Stephen Taber Day 3: Stonington to Broad Cove, Owls Head
In the wee hours of the morning, I had a peculiar dream. I dreamt I drove the Stephen Taber down the middle of a hilly street in Rockport. When I noticed a narrow bridge lying ahead, I panicked and woke up.
After breakfast, I tell Captain Noah about my dream. He seems surprised, but only because I’m a passenger.
Dreams like this are typical among captains. Captain Noah, for instance, has a recurring dream that he’s tacking from 9th Avenue onto 42nd Street in Manhattan. He usually wakes up when he realizes he’s going to collide with the yellow cabs that are backed up at the next intersection. His father, Captain Ken Barnes—previous owner of the Stephen Taber—used to dream that he was driving the vessel down the steep, rocky face of Mount Battie, terrified that he wouldn’t have enough momentum to drift all the way to Camden Harbor. Garth Wells, captain of the Lewis R. French, dreams about driving the schooner up and down the aisles of a grocery store while picking out canned goods and produce. Adam McKinlay, first mate on the Heritage, once dreamt he was sailing alongside the Mary Day on I-295 when a cute deckhand suddenly roller-skated between the moving vessels to give him her cell number.
Apart from the last one perhaps, these are anxiety dreams. After all, schooners don’t have brakes, so it makes sense that visions of tight corridors and heavy traffic are the stuff of nightmares.
When we sail off the anchor in crowded Stonington Harbor, it’s easy to see where the anxiety comes from. A thick fog blankets the coast while we sail westward toward Penobscot Bay. The Stephen Taber is equipped with GPS and radar, but these aren’t failsafe. The GPS can lead us around shoals and shores toward our destination, and the radar can keep us clear of oncoming traffic, but the technology isn’t perfect. Depending on the strength of the signal, a GPS receiver might have a 30-foot margin of error—an unnerving potentiality in the shoal-strewn waters off Deer Island. Plus, a lost kayaker paddling through fog or a partially submerged log won’t appear on the radar. To overcome these modern, technological blind spots, the schooner bums resort to a foul-weather tradition as old as sailing itself: the bow watch.
Jane Barrett Barnes.
During times of low visibility, a crewmember is sent to the foredeck with an old-fashioned foghorn, a stopwatch, and an abundance of patience. This morning, Joee Patterson is on bow watch. Every sixty seconds, she pumps the bellows on the foghorn to produce one long blast and two short ones. She keeps her eyes peeled for other vessels, navigation buoys, and glimpses of fog-shrouded land, and she relays these sightings to Captain Noah who then compares them against the images on the GPS and radar monitors.
Captain Noah chats with Captain Owen Dorr on the VHF radio. According to Captain Owen, the Nathaniel Bowditch is sailing under a small patch of clear, sunny sky near the eastern entrance on the Fox Islands Thorofare. Captain Noah sets a course in that direction and, an hour later, we emerge from the cool fog into warm, summertime air.
Captain Noah Barnes.
Midway through the Fox Islands Thorofare, we witness an awesome sight. The schooner Victory Chimes emerges from a distant bend in the waterway and motorsails toward us.
Of the dozens of windjammers that ply these waters, the Victory Chimes is easily the most identifiable. For starters, at 132 feet she’s 37 feet longer than the next-largest vessel. Apart from that, the element that truly makes the Chimes instantly recognizable is her rig: she’s the only three-masted schooner in the Maine fleet.
To the untrained eye, the other windjammers are more difficult to differentiate. The fore and aft masts, head rigs, and hulls tend to look generic at distances greater than a mile. To the schooner bums, however, the profile of each vessel is nearly as unique as a city skyline. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve pointed to a distant windjammer, dared a captain or crewmember to name the vessel, and received a quick, confident, matter-of-fact response. And, despite the number of times I’ve experienced this, it still feels like a magic trick each and every time.
A few days earlier, I’d asked Captain Noah how he’s able to identify them. He compared it to musicianship.
“It’s like the difference between Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler,” Captain Noah said. “They both play blues-based guitar rock, but their styles are completely different. You only need to hear two notes of a Hendrix song before you say, ‘That’s Jimi.’”
The wind picks up in the Thorofare, the sails strain heavily against their lines, and suddenly the absence of the deckhand is acutely felt. Unlike the self-tending staysails on some other vessels, the Stephen Taber’s is loose-footed and requires a crewmember to tack it. Under light airs, one person can tack the staysail while another tacks the jib; however, in these heavier winds, the jib requires two people. Joee enlists my help and I gleefully join her and Alison on the foredeck.
When you’ve spent enough time aboard a sailboat, the violent flogging of sails eventually loses its menace; the confusing tangle of lines eventually crystallizes into some semblance of rational order; and the barked commands of captains, mates, and deckhands eventually resemble everyday English. Sailing—at least its mechanics—becomes rather simple.
Captain Noah in the galley.
Despite this, sailing never seems commonplace. Repetition may breed familiarity, but the thrill of fighting a full-bellied sail—the thrill of pitting your bare hands against nature’s might, reining it in, and putting it to work for you—is always exciting. Mechanically speaking, sheeting the jib employs the same simple movements and narrow breadth of thought as flossing your teeth, yet it’s immeasurably more fun (and results in a prettier smile).
Joee, Alison, and I share in a few minutes’ exhilaration on the foredeck until the wind settles and we enter the thick fog that hangs over West Penobscot Bay.
The next land-based object we see is the Owls Head Lighthouse some eight miles later. The fog lifts and we tack to the head of Broad Cove to drop the hook for our third and final wine tasting. Tonight’s entrée is Tuscan beef, and the wines are Italian.
After a dinner, Captain Noah takes a seat in a folding deckchair under a dark, fog-blanketed sky. Passengers quickly gather around and ask Noah questions about the Stephen Taber.
Noah tells us about his parents’ trip to Maine when he was a kid; how they went windjamming, fell in love with the lifestyle, then purchased the near-derelict Stephen Taber. Noah tells us that when his parents returned home to South Carolina he was asked to pack his belongings into a few boxes. If there was anything that wouldn’t fit, Noah was asked to put a price on it and place it in the yard for a moving sale. He was six.
When the Barneses arrived in Maine, the Stephen Taber underwent a rebuild. Her structure was so thoroughly rotted Noah’s father scooped away whole timbers with a blunt shovel.
Captain Noah talks about growing up on the boat, about moving away from Maine in his early adulthood, then seizing the opportunity to buy the Taber from his parents and return home.
What strikes me most about this scene is not the storytelling itself. Just 24 hours earlier, I’d caught Captain Noah during one of his rare free moments and asked him many of the same questions. Nonetheless, here he is telling the same stories to a rapt audience. You’d think that the daily grind of headwinds, foul tides, and thick fog might dampen the spirit; or the retelling of old stories would become so commonplace as to lose all meaning and become a bare recitation of dry facts. But to Captain Noah this is not a mere days’ work. Granted, for the next 20 weeks he’ll board new passengers and tell many of the same stories. But this is no grind. Like harnessing wind in a sail, there’s something exhilarating about catching an audience’s attention, about making them smile, about offering them delight in a space that otherwise offers little comfort.
And each night, Captain Noah plays to a packed house.
Up next: Five foggy days aboard the Grace Bailey.