A Maine Tradition

Bosun Chair

Not so long ago, every day in Camden was a windjammer festival of sorts. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, builders like Deacon Joseph-Stetson and John Dailey launched everything from great clipper ships to smaller coastal schooners from shipyards in the inner harbor, while the turn of the century saw Holly Bean’s crew on the east side of the harbor creating the greatest oceangoing ships of the Great Age of Sail, including the six-masted George W. Wells. For nearly a century Camden Harbor was crowded year-round with moored schooners, Friendship sloops, and scows awaiting their next cargo to be brought to Boston, Philadelphia, or the West Indies, as these sailing ships served as the eighteen-wheelers of their time.

The advent of the steamship might have seen windjammers disappear from Camden if not for the arrival in the 1930s of Frank Swift, an artist and able-bodied seaman who believed the decaying coasting schooners increasingly littering the Maine coast could be refurbished to take passengers on week-long sailing expeditions. His business, Maine Windjammer Cruises, was based at what is now the Camden Public Landing, and after a few difficult years during the Depression it had grown to several coastal schooners, including Mattie, still sailing from Camden today under her original name, Grace Bailey.

Swift’s concept of a windjammer industry continued to grow even after he sold his business, with the Stephen Taber, Mary Day, Angelique, Lewis R. French, and even the great Gloucester fishing schooners Adventure and Roseway making Camden into the center of windjamming worldwide. Along with tourists, the Camden windjammer fleet attracted a unique cast of characters who sailed the historic ships, charismatic men and women who brought the old ways of sailing alive through their songs, dress, and antics.

To bring the world of the windjammer to a larger audience that includes both landlubbers and old salts, the Camden Windjammer Festival was created. This Labor Day weekend event in Camden Harbor sees the awe-inspiring vessels of the Maine windjammer fleet rafted alongside each other and hosting free "open-boat" tours, demonstrations of nautical skills and traditions, and a schooner crew talent show that is truly unlike any other show in the world.