The Newcomers: The Schooner Sisters are Married to the Sea
Part 1: Coming to Maine
The Schooner Sisters are married to the sea. This might sound like purple prose or hyperbole, but it's not. Joee and Meg Patterson press their left hands together like the Wonder Twins and show off the matching fisherman anchor tattoos on their ring fingers.
The Schooner Sisters, like a handful of other intrepid souls, have just moved to Midcoast Maine to work aboard the windjammer fleet for the 2008 sailing season. Some of the newcomers are green, some are career sailors. Some are living in apartments, some live on the boats. All are working their asses off for spring fit-out.
The Patterson sisters arrived in Rockland early in 2008. Shortly thereafter, Noah Barnes - the ever-jocular captain of the Stephen Taber - gave them their nickname. It stuck.
"It was just an off-the-cuff thing," says Joee, rolling her eyes and laughing. "We both interviewed with Noah at separate times, and he decided we're the 'Schooner Sisters.'"
"And you're perfectly fine with that?" I ask.
"Sure," they say.
The air is heavy with incense in the Schooner Sisters' dimly lit, wood-paneled living room in Rockland; a Miles Davis record plays in the background. It's about 10:00 on a Thursday night, and this is the first free moment they've had all day. Joee and Meg unwind with a six-pack of Ballantines as they sit across from one another on comfortable furniture they admit is not theirs.
"It's a testament to the life we live," says Joee, the eldest sister at 26. "Pretty much everything in this apartment except the coffee table, the typewriter, and the Polaroids belong to our roommate. We don't even have beds. We each sleep on small piles of blankets on the floor."
"We're sharing a room again," says Meg, 22. "We haven't done that since we were 6 and 10 years old. We fought awful back then, but somehow it's working out right now."
It's clear that these sisters are fond of each other, but aside from their frazzled brown hair and matching tattoos, you'd be hard-pressed to find any resemblances. If Joee wasn't so warm and pleasant, it'd be tempting to brand her a type-A personality: she's passionate, driven, and voluble. Meg, who stands about a foot taller than her older sister, is more of the strong, silent type. (When I first met the Schooner Sisters a few months ago at the Black Bull Tavern in Rockland, Meg planted her elbow over the bar's brass rail and challenged me to an arm-wrestling match. If I hadn't played fast and loose with the rules, I'm certain I would've lost.) Both sisters are, for lack of a better term, urbane tomboys, and they both cuss like sailors.
The Pattersons grew up in Alaska, but they've lived all over the country. Each got their start sailing tall ships through the tricky currents of New York Harbor, then they moved outward. Joee sailed the Hudson River, Lake Michigan, and the Caribbean; Meg sailed up and down the West Coast and the Chesapeake. Despite their beginnings in New York, this will be the first season they've ever sailed out of the same port at the same time. Joee is first mate on the Stephen Taber; Meg is messmate on the Victory Chimes; both are based in Rockland.
Although the Schooner Sisters are newcomers to Penobscot Bay, they're both are treating it as a homecoming of sorts.
"We took a trip through Maine a few years ago," says Meg. "Over the course of a few days we saw all of these fantastically amazing boats everywhere. I mean it; there are boats everywhere! They're crammed into every nook and cranny. Joee and I decided right then that we should plan to live here and be part of this community."
"That trip was kind of like a nail in the coffin for me," says Joee laughing. "I'd already wanted to come up here because of the sailing community's reputation. Almost everywhere I've been, I've worked with someone who has sailed extensively in the Maine fleet. They've all been amazing sailors, and people I really wanted to emulate. This is probably the only place in the country where there's a continuous sailing tradition. Everywhere else, people stopped sailing for a period of time. The boats that Meg worked on out West, for instance, are replicas. The boats here, for the most part, are not. They're the actual boats that have been sailing the East Coast since the late 1800s and early 1900s. That's a very rare thing. The way that people run their boats out here really harkens back to the tradition of sailing. Everyone else has had to feel their way back to the traditions instead of picking up on something that just lived on. That's why I came."
But not everybody joined the Maine fleet for its reputation. Some newcomers just stumbled into it.
Brett Snowbarger leans against a settee in the Stephen Taber's galley. He removes his work gloves and dust mask-a red line of freshly sanded paint dust encircles his face where the mask had just been.
"I was going into hotel management at a junior college back home in Wichita, Kansas," Snowbarger says. "I really want to work with people and be around people, so when a friend told me about the schooners I said, 'Wow. That's right up my alley.' I got the job and moved here 10 days later."
Snowbarger is what the seasoned schooner bums call "green."
"Kansas is about as far from any coast as you can get," Snowbarger says. "We have a few lakes - dirty lakes, muddy lakes. I've gone tubing behind a pontoon boat, but that's about it. This is the first sailboat I've been on. I'm like a sponge whenever I step on deck; I learn a million new things every day."
"I grew up sailing small boats on lakes around Ohio and Michigan," says Alex Fee, 30, "but for all intents and purposes, I showed up completely green."
Fee worked on the windjammer fleet on and off from 2000 to 2004, he's a licensed captain, and still fills in for crew on the occasional trip. He's too down-to-earth to admit it, but, at this point, he's pretty dang salty. Nonetheless, Fee still remembers what it's like to learn the ropes on a tall ship, and he empathizes with the newcomers.
"At first they'll be looking around trying to figure it all out. The covers are still on the boats, so for the first month they'll view the boat as its own little world. As soon as the cover comes off they'll be like 'Whoa!' So much more will be going on around them. Soon they'll start to see hundreds of feet of line aloft and they'll have to figure out where the hell it's going and what it's supposed to do. I understand that feeling. When I arrived, I already knew that if you pulled a line it either raised a sail or it trimmed it, but going from little boats to big boats was a whole new world. For someone who's maybe seen a picture of a boat and that's about it, this is definitely going to be a whole different world. I've been doing this on and off for 10 years now and I'm still learning new stuff. I'd be an idiot if I said I knew everything."
"I'm still learning the terminology," says Rob Millebrandt, a 25-year-old computer programmer from Denver and a green messmate on the Mary Day.
Millebrantd nurses a pint of beer in the Camden Deli. Outside the picture-glass windows, the Megunticook River spills over Camden Falls and dumps into the inner harbor; its currents swirl around the anchored schooners below.
"Every day my bosses will point at something and say, 'That's called a so and so,' and I say to myself, 'Try to remember! Try to remember!' Twenty new things later, I'm like, 'What was that first thing? Pinrails? Pinrack?'"
Millebrandt has been on a few small sailboats and knows the basics of sailing, but this is his first experience with traditional tall ships. In the early '00s, he discovered the Maine windjammer fleet in a magazine.
"I read an article about summer jobs that will change your life," Millebrandt says. "But I'm not expecting a big, life-changing event. I'm pretty happy with who I am. I'm not uptight, I don't stress out, I don't feel like there's anything missing from my life. I've traveled. I've been to the pyramids. I've been to the Great Wall. I've done this, I've done that. This is just something else to add to that list."
Millebrandt takes another sip of beer, looks out the window at the harbor, and flashes a wry smile.
"This is something that I've wanted to do for a long time, and now I get to do it. I'll either get it out of my system, or it's going to permanently fester and become a lifelong problem for me."
The Schooner Sisters decide to open up about their tattoos.
"I got mine in Grand Rapids, Michigan," Meg says. "I was taking the Greyhound to visit Joee while she was working on the Manitou and I had a ridiculous nine-hour layover in Grand Rapids. I was like, 'What the hell is there to do in Grand Rapids?' So I walked around town, found a tattoo shop, and I was like, 'Screw it, I'm going to get a tattoo. Why not? It'll kill some time.' Besides, I'd been wanting this tattoo for a while."
"I liked Meg's tattoo a lot," Joee says, "so I got a matching one. I've been thinking about it more and more, and the tattoo seems more and more appropriate. This was the year I realized where I am in this whole boat thing, what I want from it, and how to get it. Up to this point I'd been running all over the world and trying to figure out what to do with myself, and this was the year that I did it. I finally committed to it."
Meg looks at her own tattoo and grins. "I just wanted to make sure that when I got married, the guy would have to get a rock big enough to cover it up."
The schooner sisters Joee and Meg Patterson
Up next: "Part 2: Living Aboard during Spring Fit-Out."