The 22 passengers arrive by airport limousine, in sport utility vehicles, and (in one couple's case) aboard a BMW motorcycle. Half are veterans and come laden with a stash of paperbacks to read and a wardrobe of Schooner Stephen Taber sweatshirts to wear. A duo from New York boast that this is their 19th cruise on the Taber. A retired Army general and his wife, set for their fifth Taber tour, admit they've already booked their favorite cabin for next summer's cruise. First-time passengers listen to the seasoned sailors with skepticism, eye their tiny quarters and shared bathroom facilities, and question their decision to spend a week on a historic landmark.
Windjammer cruises aren't for everyone, agree Taber captains Ken and Ellen Barnes, former college professors who switched careers and moved from balmy North Carolina to blustery Maine after taking a windjammer vacation 24 years ago. Unlike passengers aboard giant luxury liners, windjammer sailors don't dress for dinner, aren't subjected to "theme" nights, enjoy first-name familiarity with their shipmates, and never go to bed feeling bloated from binging (again) at the midnight buffet table. Taber guests generally are snug in their bunks by 10:00 p.m. with little to do but listen to the shifting lobster traps and anticipate the next day's cruise among the uninhabited islands that clutter Penobscot Bay. Little wonder that the Stephen Taber rarely sails with an empty berth.
"We don't offer three-day cruises because it takes that long for people to loosen up," says Ellen, explaining the Taber's typical six-night itinerary. "I do a lot of talking on the phone to newcomers who call and want to make reservations. They need to know exactly what a windjammer cruise is and what it isn't."
Some don't get the message. Paul, a Boston businessman who has cruised aboard the Taber for 16 summers, tells of his recent splurge to celebrate his 50th birthday. He chartered the schooner for its May shakedown cruise and invited pals from across the country to join him for a weekend reunion. "One friend, from Denver, took one look at his cabin and turned around and went home," recalls Paul.
Of the 13 tall ships that make up The Maine Windjammer Association, the Stephen Taber is unique. It was built as a coasting schooner in 1871 and is the oldest documented sailing vessel in continuous service in the United States. Worthy of its inclusion on the National Historic Register, it dominates its assigned "home" at Windjammer Wharf in picturesque Rockland, Maine. Other members of the windjammer fleet are berthed in nearby ports and vary in age, size, and history. The imposing three-masted Victory Chimes, built a hundred years ago, accommodates 40 guests and is the largest passenger schooner in America. The Lewis R. French, also a National Historic Landmark, spent a century hauling coal and bricks before it switched its cargo to people. The American Eagle, an upstart at age 70, was a member of the famed Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishing fleet before joining the ranks of windjammers. Passage on the ships includes all meals, and prices range up to $860 per person for a week's sail.
The allure of the Taber is threefold. History buffs, fascinated by the schooner's past, marvel that it sailed New York City's harbor before the Brooklyn Bridge was built and was on the scene when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated. Wannabe navigators thrill at the opportunity to take the ship's wheel, hoist its sails, and coil its lines alongside the five-member crew. But the attraction that prompts most guests to sign on for the cruises year after year is the camaraderie fostered by Ken and Ellen, who treat passengers like family.
"I was on the Taber when Hurricane Bob came up the coast," recalls Barb, a Massachusetts schoolteacher and veteran of 15 cruises. "The weather was too bad to sail, and we were stranded because the hotels were booked to capacity." The solution: "Ken and Ellen took all of us home with them."
Each cruise begins late Sunday afternoon when the week's passengers arrive for a get-acquainted session on board the schooner. Shipmates call out their first names and add bits of explanation. "Tom and I are both `Type A' personalities," says Beverly, a business executive. "We want to see if we can finally relax." Most passengers are 50-something and let their hats and T-shirts reveal their professional status. "Retired and Loving It" proclaims a message on one sailor's baseball cap. No one brags about his "other life," and only during one-on-one conversations do clues indicate that military brass, doctors, and corporate CEOs are represented on the guest list.
In the 21 years since buying their schooner, Ken and Ellen have expanded their hospitality to include a restaurant and pub in downtown Rockland and a luxurious European-style inn that once was home to a prominent sea captain. The Waterworks Restaurant is the perfect place for Taber passengers to gather for a last supper before setting sail, and the Captain Lindsey House Inn is a postcruise treat that pampers guests as they reenter the year 2000. The latter's beds, with down comforters and pillows, are a welcome upgrade from the schooner's bunks.
"You may not sleep well your first night on board," warns Ellen. "The quarters are tight, but they'll seem spacious by Wednesday."
She's right. Passengers spend little time in their cabins, preferring to stretch out on deck or help with sailing duties and kitchen chores. Paperback novels and crossword puzzles appear shortly after the Taber leaves port. Heads sprout a variety of funny hats, bodies are slathered with sunscreen, and naps are frequent. Days at sea run into each other--"Is this Thursday or Friday?"--and take on a certain rhythm. Mornings come early when sleepy shipmates surface from their hatches like so many Punxsutawney Phils, sniffing the day's bread that is baking in the galley's oven. The highlight of each afternoon is a stop at a tiny seaport where passengers can shop, jog, or sightsee. The evening's ritual includes putting down anchor in a quiet cove, firing the brass cannon, and hearing Captain Ken play the bagpipes while a crew member retires the colors.
"What's the difference between an onion and bagpipes?" asks Ken to his rapt audience. He supplies his own answer: "No one cries when you cut up the bagpipes." On pasta night he plays the concertina, and frequently after dinner, he dusts off his guitar and urges passengers to sing, swap jokes, or tell stories. Rain or shine, each cruise culminates with a genuine Maine lobster bake on a tiny deserted island where diners claim a comfortable rock and enjoy a full meal topped off with marshmallows toasted over a fire. Saturday morning comes far too soon.
"Little did I know that when I saw the ad for windjammer cruises and called the 800 number five years ago that this would become an annual event," says Ruth, a nurse from Pennsylvania. "I was hooked." Her shipmates, even the first-timers, agree. As they disembark the schooner after a sumptuous good-bye brunch, most stop at the Taber's dockside headquarters to buy a hat or sweatshirt and inquire about a future sail. Same time next year?
For windjammer cruise information, contact the Maine Windjammer Association at 1-800-807-WIND or visit the association's Web pages at www.sailmainecoast.com.
RELATED ARTICLE: Around the Taber's Table
The healthy, hearty meals that Captain Ellen Barnes coaxes out of the Taber's vintage wood-burning stove begin with her Sunday-morning visits to the local markets. Hours before passengers arrive on board, Ellen collects the staples for a week of cruising: 25 pounds each of potatoes and onions, 10 pounds of broccoli, 30 ears of corn, 30 pounds of flour, 15 dozen eggs, a generous supply of fresh fruit and salad greens, herbs from the Barnes family garden, and airtight containers of her homemade granola and trail mix. Seafood is ordered ahead for pickup at ports of call to ensure maximum freshness, and breads are baked daily before sunrise.
Weather permitting, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served outdoors, buffet-style. Two oversized tables in the galley provide cozy seating when temperatures dip or storms roll in. Here, the walls are lined with huge pots and pans, and shelves contain small jars of whimsically labeled herbs and spices. Where else can you dine with Basil Rathbone, Ginger Rogers, and Rosemary's Baby looking on? Dinner attire above or below deck is always the same: shorts, T-shirts, sneakers.
Homemade soups are a mainstay for lunch and range from fish chowder to chili to a thick mushroom-barley concoction. If the passenger list includes vegetarians--determined during leisurely phone conversations before sailing--Ellen builds into the week's menu one of her special vegetarian stews.
VEGETARIAN SPLIT PEA SOUP (Makes 10 servings)
1 pound split peas 6 cups water 1 bay leaf 1 tablespoon salt 2/3 cup minced onions 3 cloves garlic 2/3 cup minced celery 1 medium, thinly sliced potato 1 1/2 cups sliced carrots 1/3 cup red wine 3/4 teaspoon dried mustard 3/4 teaspoon thyme 2 tablespoons vinegar 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
Simmer first 4 ingredients in large pot 3-4 hours. Saute next 5 ingredients in oil. Add to soup when tender. A half-hour before serving, add wine, mustard, and thyme. Just before serving, add vinegar, tomatoes, and parsley.
A favorite accompaniment for any of Ellen's soups is Newfi Bread, made according to a recipe handed down from an early Taber owner.
NEWFI BREAD (Makes 3 loaves, 9"x 5" each)
2 tablespoons yeast 3 cups warm water 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 2 tablespoons soft butter 1 cup molasses 10 cups white flour
Dissolve yeast in water. Add butter and molasses, then add salt and flour 1 cup at a time. Knead 10 minutes. Let rise in greased bowl until doubled; punch down; place in 3 well-greased pans and let rise again. Bake 40-45 minutes at 375 [degrees] or until done. Remove from pans immediately.
--Holly G. Miller
For information about Ellen Barnes' cookbook, A Taste of the Taber, write Schooner Stephen Taber, 70 Elm Street, Camden, ME 04843.
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|Author:||Miller, Holly G.|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2000|
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