The word "pelagic" doesn't come tripping off the tongue. It's an edgy word, from the Greek "pelagikos," from "pelagos," "the sea." Yet for birdwatching enthusiasts, seeing pelagic birds that spend most of their lives offshore in the cold waters of the North Atlantic merits any degree of discomfort. Not that cruising for a week in June off the coast of Maine aboard a windjammer requires much suffering: The Camden schooner Mary Day takes stalwart bird enthusiasts out to sea on a yearly six-day trip led by Maine Audubon Society guides.
To see pelagic birds, you must be on the water -- and fairly far out on the water. Birds such as shearwaters, petrels, puffins, razorbills, and gannets fly, sleep, and eat above and on the ocean throughout their lives, venturing onto isolated offshore islands only to nest and breed. To see these animals in their element, far from any landfall, is a birder's dream.
The roster for the Maine Audubon Society cruise reflects the great appeal of birdwatching as a pastime: Passengers on the trip last June hailed from Oregon, Washington, Florida, and New York, with just a few from Maine. Yet not all were dedicated birdwatchers. The trip is open to anyone who wants to sail which, for this trip, included an 87-year-old woman from Calais, Maine, who likes windjammers and wants to read Dick Francis mysteries on deck, and a retired master bourbon distiller from Kentucky who came to see the Maine he imagined from his childhood reading. All were strangers to one another.
Stumbling on board the Mary Day during a cold summer rainstorm, the passengers found many comforts: a pump organ in the saloon, a large skylight, freshwater showers. Unlike the other 13 vessels in the Maine Windjammer Association, the Mary Day was conceived and built to carry people, not granite or Christmas trees. Constructed at the old Harvey Gamage Shipyard in East Boothbay in 1962 (the yard has since moved to South Bristol), the ship was designed and captained by Camden resident Havilah Hawkins. Hawkins, who died in 2000, is credited with sparking a renaissance in the construction of wooden sailing vessels; the Mary Day, named after his wife, was the first sailing passenger vessel built in the 20th century.
Just a few of the week's passengers were interested in the Mary Day's history. Someone asked Captain Barry King about the bronze plaque hanging in the galley of a beautiful woman with flowing hair. The plaque is a portrait of Hawkins's wife cast by Hawkins years ago. Fewer still know that each year, when the sailing season ends, King removes the plaque and brings it up to the living Mary Day in Camden, with whom he sits and recounts the adventures of the summer. The plaque stays with Mary until spring, when King again walks up to the house to retrieve the portrait and restore it to a place of honor aboard his vessel.
The passengers are lucky: A front passed through on Sunday night, pushing the rain out and bringing a strong northwest wind in the morning. Out of Camden Harbor, the Mary Day catches the wind neatly to make a tidy passage across West Penobscot Bay, through the Fox Islands Thorofare, then across Jericho Bay in the afternoon and around the easterly tip of Isle au Haut before anchoring in Burnt Coat Harbor on Swans Island at suppertime. Early the next morning, sipping coffee quietly on deck, Kentucky distiller Bill Friel witnesses a bald eagle strafing a raft of female eiders. The eiders squawk and chatter in alarm as the eagle dips its claws toward their young. "Hard way to get a breakfast," Friel comments wryly.
Breakfast for the human visitors to the cove is anything but hard to get. Mary Barney, the Mary Day's longtime cook, manages the production of three hot meals each day on the galley's formidable wood stove, plus morning and afternoon snacks for the 16 passengers and 11 crew members. Awake and eager, the passengers slide into the settees and gimbaled tables in the saloon for hot oatmeal, homemade granola, plates of scrambled eggs and bacon, buckets of hot coffee and tea, and fresh fruit compote. The conversation is amiable and quiet, as befits strangers making one another's acquaintance in such close quarters.
The wind is still strong from the northwest. The Mary Day's young crew and willing passengers set the sails and the vessel sweeps over to nearby Frenchboro Long Island for a hike on land. The small island sits alone at the mouth of Blue Hill Bay; just 50 residents live there in the winter, most of whom engage in lobstering for employment. Landing at the Lunt & Lunt wharf, the eager birdwatchers set off past the island's lone church, whose steeple is topped with a cod-shaped weather vane. Much of the island is undeveloped and in conservation ownership. A quick walk through thickets of spruce and fir over soft carpets of reindeer moss and cinnamon ferns leads to a rocky headland with an unfettered view of the Gulf of Maine.
The two Maine Audubon naturalists on board for this trip come into their own. Mike and Margi Shannon have been involved in Audubon Society endeavors for decades. Mike, currently an ornithology and environmental studies teacher at Unity College in Unity, Maine, directed the national Audubon Society's Hog Island nature camp in Muscongus Bay during the 1970s. Walking through the woods, the husband and wife team point out some of the unique ecological features of the island, such as perched wetlands over granite shelves. Each morning throughout the week, the passengers will have the opportunity to amble along with the Shannons on various sections of the coast, botanizing and birding to their hearts' content.
After lunch, King heads the Mary Day northeast again, clipping along at 10 knots toward Mount Desert Rock, 17 miles offshore. The fresh wind quickly brings out the windbreakers, fleece pullovers, even a few sets of mittens. Against the afternoon sun, the waves are as bright as polished chrome, making any passing birds hard to see. However, Mike Shannon knows pelagic birds are out here. As the vessel bounces through the chop, he helps Beverly Fior of Massachusetts focus her binoculars. Passengers on the heeling deck resemble a selection of well-stuffed laundry bags, bundled snugly in their many layers of clothing.
"There!" shouts Shannon, pointing to the east. "Puffins!" Sure enough, two small dark bodies with sharp stubby wings are seen skittering through the troughs between waves. Puzzled by their subdued colors (puffins have bright orange and yellow feet and bills only during the early summer breeding season), Gary Hollen of New York flips through his bird book to confirm the sighting. Swiveling binoculars follow the puffins as they disappear in the distance.
An hour or so later, Shannon points and shouts again. "A sooty shearwater!," he exclaims, bracing against the ship's rail. "I've never seen one of those."
The dust-gray bird with slender wings scoots by just inches from the water's surface. Esther Clark of upstate New York is delighted. To add to her life list of approximately 400 birds both puffins and a sooty shearwater in one day is "very satisfying," she says.
After coming about just shy of Mount Desert Rock, the Mary Day breezes back to Swans Island for a quiet night at anchor. By the end of the day's sailing, passengers also have seen a Northern gannet, black guillemots, and a razorbill. The razorbill alone is a remarkable sighting. The unusual-looking bird is related to the extinct great auk. It stands on land like a penguin, and is jet black but for a white line from its bill to its eye. Razorbills are at the southern limit of their geographic range in the Gulf of Maine; they are found only during the early summer in small breeding colonies on tiny uninhabited islands far offshore.
The Shannons chat with passengers about the day's sightings while the crew tidies the boat and gets dinner ready. Bit by bit, the easy familiarity of windjammer life settles on the passengers. After dinner, passengers loiter about in the saloon, playing cards or listening to King tell his tales about life under sail in "the old days." One evening, the Shannons hold a slide show of the many wild creatures found in the gulf. Another night, under the influence of a waning moon and perhaps a bottle of good red wine, one of the passengers strikes up the parlor organ, a crew member brings forth a guitar, and an impromptu concert of familiar songs takes place.
By the end of the week, the bird guidebooks will be looked at infrequently as attentions turn to the more familiar schooner amenities: a lobster bake on a quiet island, sunsets across a smooth harbor, the pleasure of learning to coil a line properly.
The long days revolve around the routine of raising sails, watching the wind, and, of course, eating. During the brief voyage, approximately 75 pounds of flour, 25 pounds of butter, 20 pounds of sugar, six gallons of milk, and 12 dozen eggs will be consumed by the ship's complement. Approximately 700 gallons of fresh water will be used for drinking and cooking. Most remarkably, 32 adults will, for the week, use the equivalent of one 100-watt bulb burning for 57 hours. Electricity is used solely to power reading lights in each of the cabins and water pumps for wash basins and the two heads (commonly called toilets on land). At night, light in the saloon comes from old-fashioned kerosene lamps. While the Mary Day is in port each weekend, the ship's banks of batteries are recharged. The lack of abundant electricity for daily appliances -- razors, hair dryers, portable CD players -- hasn't proved onerous to any of the passengers. As King notes, "The lesson of the schooners is that you can do with a lot less in daily life."
On the last evening, anchored in a cove off the island of Vinalhaven, Caitlin, the cheerful mess mate, brings old-fashioned ice cream churns on deck. Like adults returned briefly to childhood, the passengers vie to help crank the milk and cream. Just as the sun is setting, the ice cream is ready. Conversation is quiet; bits of laughter drift back from the bow where several passengers are enjoying their dessert on the bowsprit. Jim Dugan, a Maine passenger, circles the Mary Day in the ship's lapstrake dory, rowing among the remnants of sunset reflected in the still water.
Sitting on a locker with his bowl of coffee ice cream, Paul Litwak recounts his delight in seeing at least one bald eagle every day of the trip. Still, remembering the first days of the cruise, sailing far offshore, he says, "Those were the best days, out there when the wind was up, seeing the puffins and shearwaters."
Melissa Waterman is a freelance writer in Maine.