A century later, wooden sloops still ply coastal waters

Captain Karl Brunner points out the sights to his passengers during a sail aboard the Alice E. PHOTO BY KATHRYN CAWDREY

Salt air fused with a woody scent wafting from the cedar planking of the Alice E. as Captain Karl Brunner motored the Friendship sloop away from the dock and out into the Great Harbor of Mount Desert.

A step aboard the Alice E. is a step back to a time when wooden traps brimming with lobsters were manually hauled up from the ocean floor and onto the beamy sailboat’s now-varnished wooden gunwale up until the early 1900s. Original to Maine, the gaff-rigged former fishing boat gets its name from Maine’s Midcoast town of Friendship, where the this type of sloop was first built.

Built in 1899, the black-hulled Alice E. has long since retired from active duty fishing and now transports visitors for leisurely sails up Somes Sound — the only natural fjord on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard — as well the Great Harbor encompassing the Cranberry Isles archipelago. The Bear Island Lighthouse is among the sights in these waters that once were part of Maine’s coastal highway and where log- and granite-laden schooners and later steamboats were a common sight.

“Where we go depends on the wind and the tide,” the Alice E.’s captain said.

The Alice E. heads out from Southwest Harbor into the Great Harbor of Mount Desert. Friendship sloops once served as fishing vessels for catching lobster. They agile wooden vessels now are sailed as pleasure craft.

Sail Acadia’s owner, Brunner owns and captains the Alice E. and another Friendship sloop, the white-hulled Helen Brooks. The latter craft departs from the municipal pier in Northeast Harbor. Brunner also offers a lobster-fishing excursion aboard the Elizabeth T.

For those bound for the Alice E., the departure point is Dysart’s Great Harbor Marina at the head of Southwest Harbor. Checking in at Sail Acadia’s office on Apple Lane, passengers head down to the docks where the 33-foot sloop is tied up.

The sailboat’s cushioned cockpit seats about six passengers and is low enough to avoid being hit by the boom as it swings around with the wind. The vessel’s engine sputtered to life as it drew away from the float. The captain lifted a football-sized conch shell to his mouth and let out two long blasts sounding like a foghorn.

As it headed out of Southwest Harbor, the Alice E. deftly moved among the moored boats — a distinguishing trait of Friendship sloops. The captain enlisted father and son Martin and Charles Tremblay to hoist the mainsail before the engine cut and only the sound of a slight easterly breeze and waves remained.

“And we’re sailing,” Brunner said.

Bear island is among the five islands making up the Cranberry Isles. The lighthouse is now a summer home.

The Alice E.’s boom swung out over the starboard side as the line shot through the block, sounding like shuffling cards. A guillemot flew by, white-spotted black wings flapping, close to the water.

Passengers can take in the views and sights while nibbling on apple slices and cheese and crackers.

Out in the Great Harbor, the Alice E.’s sister sloop sailed by. Brunner named the Helen Brooks in honor of his grandmother, who lent him the money to purchase the sloop.

Brunner grew up in the Maine’s Midcoast town of South Bristol, where his Dad taught him to sail on the Damariscotta River in a small sailboat. He perfected his skills in the Caribbean years later before founding Sail Acadia.

Sixteen summers ago, Brunner was casting about for a summer job and living aboard the Helen Brooks. What began with a cell phone and paper reservation book gradually became a seasonal enterprise with an office, online reservations and a 15-member staff. He is planning to incorporate a third sloop into his fleet.

“At the time it was all I could afford,” Brunner said. “But I grew to appreciate the value of sailing with just six people.”

Captain Karl Brunner at the helm of the Alice E. The Friendship sloop is named for his grandmother.

The sailing in Maine is ideal and dynamic because of the tides, currents, winds, wildlife and islands, he said. The Friendship sloop is just the icing on the cake. The century-old wooden craft does take time to maintain, but many local wooden boat builders have advised him over the years.

The sloops are washed down every day after sailing, and are fully cleaned annually. Before the season starts, there is a two- to three-week sanding and painting period, which includes other repairs as well. Most of the work is done by the Sail Acadia crew. Though the 118-year-old Alice E. requires more upkeep than many modern boats, Mainers appreciate her timeless beauty.

“It’s Maine’s boat,” Brunner said. “Boats are working pieces of history.”


To book passage on either the Alice E. or Helen Brooks, contact Sail Acadia at 266-5210. For more info, visit www.sailacadia.com.