Windjammer Days in Boothbay, Maine

Festivals, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on June 1, 2008

The Heritage, a 95-foot-long coastal schooner, sails majestically into Boothbay Harbor, Maine (pop. 2,334), as thousands of spectators line the docks and shoreline. The elegant ship “the first of four large sailing vessels known as windjammers “slices through the water with its sails taut and flags fluttering. The awe-inspiring nautical display is the Parade of Sail, a highlight of Windjammer Days, an annual two-day festival the last week of June.

“The festival celebrates our rich maritime history, especially in boatbuilding,” says Sarah Seepe, who serves as the festival’s co-director along with her husband, Bill.

Boothbay Harbor’s shipbuilding heritage dates back more than 200 years when local residents traded lumber and fish for spices and rum from the West Indies. The brisk trade gave rise to regional boatyards and a growing need for large cargo ships. Although no one knows for sure, local historians estimate that 5,000 boats have been built in the region during the last two centuries, with hundreds of those being windjammers.

Today, rather than transporting cargo, the grand windjammers carry passengers on multi-day tours of the Maine coast. Many of the ships take part in Windjammer Days, a popular event for visiting ship captains and their customers as well as lifelong residents of the maritime town.

“If you look at pictures from the late 1800s, the harbor was full of these boats,” says Jim Jones, 53, a second-generation Boothbay Harbor boatbuilder. “It’s great to have them back.”

Jones works at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, which was founded in 1869 as the Townsend Marine Railway. “The popularity of Windjammer Days shows there’s still a lot of interest in these boats,” he says.

The idea for the festival was born in 1962 when local sea captain David Dash noticed the attention that three schooners, waiting out the ocean fog in the harbor, were generating. A year later, Dash arranged to have five windjammers on hand, and Windjammer Days was born.

And while the festival highlights the town’s boatbuilding history, it also celebrates the present. “Boatbuilding is still very important to the area,” says Seepe, noting that the area is home to 10 shipyards. “In fact, visitors to the festival can tour a real working shipyard,” she adds.

Over the last decade, the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, one of two shipyards that offer public tours, has built some 14 boats and restored eight others. In 2006, the shipyard, which specializes in wooden boat construction, was commissioned to build a replica of the Discovery for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Va. Last year, the company finished a 14-month restoration of the HMS Bounty, originally built for the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty.

“I’ve never worked on anything that big before,” says Jones of the 180-foot-long Bounty.

In addition to the windjammers, the festival features a number of other attractions, including a large crafts fair, a fireworks display over the harbor, tours of a U.S. Coast Guard station and a street parade.

The street parade almost rivals the turnout for the windjammers, according to Laura Honey, 74, manager of the Fisherman’s Wharf Inn. “People line the streets,” says Honey, who served as grand marshal of last year’s parade. “It’s like the whole town turns out to see the homemade floats.”
Still, Windjammer Days, scheduled June 24-25, is a sailing celebration, and for Lois Bergkamp, 76, of Hudson, N.H. (pop. 24,568), the Parade of Sail keeps her coming back.

“Watching the windjammers with their large masts, it’s wonderful,” says Bergkamp, who, along with her husband, George, 84, has attended the festival for 12 years. “It’s like a picture of the way ships used to be.”