By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
This summer, we’re sailing into the sunset with full stomachs—spinning a yarn of food, drink, and saltwater racing on the 142-year-old Stephen Taber out of Rockland.
We’re at the docks in Rockland on a damp August Friday, getting our first up-close look at the two-masted Stephen Taber. Twenty passengers board the hulking wooden vessel and Captain Noah Barnes gives us the lowdown about the above-and-below-deck accommodations. We are going to be in close quarters. Very close.
In looks, the bearded captain—he also happens to play in a Rockland rock and ska band—reminds me of a cooler version of Hooper, the Richard Dreyfuss character in Jaws. He opens with a showman-style “Ladies and gentlemen!” and passes along choice tidbits about being careful on slippery decks and the proper use of marine toilets, as well as an advisory to stay clear of the hot chimney that stabs through the deck from the galley’s 1910 wood-fired oven. He makes sure we all know our cabin assignments, and he leaves us with this zinger, “Your cabin will get bigger as the trip goes on.”
I’m eager to see. The hatch entrance is already open allowing me access to 7A, and to enter, I turn backward and step down the ladder-style steps. In the dim light I get a first glimpse of the snug fit. (I’ll be sharing slumbering quarters with my counterpart on such adventures, photographer Peter Frank Edwards.) Our lodging is a wood-paneled nest outfitted with two bunks nearly side-by-side, and offers less than a yard of clearance between the quilted blankets and a ceiling of solid oak beams. The sole place to stand without stooping is directly in front of a salad-bowl-sized sink at the base of the ladder. A few wall hooks and some above-bunk netting help keep clothing and personal effects organized (pre-trip memos had advised to pack lightly). An LED reading lamp can be clicked on above each bunk, but there are no electrical outlets. This will be old-school, sailor-style travel. With wine. Let the fun begin.
In a boat on the water—at least this one—voices carry, even whispering voices. You hear other passengers talk and cough in the night. Someone in one of the neighboring cabins is snoring, yet I get a good rest on the first night. By morning, I’ve met or at least taken note of most everyone on board, and I know that we’re all in this together—the couples from Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Georgia; the sisters from Australia; a musician from New Jersey. The young crew, sailing buffs from across New England, is tidying the deck and getting the boat ready for the trip. We all help ourselves to mugs of hot Rock City coffee and stacks of blueberry pancakes, and the Maine sky starts to brighten with quintessential August sunshine. Captain Noah says he “thought there was a decent chance for it being completely still and a pea-soup fog.” But the weather is good, so by mid-morning, we’re ready to sail.
A deckhand jumps on the wooden yawl, Babe, which has a motor with enough power to push the 60-ton schooner out of the harbor. The on-deck action soon gets serious—sails unfurling, and lines of crew and passengers listening to shouts from the captain to take hold of the heavy marine rope, pull and hoist. Captain Noah’s maritime pedigree is the real deal. He grew up sailing aboard the Stephen Taber with his parents, Ken and Ellen Barnes of Rockland, who bought the boat in 1979, rotting timbers and all, and then took on a major rebuild in the 1980s. When the elder Barneses retired about a decade ago, Captain Noah and his wife, Jane Barrett Barnes, left careers in New York to dive into schooner duties. The chef for the trip, Aimee LePage, first sailed on the boat with her family when she was a teenager, and she assisted Ellen Barnes in the galley. She has since cooked in Seattle-area restaurants and assisted Mario Batali, Paula Deen, and other chefs on the Food Network.
HEAVE HO TO LITTLE THOROFARE
The majestic boat is finally free and alive on the water with the sounds of wind, splashes of saltwater, and the creaking of wood. Prevailing breezes start to carry us. Meanwhile, Aimee and messcook Kat Selberg are below decks in the galley baking French pizzettes. At lunchtime they emerge carrying bowls of olives and cornichons, and wooden cutting boards of the hot pies topped with toasted pine nuts, caramelized onions, and fresh parsley. Everyone gathers on deck for another family-style meal with coastline views. Afterward, passengers fall back into conversations, snooze in the sun, or open books for the afternoon—three happen to be caught up in the suspense of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. This is actual paperback book reading. With only one electrical outlet to share in the schooner’s library, there’s very little use of smart phones or tablets. The disconnection allows you to immerse yourself in where you are, and what’s happening right now. For me, that means time to notice the black and white sea ducks out there bobbing in the seawater. I watch Tess Despres, a high school student and an apprentice deckhand on the Stephen Taber who always seems to be polishing the brass and lanterns, toting food or dishes, or mopping the deck. The senior deckhand, Will Carlough, is tall and quietly confident beyond his teenage years. He climbs the masts and coils the ropes, and aims to be part of the 2016 Olympic sailing team. That’s the way the afternoon goes. While the passengers sort out whether or not to take a nap, get lost in a book, or look at nautical maps and chat with the captain, the crew’s tasks never seem to wane. Everything is continually being made shipshape.
A few hours before sunset, we drop anchor in a quiet passage not far from the Goose Rocks Light at North Haven. Trees and rocky shores are across the water, and the buildings of one saltwater farm are the only built scenery we see from this spot at Little Thorofare. The crew lowers the 14-foot, wooden Plain Jane into the water for passengers to take out for a sailing jaunt. And when the sunset’s light is angled and golden, we all gravitate toward the bottles of French wine that Jane Barnes has opened and arranged on a tablecloth on deck. She formerly worked with the Champagne house of Veuve Cliquot, and will lead wine tastings and pairings each night at dinner. This night, she has nine wines for us to try in a French tasting tour from Champagne to Burgundy to Sauternes. As she pours, she has personal stories from travels to the vineyards of France to meet winemakers. We sip and ask questions, and choose favorites for deeper pours. The sun drops lower, and the tasting and toasting continues along with an incredible spread of pork rillettes, chicken liver pate, just-baked baguettes, Maine cheeses, a French mussels-style preparation of steamer clams, duck confit over flageolet beans and braised kale, and the tricky-to-make, layered-apple dessert of tarte tatin. All of this is made in the schooner’s galley, and we’re drinking from glass stemware and eating from real plates.
SHE DOESN’T KNOW WE’RE HERE
Remarkable moments keep coming. I’d been told that because the marine toilet draws seawater for flushing, it’s possible to see marine phosphorescence in the bowl. Hours after the intoxicating meal, I flush and something sparkles. I blink and squint to refocus, thinking the effect of the wine has gotten to me. (It has.) But out on the schooner in the dark of midnight, I’m certain I saw those phosphorescent bits. The next morning, I happen to be one of the first passengers up and about. The water’s surface is nearly still and mist is rising. I can smell smoke from the stove’s chimney, and I know that hot coffee is being made. Before I lose my nerve, I pull on my swimsuit and make my way to a ladder over the side of the Stephen Taber. I step down a couple rungs, but don’t dare to test the temperature with my toe. I’m committed to what’s next, and simply hold my nose and jump in. Beyond brisk, this seawater is deep, clear, and cold! I don’t keep my head under for long, and hurry to swim out of the boat’s shadow and into the morning sunlight. For the warmth of motion, I make a lap of the schooner, looking up at her carved wood details while other passengers take the plunge to splash and gasp, too. When I climb back aboard, I’m shivering to my timbers, but it’s worth it. On a section of the broad deck, the crew has arranged ample yards of canvas to create a private hot-showering area, and one by one, all of us chilled morning swimmers take a turn in the steam.
We’re never out of sight of the coast, and the day’s sail includes a brief stop in Castine so we can stretch our legs on the tree-lined streets. Then it’s back on the schooner for a sail to nearby Smith Cove, where we’ll see osprey flying and spend another evening tasting wine and food—this time, plates of rustic fresh pasta and bottles from Veneto and Tuscany. Anchored within shouting distance is another beautiful craft, the American Eagle, a circa-1930 fishing schooner built in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Captain Noah is friends with that boat’s captain, John Foss, and the next morning, the two men agree to a gentlemen’s wager that gets the crews of both boats scurrying. Suddenly, a post-breakfast race is on and a rush of excitement rises. A six-pack of Dogfish Head beer will be the spoils for the captain of the first schooner to reach Owls Head Light back at Rockland harbor. Captain Noah has a gleam in his eye. We’re off.
The distance would be about 22 miles in a straight line, but we’ll be tacking upwind. The captain estimates that we’ll end up covering around 35 nautical miles. It’s a wild ride along Maine’s midcoast. For the next six hours, the crew sails the hell out of the Stephen Taber, causing the old schooner to heel and creak, at speeds sometimes over eight knots. Sails fill and billow and we pass boats and docks and harbors of Penobscot Bay. We don’t stop at lunchtime, but grab mugs of beef stew while the sailing continues at full speed. Aimee’s feet are planted on deck as she holds a salad bowl. Someone asks the captain if all the passengers should line up on one side to redistribute the weight. Not necessary, Captain Noah says; the Stephen Taber is wide and sturdy enough that “she doesn’t even know we’re here.”
By afternoon, we can see Owls Head Light perched on its rocky headland. Our nineteenth-century schooner may be nearly 60 years older than the graceful American Eagle, but we’re first to make it past the lighthouse. For captain and crew, the passengers give a “hip, hip, hooray,” and that night everyone feasts on steak and lobster to celebrate—the crowning dinner party of the trip. Fishing boats are moored in the harbor around us, and the American Eagle has dropped anchor nearby, still loaded with passengers and crew.
In the morning, before any of us are out of our cabins, I smell diesel fuel and hear the rumble of the lobster boats. It sounds as if one boat is circling very near, and its wake rocks the grand old schooner. On a second, noisy pass, a man’s voice bellows, “Waaake up!” The ribbing is only fair. We’re in their harbor after all, having too much August fun—in close quarters.