By definition, sustainability looks to the future – working to ensure that generations to come have adequate resources to meet their needs. Yet paths to greater sustainability can integrate historical practices – as Maine’s windjammer cruises demonstrate.

Maine has a dozen locally owned businesses that offer up to six-day cruises aboard historic windjammers (a handful of which qualify as National Historic Landmarks). Each tall ship relies primarily on wind power for transport, and woodstoves for cooking and heating. Some of the newer vessels have diesel engines, but their use is minimal. For the eight schooners in the Maine Windjammer Association, fuel use last season averaged out to 0.6 gallons per guest.

Despite carrying 20 to 40 guests and four to 10 crew members each, these vessels use little water and electricity. The schooner American Eagle consumes 1,000 gallons of fresh water per cruise, roughly a tenth of what guests and crew might typically use at home over that time span. Captain Barry King of the schooner Mary Day has calculated that their six-day cruise takes only as much electricity as a 60-watt porch light left on for that same period. In stark contrast to modern cruise ships – where expansive staterooms are equipped with satellite TV, hairdryers and private baths – the schooners harken back to an era when conservation wasn’t a choice, it was simply a reality of life.

Windjammer businesses can therefore achieve a baseline of sustainability almost by default. But many choose to integrate ecologically sound practices into more facets of their business, setting a high standard that could inspire and guide other tourism sectors.

Most of Maine’s windjammers sail in Penobscot Bay, enjoying stops at conserved islands and coastal villages. The unspoiled beauty of these islands helps define the cruise experience so windjammer owners are conscientious stewards of place. They routinely engage crews and guests in beach cleanups, and practice a “Leave No Trace” ethic – with no evidence left behind of picnics or lobster bakes. According to one conservation landowner, the schooner visits are “only a positive. They do more than their fair share.”

Windjammer captains inform their guests about the natural history of the Maine coast and foster a sense of community that encompasses people and place. Food is an essential ingredient for strengthening community aboard ship: Peruse any windjammer website and you’re apt to see photos of freshly steamed lobster, corn-on-the-cob and pie. With salt air whetting their appetites, guests are eager to sample platefuls of traditional Maine fare.

Windjammer businesses have begun to supply more of their shipboard meals from local farms and food producers (even, in some cases, their own chickens and gardens). The schooner J&E Riggin has refined its local sourcing to the point where more than 75 percent of its food, supplies and labor come from within a 100-mile radius. Guests who arrive never having heard terms like Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) soon gain a visceral appreciation for the benefits of local foods and cooking from scratch.

While local sourcing takes extra effort, windjammer owners find that guests notice and appreciate the higher quality of food. Annie Mahle, co-captain of the J&E Riggin (and co-writer of the Portland Press Herald’s Maine Ingredient column), is frequently amused by the expressions of surprise that guests register upon tasting fresh produce – with comments like “our kale (at home) doesn’t taste like this kale!”

Since many of these businesses sort waste and transport food scraps ashore to home compost piles, windjammer guests learn first-hand about recycling and composting. Seeing windjammer crews undertake this commitment – despite the logistical challenges of a large group in a small space – makes it harder for guests to rationalize not doing these practices at home. Mahle finds herself frequently chatting with guests about LED lights, biodegradable soaps, composting, or cooking from scratch. She even receives emails during winter from guests who are trying out practices they learned aboard. And those who return the next summer (collectively, Maine’s windjammers have a repeat business rate of 30 to 40 percent) will offer progress reports prefaced by “You’d be proud of me…”

These informal conversations are typically interwoven with restorative experiences of place, helping dispel the cultural myth that conservation involves shivering in the dark. It can be “a transformative experience,” notes Captain John Foss of the American Eagle, for people to trade television, smart phones, and daily showers for the authentic delights of delicious food, wildlife-watching and a “self-sustaining” craft.

For the windjammer businesses, sustainable practices increasingly define their identity – and help draw guests curious about more wholesome ways of living. Mahle sees limitless potential for Maine’s tourism industry to move in this direction, “capitalizing on the essence of what’s unique to Maine in a way that serves the economy well and can keep going for generations.”