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In early June, the Maine Windjammer, Schooner Stephen Taber, was nearly alone on the cruising grounds of Penobscot Bay off Mid-Coast Maine.
I was lucky enough to join Captain Noah Barnes and 20 guests who, like me, didn’t mind cramped quarters, two shared bathrooms (for all), and a makeshift deck-rigged canvas shower, in exchange for one of the most soul stirring sailing and dining experiences on the planet.
Just a few lobster boats – their crews tossing traps into the placid waters surrounding these approximately 2,000 islands – kept quiet company with eight historic Schooners scheduled to raft up one night for “The Windjamming Gam Cruise.”
Noah’s parents, Captains Ken and Ellen Barnes – who first owned and ran the Taber – and 11 year old son, Oscar, opted to come along as well. As a daughter of an avid sailor who passed away when I was just 26, this family cruise was also an emotional nostalgia trip for me.
The 115 ft. Stephen Taber – built in Glen Head, Long Island NY in 1871 (“when Grant was President”) to haul lumber and other natural resources from these islands to the mainland – is a National Historic Landmark. A credible period ship lacking modern updates, like an inboard engine (the Taber relies on the trusty “push yawl” Babe), The Schooner Stephen Taber is the oldest documented vessel in continuous service in the US.
The history of Windmamming in a nutshell: By the Depression in the 1930’s, steamships had replaced old workhorse schooners. These majestic ships sat idle and rotting until several enterprising owners discovered that college kids would pay $17 per week for a Maine sailing adventure.
They slept in hammocks, ate basic meals, helped with the sails, and plied Maine waters for a pure experience. Thus was born the tourist “Windjammer.”
My adventure began on Windjammer Wharf in Rockland Maine – where both the Stephen Taber and the more upscale Schooner Ladona (owned by the same family) are berthed. They make a pretty pair – the dark-green-hulled two masted gaff-rigged Taber and bright white Ladona, the Yin and Yang of Windjamming experiences – side by side. The Stephen Taber and the just renovated Ladona, are arguably the most aesthetically stunning and pristine ships in the fleet.
The First Generation Captains Barnes
In 1976, Captains Ken and Ellen Barnes bought an old fading schooner that had been operating as a Windjammer since 1945, and renovated it into the immaculate, historically accurate beauty she is today. They joined us several times over the four days we sailed, and my heart melted when I saw how they joked around and loved on their son, the current captain. It reminded me of my own loving relationship with my Dad, who was a fierce commander at sea, and a pushover on land.
It was apparent how comfortable the Captains Barnes felt on the ship they called home for over 25 years. Ken, Pete Seeger-ish in stature and facial hair was the quiet one. Ellen, who belts out bluesy and witty nautical songs, along with her husband and son, in a zesty full-throated voice, is the more outgoing of the two. “There’s something magical about the Stephen Taber,” Ellen mused. “It’s not a show-offy mega yacht. It’s really a lifestyle.”
After 25 years, Ken and Ellen Barnes turned the Taber over to their son, Noah, who’d been earning his chops onboard since he was seven years old. After a stint in New York City at a PR firm, and running Day Cruises out of Chelsea Piers, Noah was happy to return to the classic coasting schooner and the Maine waters he knew so well. He took over the helm when his parents retired in 2003, and runs the Schooner with his wife, Jane, and son, Oscar in tow.
The Odd Couple
I really believed that Noah was putting me on when he introduced his 11-year-old son, Oscar, and Oscar’s best friend Felix, who were joining us on the Gam Cruise. Honestly? Oscar and Felix? How purely coincidental could it be that these two would be besties? (Cue the Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau references).
Well, turns out, purely coincidental, indeed. Felix is the son of Chicky Stoltz – a musician in the “boat band,” the Charlie Nobles (a reference to the smoke stack from the ship’s galley) – and the kids have basically grown up together. They brought some great pre-teen energy to the cruise (though normally, children under 14 are not allowed).
First Impressions of the Windjammer Sailing Vacation
I was a solo traveler and had no idea what to expect. I shouldn’t have worried. People who are fine with closet-dimensioned accommodations, taking turns for the toilet, pitching in to clean up after dinner, and who find time to talk and get to know each other tend to be a self-selected group of friendly, open-minded, life-loving, gregarious folk.
Among the guests on my cruise were couples and individuals who’ve returned for this “Gam” cruise from three to 13 times. Those on board ranged in age from 11 (the Captain’s son and his friend) to 80, though most were in their 50’s-60’s on this particular theme week.
Some were retired businesspeople, others in the “helping” professions (health and teaching), and two were distinguished military: retired Air Force F-14 Fighter Pilot, Eddie Fullmer (who now flies for Net Jet), and his wife Jen McKail Fullmer – the very first woman to serve as an Air Force B-1 Bomber pilot and squadron Commander, mostly in Afghanistan. (More on her current endeavor below).
Orientation is on the evening before sailing when you’ll meet your fellow passengers. At 4pm, I tossed my small duffle on to the deck (space is at a premium, so don’t bring much). Eighth-timer, Karen B., eyeballed my little bag. “
Did you bring wet pants? Because I guarantee that when it rains, it gets everything soaked everywhere” she insisted.
I brought a raincoat, but not any other foul weather gear, I admitted. Barbara (13-timer) chimed in – “it’s a good idea to get some waterproof pants.” Everyone who’d ever been onboard before concurred.
As I quickly purchased my pair of wet pants from Harrison Marine up the street before they closed, I made note of those repeat guests who’ve experienced Windjamming on the Taber, and were utterly fine and even cheerful about inclement weather – enough to come back multiple times. I was actually looking forward to a downpour just to put my new britches to the test.
Each cabin is like a small cocoon. Upon arrival, you’ll find chocolates (minnow-shaped) on your pillow. There’s a sink, a stamp-sized area to stand up in, and a bunk bed with reading light and soft, warm comforter and bedding. There’s room enough to kick a duffle under the bed, and several hooks near the door to hang coats and wet pants. For most cabins, you have to be mobile enough to climb up and down backwards on a ladder.
Fourteen Windjammers sail from Rockland and Camden in Mid-Coast Maine (of those, eight are in the Maine Windjammer Association’s fleet): the largest concentration of these historic schooners in the world. It’s said that Windjammer guests choose the Captain or the ship and then stick with it through the years.
Many choose the Stephen Taber time and time again, originally for Captains Ken and Ellen Barnes, and presently for their son, Captain Noah. His humor, wit, and harmonica skills, not to mention a no-nonsense command of the ship, makes him one of the most popular “Masters” in the fleet. Noah is a cheese aficionado (he introduces the array of personally selected gourmet cheeses set out for late afternoon appetizers) and Jane hand-selects the wines. “For some reason, wine vendors think we’re a restaurant.”
I grew up sailing and can tell a capable captain from a mediocre one. Anyone can manage a boat in good weather under ideal circumstances, but the finest skippers are those who keep cool and make split-second recalibrations under the worst conditions, especially on a ship with no engine. Captain Barnes is one of those. He was a joker until the weather changed, the winds picked up, while we were rafting up, anchoring, or coming into dock. Then he was all business.
This is what you might hear from the Capt’n during orientation:
On his passion for the Taber: I don’t know another job where you get to take a priceless treasure out every day and try to break it.
On swimming opportunities – even though in early June, the water is 53 degrees: Finally, the water is warm enough so that it no longer supports you while standing.
On accommodations: Our ‘state rooms’ are tiny – you probably have larger closets at home.
On the curious array of ceramic mugs – we used to toss lots of paper cups, but now use these. Pick one that speaks to you and use it for the duration.
A warning – You are basically living inside a guitar – privacy is an illusion. With honeymooners on board, we give everyone else earplugs.
On schedules aboard – There is no schedule except for eating.
Dining On A Windjammer
On board chefs are magicians. How else to explain the 5-star meals that emerge from the galley – everything baked, sautéed, and stewed in a woodburning stove, sometimes while underway.
It’s an achievement to just dump a can of Campbell’s in a pot under such conditions, but the ship’s chef makes everything from scratch, with dishes timed to be ready at the same time four times a day, using ingredients ordered, prepped and stored in just one large cooler.
Meals begin with Rock City coffee at 6:30, a full breakfast spread (muffins, pancakes, eggs) at 8, lunch “under way” precisely at noon, and 6pm wine and nibbles followed by a gourmet dinner around 7ish.
Our very first meal at sea included tomato bisque, salad, and bread freshly baked in that wood-burning oven. Others: quiches, spinach-cheese dip turned into Eggs Florentine the next morning, Cod smothered in Caramelized Onions, Charcuterie Boards. And the anticipated Lobster Bake – on the last night of the cruise: an “all the lobster you can stuff in your face” fantasia of a feast.
You haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Stray Cat Strut” or “Mack the Knife” live at the stern of a schooner. (Or for that matter, debating the jazzy-cool-factor merits of cartoon theme songs from your youth e.g. “Top Cat”).
The folk-blues-crooner-country-rock “house band,” The Charlie Nobles, consists of Chicky Stoltz on guitar and drums, Tom Whitehead on guitar, and Boston-based luthier, Jed Kriegel, on upright bass. Oh, and Noah Barnes on harmonica/banana shaker, and Oscar Barnes on ukulele and hand-drums.
Everyone sings. It’s an ensemble that can crank out anything anytime, with an easy camaraderie that radiated out to our intimate group. And, yes, they recorded a CD! Which you can purchase during or after your trip!
Rhythm of the Days on the Stephen Taber
Day one, we shoved off early, gliding via the push yawl out of picturesque Rockland Harbor. It was a brisk, cold early June day, necessitating both fleece and a windbreaker over my long sleeved shirt.
Guests were invited to raise the four sails, a task employing muscles you never knew you had in a sturdy-rope-tug-of-war with heavy canvas. Under full sail, the Taber cut through the waves, stridently weaving between islands large and small.
While our own Charlie Nobles band serenaded us, we were privy to endless deep blue water peppered with parcels of land, the unmistakably Maine spruce-tree silhouettes, and an occasional fellow Windjammer. It’s tough to convey in words how tranquil and calming this was. Sun in my face, relaxed and at peace, with musical accompaniment as the wind swept us along – it was transporting.
There was nothing to do, really, but appreciate all of this beauty. And each other. Deep conversations were sparked. Friendships forged. Cell phones were put away – except for use as cameras. The “beach” – an expanse of tan cushions facing the stern near the helm – was a particularly popular spot for chilling out and listening to our private band.
Rafting Up Under Sail
Anyone who’s ever learned to sail understands that docking or rafting up with another boat under power is tough enough. But doing so under sail is nearly impossible. By late afternoon, though, Captain Barnes did the impossible. Every sail flying high, he steered the Taber gently up to the Ladona and just like that, we were tied up. Incredible.
At anchor during daylight, we were encouraged to try SUPing (there are two paddle boards on deck), row one of two wooden dinghies pullied up like lifeboats on each side of the ship, or sail with Oscar Barnes, who capably commands the 8 foot wooden dinghy like his father does the Taber.
If warm enough, you can get a swim in. In early June, the water temperature was 53 degrees. Some fearless folks took the plunge, but I, thinking “hypothermia,” stayed out of the otherwise inviting sea.
Nights On Board
Every night was another intimate concert with the Charlie Nobles, complete with wine and gourmet meals. Passengers aboard the Ladona jumped on deck to join us. Back in my “state room,” snug under my comforter, the creak of the Taber’s old wooden bones and water lapping on the hull lullabyed me to sleep. And it was some of the best deep sleep of my life.
Isle Au Haut – Acadia National Park – Excursion
You never know where you’ll end up on a Windjammer Cruise (it’s up to weather and winds), but most include a few hours on dry land.
On our second day, one that opened bright and sunny (but still a bit chilly), anyone who wanted to could go ashore on Isle Au Haut – a lobstering community with 68 year round residents. We all decided to stretch our legs, so the push yawl became our water taxi. On land, we walked past the minuscule Post Office, and up a boardwalk, through a field of wildflowers to the pretty island church built in 1852.
Nearly half of Isle Au Haut is Acadia National Park land, so we ambled towards that side of the island, passing a couple of inhabitants. One young man was shoving lobster traps onto the back of his pickup and I stopped to talk to him as an older gentleman squeezed by us in his ancient car. The old man waved. I waved back. The young lobsterman told me that his Dad had grown up on Isle Au Haut, and though he was born in Camden, he felt that this lifestyle was better for raising kids.
For some reason, seeing the traps and hearing his stories reminded me of my interview years ago with Linda Greenlaw, who wrote the very funny “Lobster Chronicles” (but was most famous for being the real life female Swordfish Boat Captain in The Perfect Storm who pleaded with the captain of the doomed ship to turn around). I mentioned The Lobster Chronicles, how much I loved it, and how I’d interviewed the author years ago.
The young man said, “that car that just drove by? That was her father.” Whose father? I asked. “Linda Greenlaw’s – that’s the guy you just waved at. Linda moved back to the mainland a few years ago and I bought her lobster boat, the Mattie Belle.”
Of the 68 people who lived on this remote island, one was the father of the woman I’d just referenced. And he happened to drive by the second I uttered her name. And the man I randomly stopped to speak to now owns her boat. Apparently, I’d stumbled into a universe of mild-bending coincidences.
“Lost in the Sunbeam”
Later, on Day 2, it was time to join all 8 schooners in the Maine Windjammer Association for a humungous raft up. Making sure everyone got to the same place at the same time required constant contact and cooperation via marine radio. At one point, Noah was communicating with another schooner when it seemed to vanish from view. “Where are you? I can’t see you,” he said into the mic. “You’re lost in the sunbeam.” I laughed because it was so groovy-poetic. But I couldn’t think of a more apt metaphor for how I felt just then. Who’d want to be found when lost in a sunbeam?
To the Maine Windjammer Association Fleet
That night, as seven schooners swung on the main anchor as one, we gathered together on the largest ship, The Victory Chimes, and toasted to the fleet. In the shadow of a thicket of masts, we marveled at taking part in the “incomparable experience of sailing as our ancestors did.” And we heard from various boat bands, and of course loved our Charlie Nobles the best.
Due to bad weather reports, the fleet had to break up for the night. Noah found a protected gunkhole, and, tied up to the Ladona, threw anchor. We waited out the storm while listening to music, proud and happy to have this wonderful house band all to ourselves.
Wet Pants, The Sequel
On Day 3, I finally had the chance to don my thick, black, waterproof pants! My “wet pants” were put to the test and they were awesome. (But not as awesome as the Captain’s Gloucester Fisherman rain hat and coat).
Even in the torrential rain, tarp over the deck keeping us semi-dry, spirits were high, guests were chummy. We ate for the first time down below snuggled in the galley. After lunch, I read in my cabin and napped. I’m glad to have experienced this weather – to discover that even when conditions are not so favorable weather-wise, they are perfect for rest, introspection, and quiet time.
Rain also makes the clearing that much more vivid and resplendent. By late afternoon, as the clouds moved away and, as we entered the charming Pulpit Cove dotted with lobster boats, I understood the Stephen Taber “magic” of which Ellen Barnes rhapsodized.
Our last night together, fresh-caught lobsters in the steamer, steak grilling, music playing, a stirring sunset coming on, I wanted to capture the moment and save it for the crazy goings on I was sure to return to in the “real world.” Strangers had become friends, and almost everyone was talking about returning again next year. Including me.
Epilogue: Friends and Boots2Roots
So, to my new buds, Barbara, JoAnn, Marisol & Raul, Karen & Bob, Linda, Jen & Eddie – it was great getting to know all of you. Maybe I’ll be seeing you on another Stephen Taber cruise in the coming years. In the meantime – I did promise our retired B-1 Bomber Pilot, Jen Fullmer, that I’d promote her new venture because it’s her way of giving back: Boots2Roots.
Boots2Roots is the only Maine nonprofit that is specifically focused on connecting with soon-to-be veterans before they come to Maine. The goals are to help them prepare for a successful transition and find fulfilling and decent paying employment quickly. For military, there’s no charge for Employment search, Resume and interview skills development to sell your capabilities, Employer networking, and Resource Connections. Thank you for your service, Jen, and your Maine-based service yet to come.
Just the Facts
A four day, four night Windjammer Cruise on the Stephen Taber in early June is $800 per person, and that includes accommodations, all meals, use of boats, SUP’s, transport to shore, etc. $20 per car for parking for the duration. Other dates, $700-$1350 per person depending on number of nights and month. Various theme cruises throughout the season – Wine and Chocolate, Racing, and others, attract a variety of ages from Millennials to Boomers. It is one of the best bargains in travel.
Look here for information on other ships in the Maine Windjammer Association.
More Maine Getaways
- Rockland Maine: Art Lives Here
- Camden Maine: Beyond Schooner Daytrips
- Schoodic Peninsula ME: Acadia National Park’s Quieter Side
I was hosted on the Schooner Stephen Taber for the Gam Cruise, but all observations and opinions are entirely my own.