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Saltwater vacations. Winds and tides govern schooner's itinerary

A ship is worse than a jail. There is, in jail, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger. - Samuel Johnson

Not everyone agrees with Johnson's view that sailing is little more than prison with the threat of drowning. For more than 50 years, the Maine Windjammer Association has welcomed a growing number of neophyte salts eager to test their sea legs. This association of 14 schooners plies the northern waters along the rocky coast of Maine from June to September.

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``OK, let's hoist the mainsail,'' shouted Ray Williamson, captain of Mercantile, a 115-foot schooner built in Deer Isle, Maine, back in 1916.

``The mainsail? Which one's the mainsail?'' an eager little lady asked. ``It's only my second day, and I haven't learned all our terms yet,'' she said, grabbing a rope and gamely tugging away.

``Haul away,'' shouted the captain, ``and easy on the peak.''

The great canvases snapped, billowed with wind, and the Mercantile was under way.

As the captain sets the voyage's tone, he says, ``If you want to help sail, fine. If you're just along for the ride, that's fine, too. No one is expected to do anything they don't want to do. They're on vacation.''

While those who wanted to participate hauled away, others were content to lean against a mast with their noses stuck in a trashy novel.

``I wouldn't dare read this on dry land where my friends could see me,'' said a blond young woman, sheepishly tucking a gold-titled, hot-pink paperback in her yellow slicker.

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The 26 passengers aboard Mercantile were a mixed lot, mostly professional people from the industrial East Coast states, a few from California, Alabama, and a couple from Arizona.

``We read about it in Yankee magazine,'' an Arizonan said. ``It sounded like the perfect way to see the Maine coast, plus we were coming up here anyway to visit friends.''

On these three-day and week-long cruises the winds and tides govern the itinerary.

``I've done these trips for three years and never done the same trip twice,'' said Mr. Williamson, one hand clutching a cup of hot coffee, the other on the chilly helm.

``We go where wind and weather dictate. And there are hundreds of quiet, sheltered islands available to pull into at night.''

This particular day was raw, rainy, and foggy, with a wind that moved us between the islands at about six knots.

A veteran passenger who has done these trips for several years shared her thoughts. ``My first trip - I think it was back in the late '60s - was on the Adventure. I loved it right away. It's so easy to get acquainted and make friends. I met people on that trip that I still keep in touch with. One year I went twice, on the Mary Day - once in the spring and once in the fall.''

Even though this woman lives in Maine, she finds sailing ``the best way to see a part of Maine that I'd never be able to see otherwise.''

Although these colorful old schooners have been refitted to some extent, luxury liners they're not. These were built to work for a living, not as romantic yachts cruising to nowhere.

``Once in a while we get someone who thinks they're boarding the Queen Mary. They're a little surprised to find there are no showers - and only two heads [toilets]. But after a few days, we're just one big happy family,'' said Williamson.

``I wasn't too anxious to bathe in 55-degree salt water,'' said a young woman from Alabama. ``But after a few days I was jumping in and lathering up with dishwashing detergent. That's what we were given. You can't get a lather in cold salt water with regular shampoo.''

Another woman had her own way of getting her carefully manicured hands clean. ``I help wash the dishes,'' she said, fanning out her bright pink nails.

Every passenger is issued a plastic bucket and cup upon boarding, and some plastic to wrap bed gear in to protect it from dampness. A few cups of fresh water are measured out to each person every morning for washing up. A kettle of hot water is always available down below in the galley for shaving.

Sleeping quarters are cramped but adequate enough to sleep comfortably. Any more time in the cabin, and you'd take sides with Samuel Johnson.

Each single and double cabin is equipped with an electric light. ``We run the generator before each trip,'' one of the crew said. ``But by the end of the cruise the lights are pretty weak.''

Evenings on deck can be especially memorable, even romantic. While anchored at Ilesboro Island, a red sun melted into the calm waters, spilling waves of undulating pink across the inky sea.

``Sometimes it's so quiet and peaceful you're afraid to speak,'' one young man whispered. ``You're afraid you'll break the spell.''

There are no electric lights above deck. Kerosene lanterns flicker at night, giving a more authentic nautical look on board.

Weather may be fickle along these waters, but the food on board is consistent. The captain demands three hot squares a day. ``People expect it,'' he says. ``They love to eat when they're on vacation.''

That puts a bit of a strain on the second-most-important crew member, the cook. All cooking aboard these schooners is done on ancient wood-burning stoves. ``The food isn't fancy. It's simple and hearty,'' said the cook, stirring a multi-gallon pot of bubbling stew. On our week-long cruises we do a big lobster cookout on one of the islands.''

``We've had people on board from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, France, and Denmark,'' said Williamson, ``and some have been real characters. We had an American Indian from Montana. He didn't have any teeth, but boy, could he entertain us with his lasso.''

Most memorable trip?

``We had an elderly man who was quite ill who wanted to be with his family one last time. He called them and got all kinds of excuses - `We're too far away,' `The kids are busy,' `I have too much work to do,' etc.

```Well, if something happens to me, are you coming to my funeral?' the father asked. The children were shocked. `Of course we will,' they responded.

```Well, come and do this for me now, and forget my funeral,' said the father.

``And they all came. That was a very special trip - for him, his family, the crew, and everyone on board,'' said Williamson, a little mist caught in the corner of his eye.

Practical information

For details, write Maine Windjammer Association, Box 317P, Rockport, Maine, 04856. Or call (800) MAINE80.

Try to arrange a trip around the July 4 weekend, when all the schooners gather for their annual race. Bring comfortable, casual clothes: non-skid deck shoes, blue jeans, a warm sweater, a windbreaker, and foul-weather gear. You could use binoculars, cameras, sunglasses, needlepoint, books, flashlight, and sun-screen lotions. If you play a portable musical instrument, bring it. But only radios with earphones are allowed.

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