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Yarns from a Windjammer Cruise

A Windjammer knitting cruise – ideal post-lockdown travel for women of a Certain Age.

Where do you cast off before casting on?

On a Windjammer knitting cruise!

By spring this year, Covid lockdown-induced cabin fever had sapped my joie de vivre. Time for a pick-me-up, a short trip close to home, perhaps, to meet new people, see new sights, learn new skills. Yet, Canada's borders remained closed. What to do?

Voila! An ad for Windjammer cruises in nearby Maine sparked memories of friends who had raved about them. One had even taken a knitting cruise. I considered the short, four-hour drive to Maine, the fresh air and seascape, the affordability, and sailing years ago as a bride. One call to Schooner J. & E. Riggin in Rockland, Maine, sealed the deal. No roommate thanks to Covid precautions and no single supplement. I booked and began looking for yarn. Our instructor, Bill, suggested worsted weight in three contrasting colors. (Why do I always gravitate toward turquoise?)

Now I’m not much of a knitter though I savor the colors and textures of yarns and have a stash for "some day" projects. For years, my informal knitting group has kept me motivated despite my rudimentary skills and spontaneous design elements, aka knots, holes, and pattern aberrations.

Mostly I crank out straightforward scarves and baby stroller blankets like oversized dishcloths. I was ready for a challenge. Learning "color work" while sailing and the likely camaraderie woven by folks who relish fiber art sounded ideal.

My vessel would be the J. & E. Riggin, a two-masted, gaff-rigged schooner out of Rockland, Maine, under the command of Captains Justin and Jocelyn. This venerable ship has no engine; a yawl boat tied to the stern however, provides power in a pinch. Though the ship could sleep 24 plus crew, we sailed with just 13 guests, 10 of whom were knitters. Six vertical steps descended to very snug sleeping quarters; the two heads (toilets) were above deck and equally space-saving. Good thing I knew to pack light and for all kinds of weather. Woolen long johns in July? And rubber boots, too? Absolutely.

Now I hadn’t been on a sailboat for 48 years -- perhaps because my husband sank our gaff-rigged sloop before we made the first payment, a tale for another time -- but my nautical vocabulary came back along with my sea legs.

"Won't you get seasick trying to knit on a sailboat?" a friend worried.

I never opened my Dramamine. Rather, I enjoyed the lulling motion of our craft and the slurping noises of the sea. We had little wind except for one bright afternoon when we tacked a zigzag course, shifting sails to catch the breeze. And I do mean "we." On this cruise "All hands!" means everyone, including willing guests, help to raise and lower both sails and anchor. Crew could do it, of course, but extra muscle-power helped. Besides, it was fun!

Captain Justin announced that our itinerary would be "wherever the wind blew;" however, he found sheltered coves for mooring each night and a deserted beach for a lobster bake. He even toasted the marshmallows for our s'mores served on freshly baked pizzelles baked over the campfire.

Maritime meals

These treats only hint at the cuisine aboard the J. & E. Riggin. Yes, cuisine - "food" seems too mundane a word for Chef "Chive's" offerings. Much of it drew from locally sourced meat, veggies, and honey. The lobsters appeared on our plates just hours after they had enjoyed a sea-bottom stroll.

Here, Captain Justin empties a washtub of seaweed and lobsters.

Throw your carbo-counter overboard and enjoy the daily breads with local butter. I still dream of the almond-lemon scones. Hors d'oeuvres appeared each evening as the sun slid over the yardarm (or behind the fog bank), and we dropped anchor. Even more remarkable, Chef whipped up all of our meals on a wood-fired cook stove!

Often on this journey, I thought about my ancestors who had weathered crossing the Atlantic and Richard Henry Dana sailing around Patagonia in Two Years Before the Mast. I felt a twinge of guilt knowing they survived on hard tack and gruel. Vitamin C was hard to find. Not an issue on the J. & E. Riggin. Maine blueberries abound.

Travel always teaches. During four days at sea I learned a lot about Maine and myself.

  • · My physical strength has flagged since my last camping trip 25 years ago. Blame 18 months away from strength training. I could cautiously descend into the small launch for a shore excursion to Stonington, a quaint port on Deer Island with a Nantucket vibe: sea-silvered wooden cottages, masses of flowers, and inviting boutiques. I could disembark on the town pier and re-board the launch. Climbing back aboard the J. & E. Riggin, however, proved more difficult.

I stood on the bulkhead of the rocking launch, held the captain's hand for balance, grabbed posts on the gunwales. Now to haul myself up about 4 feet of wooden ladder

I couldn’t do it.

“Gimme a push!"

Someone below shoved my ample derriere, and I lurched over the gunwale and onto the deck, safe but embarrassed. Time to cut back on the focaccia, shortbread, and scones adding to my ballast. Or haul more sail.

  • My mind is still sharp. Yes! I can follow a knitting pattern in three colors -- even with my yarns blowing parallel with the deck -- and produce something recognizable, usable even. Though I can’t knit as deftly as my nimble-fingered cohort and certainly don’t stay up at night knitting by headlamp, I’ve made progress. I’ve done something I thought I couldn’t do. In addition to learning a new skill, I've reassured myself that I've not lost an important old skill: long-distance driving. Though I've driven from New Hampshire to Florida and back in the winter, Covid lockdown shortened my leash. I rarely drove further than the grocery store these past 16 months. Whereas three hours of four-lane turnpike driving used to be normal for me, this trip I had to be hyper-vigilant, plan ahead, and take more breaks. Just like the maxim, "If you want to be a writer, write," if you want to be a long-distance driver, drive. I see more road trips in my future to stay sharp.

  • Women of a Certain Age are a resilient bunch.

Incredibly, all of the passengers on the cruise had sailed the J. & E. Riggin before, as many as a dozen times, though not always together. I was warmly welcomed into the group, and folks shared micro-mini version of their bios. Some had endured recent personal losses, but never dwelled on them. Instead, they'd grab binoculars the better to see dolphins and petrels or a ship with red sails in the mist. Perhaps, however, as they knitted quietly, and we glided past miles of spruce trees and promontories, they meditated upon the increases and decreases, the unravelling in their lives. My new friend, (seen here jumping overboard) who had taken the cruise five times and had visited Iceland the week before seemed impervious to cold. Three other women of a Certain Age plunged into the 62-degree sea for a few minutes. (I've never recovered from Jaws, so didn't join them.)

My upbeat companions shared vibrant attitudes toward both life and foul weather. Whether the wind blew so hard we had to clamp down our knitting patterns, or fog rose and dampened our hair for hours or cold forced us into woolen long johns and hats, we simply enjoyed each other e rolling sea -- wherever the wind blew us and our knitting. ###

Invitation/Your turn

  • Describe a time you traveled close to home and had an enriching experience.

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