No singing of long arias here as I shower myself into full alertness. All the water must be carried in the ship’s tanks and heated with the ship’s boiler. Shipboard facilities have limitations, similar to country cottages. Small signs above the washroom toilets implore “Please don’t put anything in here that you haven’t eaten first!”

Breakfast is another Walker triumph: crisp bacon, moist omelets, warm biscuits, and all the fruit juice you can stow away. The coffee is as strong as I like it. Forget the cholesterol, and pass the eggs!

I coax and cajole Captain Paul, until he lets me go out in the yawl boat to photograph the Chimes under sail. We take along a collection of instant cameras and two other photographers to operate them. While I happily change lenses and badger our helmsman to “get closer!” a chorus of clicking keeps time with the engine.

Victory Chimes, under full sail, is a beautiful sight against the blue sky. It’s a step backward into the past, recorded on film.

Tonight, the dinner bell heralds Mary’s roast turkey, with a wonderful sage stuffing, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. After dinner, we take our coffee on deck to drink in the sunset. The dying sun turns the sky mauve and maroon, while we watch a wheeling osprey, fishing from the near shore.

Our last day on board is sunny and warm. We cruise along the Maine coast, working our way back toward Rockland. We pass by tiny coves and inlets, islands large and small, lighthouses, villages, and summer cottages.

We photograph each other at the wheel of Victory Chimes, and Captain Paul passes out Helmsman Certificates.

On the tiny coastal islands, the harbor seals litter the rocks like gray sausages, hardly paying attention as we slide slowly by. We’re moving down the coast, and now we can see Camden, tucked away inside protective arms of land.

Victory Chimes approaches the Rockland Breakwater Light, built in 1888. All the cameras come out again. A boat is required for effective shots of this lighthouse, and it’s a great opportunity.

The sails come down, and the anchor, and it’s time to pack our duffel. Captain Paul waits to wish us farewell, to send us back to our schedules and clocks, our confirmed destinations. We feel like real seadogs now, as we troop down the gangway. My sailing dinghy will never feel the same, now that we’ve gone windjamming.

by Michael Goldstein

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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