Four Days Aboard the Schooner Stephen Taber

IMG_3354I am not an adventurous person. I live with and love people who joyfully leap off the pier into the cold water with nary a thought of drowning or heart attack. They burrow themselves deep in the woods without a single concern about bad weather, morning espresso, and I don’t even want to say it: Ticks. I have friends who jump on stage to perform music or spoken word without vomiting into a barrel first. Buddies who plan to sail across the Atlantic without immediately imagining themselves trapped inside a bulkhead in an overturned hull bobbing like a tiny cork in the vast ocean, in complete darkness, unsearchable and unfindable. Friends who say “hell yes” when someone suggests a trip to some faraway country, and not a single terrified glance at global news.

I am not that person. I am the cheerleading friend who can’t sing and can’t dance. The friend who laughs when they are funny (so funny), tear up when the song is beautiful, hand them a towel after they scrape themselves back to shore. While I do love to ski and mess about in boats, I am in my heart of all hearts, an indoor cat.

I say this because I have just returned from a four-day trip aboard the schooner Stephen Taber—a sailing excursion described as “camping with better food.” It rained for the first 36 or so hours. It was chilly. I spent most of my time outdoors. And I regret nothing. Here’s why:

It. Was. Awesome.

When I say I’m not an adventurer, I feel my comments are truthful, but they are not entirely honest. (Yeah. Work your way around that one-handed clap.) I mean I live in constant fear of pain, humiliation, and rejection. But, no. I do not fear boats as much as I fear interacting with people or being stuck with someone who is truly objectionable. This is enough of a reason for me to avoid this kind of adventure.

As someone who works with boats, has traveled some, and has seen the Sistine Chapel on a private tour (Jar!), I feel I can say with impunity that the Maine windjammer fleet is deeply breathtaking and the experience aboard one of these vessels is truly unforgettable.

The History
Launched in 1871, the 110’ Stephen Taber is owned and operated by Captain Noah Barnes and his wife Jane Barrett, who handles the back-end of the business but joins the wine trips–lady knows her wine. As the oldest sailing vessel in continuous service in the United States, the stephen Taber is literally a National Historic Landmark. Her wooden hull and wooden spars creak like a living being but your feet remain stable and solid under you on deck. The cabins, as one would imagine, are small and cozy. This isn’t the Four Seasons (except for the quality of service, experience, and food while you are a guest) so you should expect an element of outdoorsy-ness.

IMG_3361Noah grew up aboard the Stephen Taber. His parents owned her for 25 years, prior to retiring and selling the vessel to their son. Now, Noah’s seven (almost eight) year old son Oscar spends his summer on the water with his dad. To his credit, Noah allows Oscar to scramble about that boat without a worry because he is raising a fearless, adventurous boy. I, on the other hand, audibly gasped at every jump, fall, stumble, and rope climb.

The schooner has no engine, so all power is either under sail or via the Taber’s tender*, Babe, a 15’ yawl with an inboard engine, built by Noah’s father. When there is no wind or in delicate maneuvering situations, the crew will power and/or guide the schooner at the stern (back end) with the yawl boat. This is not a task to be taken lightly.

One night when we were planning to raft up** with Angelique, another vessel in the Maine windjammer fleet, Oscar was the one who guided us alone in that yawl with this father supervising from above. Yeah. Again, he is seven (almost eight). My heart exploded in my chest.

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The Hospitality
The Taber is (or more accurately Noah and Jane and the crew they bring with them are) known for providing great food and a genuinely hospitable atmosphere. Noah loves to remind people that he creates the same

Noahatmosphere for his guests that he would like to experience himself. Noah and Jane are good friends of mine so I have done some serious research into their hosting skills. At their dinner parties, you are regaled with long funny stories and offered the best cheese and wine. Dinner is an event to be shared among friends with laughter and love and affection. It’s festive and just this side of hedonistic.

IMG_3391In the picture to the left, Captain Noah is whipping cream for dessert while chatting with guests about the fleet. It’s not an act. This really happens.

My point is this, sailing aboard the Taber is like being asked to a dinner party with your favorite host who knows how to bring like-minded people together. The four-day to week-long themed cruises attract people who enjoy the same things. For the music cruise that I participated in, every guest was a music lover. For the wine cruise, everyone loves wine. Gourmet cruise? Food. Great Schooner Race Week? Buried rails***. You get the picture.

The Music. The People.
As you probably can surmise, however, I was anxious prior to the trip. I mean, I’m always anxious because I have what a friend recently identified as “threshold anxiety.” I don’t like to walk into a room. I hate it. Can you imagine what my blood pressure was prior to walking aboard the schooner Stephen Taber with my bag in hand, not knowing what to expect? I was freaking out. And I know the captain, for crying out loud.

IMG_1112I joined the Music Cruise and Gam with the Charlie Nobles—a band comprised of Tom Whitehead (guitar/vocals), Chicky Stoltz (drums/vocals), and Jed Kriegel (upright bass)—because these fellas are friends of mine. So, this shouldn’t have been a difficult threshold for me to cross, even though it was. Regardless, it was clear once I was settled into my cabin, that this still would have been pretty easy if I were traveling alone and didn’t know anyone.

Because people on board had a love for music in common, we easily found ways to have conversations. This gang on this trip was wonderful. They were easy going, funny, good natured, and comfortable to be around. My personal aversion to crowds melted pretty quickly. Don’t get me wrong; I was on this trip to talk to my friends who I adore and I spent as many of my free moments with them as I could. But, when I wasn’t with them, I was happily chatting away with these strangers turned comrades.

People who book these trips are from all over the world. The trip I participated in included a couple from Sweden who had recently chosen to spend their lives roaming the earth while working from their computers—Kat with her camera in hand taking the most beautiful photos and Fredrik with his smarty-pants esoteric jokes, a couple from Iowa (with whom I had a lengthy and oddly fascinating discussion about corn and a disgusting conversation about lichen), people from New England, the southwest, and South Carolina.

IMG_3367All were engaging. All were up for the adventure. And, all took the time to talk about, laugh about, and overcome any misgivings about working the boat, sharing a head (bathroom), having hat hair, and being on a boat together for four days.

Three solo travelers, one of whom worked so hard to be part of the sailing adventure, it was easy to believe he was almost a member of the crew. The most charming southern woman (with the exception of my own sweet and dear sister-in-law) who stood front and center every time the band played.

A mother-daughter team who I witnessed having a quiet moment together where mom thanked her daughter for bringing her on the trip. Nurse Rhonda who endeared herself to me almost immediately when she said she liked “people who take the time to keep themselves together” as she lamented her crazy hair (which wasn’t crazy at all). Joyce, who wrote a beautiful poem I never heard, but I got to listen to everyone’s joyful, tearful reactions.

And, finally, Natasha and Lex, a couple I hadn’t really noticed until one morning at breakfast when I was seated beside them in the galley. I can’t even begin to explain how much they made me giggle.

I became enamored with these people. They were my tribe. This was our boat. We were on an adventure together, in this little impenetrable bubble. No email. No calls. No stress. No anxiety. I started the trip with my phone out, checking emails and texts, taking pictures, and reviewing the chart. By the end, I didn’t know where I was, what day it was, or what time it was. (By the way, make sure you click the video above and watch to the end. It makes me laugh.)

The Work
I haven’t even mentioned the actual sailing yet. On our first morning, we were lazily creak creak creaking along through Penobscot Bay when it became very clear the weather was about to change. You could see, in the distance, the shift in wind, like a line in the water. The smooth blue water was rippled and dotted with white caps. In these instances, everything looks all dark and shivery and shimmery. Just moments after the lazy, sleepy video below was taken, it was all REEF THE MAIN! DROP THE STAYSAIL! And then….boop. We were sailing! 

Guests are encouraged to help the crew haul and drop sails, hoist the anchor, assist on every tack****. I’ll straight up tell you: I’ve spent time on sailboats and I’ve worked briefly on schooners in the past. But, I had no intention of helping the crew on this trip. I just wanted to sit and luxuriate.

IMG_3339That lasted about 24 hours. By the second day, I was right in it. It is hard work, hauling those lines and weighing the anchor with a manual windlass***** that requires four strong people and still the first mate has to jump in with his Popeye arms and help out. I thought I was going to die. Some people aboard joined the “Stephen Taber Gym,” which means they would drop down and do 10 push-ups, 10 situps, and plank for 30 seconds on every tack, which is suuuuuuper fun when the boat is sailing upwind and tacking every ding-dang ten minutes. I joined that gym once and thought: Nope. But, I’m comfortable thinking I got just a little bit of exercise.

The Food
But wait. There’s more. I haven’t even touched upon the delicious meals on this cruise. Cocktail hour included wine with cheese—my god that cheese—and such nibbles as fried green tomatoes, prepared by Chef Caroline Ridout. Lunch and dinner were brutal for someone who pretends to be a vegan. (If I had told them ahead of time I try to be vegan, I’m certain they would have accommodated my nutritional needs, but there was no way I was going to do that, so it doesn’t matter. Regardless, if you have special dietary restrictions, you’ll be fine.)

The menu is like a Dickens novel. Delicious and creamy clam chowder, tender and juicy prime rib, fresh fiddleheads and roasted root vegetables, salty and meaty pork minestrone, buttery lemon squares and homemade chocolate chip cookies, the most enormous and fluffiest frittata I have ever seen, big sticky gooey cinnamon buns, and warm fresh bread. And, check this, all meals are prepared in the galley with a wood-burning stove.

I know.

The Schedule
First night: Buck’s Harbor, with some live music from the fellas.

IMG_3366Second day: We anchored in Stonington Harbor and wandered about the village. If you’ve never been to Stonington, you should check it out. I didn’t go to the Granite Museum this time around, but if you’re there, you’re going to want to take that in.

GamSecond night: This is where things started getting super relaxed and I stopped tracking locations. We settled into an anchorage with six other schooners and rafted up with the Angelique. Cocktail hour included the fellas from the Charlie Nobles cruising around in Babe, serenading the guests within the fleet. In the image above, you’re looking at the yawl boat as it approaches the Victory Chimes with Popeye first mate on the tiller. After dinner, guests from the other vessels in the gam were ferried over to the Taber for a giant music show with Captain Dennis Gallant of the Angelique and JR Braugh, who is absolutely mesmerizing on a guitar, of Ladona, a rebuilt and recently launched schooner also owned by Noah and Jane.

IMG_3374IMG_3396The story behind Ladona is more than I can offer here, but you can read and watch more on WCSH and the Bangor Daily News; I think there’s a piece coming out soon in the Boston Globe as well. And, it’s likely I’ll pitch this story to whomever will hear it because the end result is one beautiful boat that provides a more luxury experience for those who want, say, a tiled shower or on-deck lounge chairs. I see it as a perfect vacation for the adventurous types who want a significantly more high-end camping trip. The fixtures and hardware on that vessel are gorgeous, the lines of the boat are stunning, the cabins are well appointed, the food, from what I understand, is unbelievable, and the actual rebuild, which took two years and a lot of time and money, is fascinating.

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Third day: A giant lobster bake on an island beach in Penobscot Bay with the crew and guests aboard Ladona. So much lobster, steak, and chicken. Piles of corn on the cob. And, for dessert, s’mores pizzelles. Oh, and did I mention more wine? Yeah. So much wine. Plus, guests can bring their own wine and cocktail fixin’s. I got in tight with some good-scotch drinkers pretty early on. (Not good scotch drinkers, but drinkers of good scotch.) Plus, we got more music and dancing.

At this point, I was pretty well twisted around, stopped checking the chart entirely, stopped taking pictures, and settled into the bubble that had formed around me. I recall sailing through the Fox Island Thoroughfare and thinking…so that’s where we are.

Third night: We spent the night in a small protected anchorage rafted up with Ladona and the gang got back together for some more music. My takeaway is the same takeaway I have when I see these fellas together: Noah plays a mean blues harp. I took no video and no pictures. I’m not kidding. I had let go at this point.

Fourth day: A leisurely sail back to Rockland Harbor. The bubble popped and it was time to check email, return phone calls, and go back to a house full of chores. And brown tail moths.   

The Definitions

FullSizeRender*A tender is a small boat used for moving people and supplies to and from a larger boat. In Stephen Taber’s case, they have two support vessels. Babe, described above, and Plain Jane, a lighter rowboat called a wherry that also doubles as a small sailboat. Some people refer to these support vessels as skiffs or dinghies.

**Rafting up means the Angelique was on an anchor and the Taber hitched lines to her and hung on like a lamprey eel. So you have to “park” the boat as close to the other boat as you can without actually colliding.

***Buried rails is a way of saying fast sailing. It means the gunwales (pronounced “gunnels”) or the edge of the boat is under water. But, technically, that’s not ideal—not because the boat will capsize or anything, but because it’s not the most efficient use of a hull. If the rail is buried, chances are the captain will ease up. As for any danger factors? Meh. A sailboat wants to be moving at an angle, so there’s no danger there. If you are on a boat at such an extreme angle, just make sure you hang on tight. And smile. Because it’s so much fun to be screaming along, rails in the water, getting splashed. Even for someone like me who is afraid of her own shadow.

****Sailboats tack to move upwind. So, if you’re in a sailboat and the wind is coming at you, you have to use that wind to propel yourself forward. In order to do that, you sail across the wind and zigzag up the bay or lake or waterway. When the wind is coming at you, you’re going to zig and zag a lot. And each zig or zag? That’s a tack.

*****Weighing anchor with a manual windlass means pulling an anchor up from the bottom with a manual winch that is sort of like one of those old timey railway handcars. The anchor can be stuck in some serious mud so it is an arduous chore. Juuuuust when you think you might be close to done, you discover you’re not even halfway there. It’s a fantastic way to work off your lunch or get your heart rate up a bit. I hate it. But I feel great afterwards. But I mostly hate it.

Sarah Devlin

About Sarah Devlin

Sarah Devlin has been writing about the recreational industry since the late ’90s but ironically can’t run, swim, or bike a mile.