Down East 2013 ©
You have no choice but to admire a good shitstorm. If your tire goes flat on the highway, you have every right to kick the wheel and curse the fates. But if you accidentally lock your keys in your car when you go out to inspect the flat, you have no choice but to take a seat on the hood, slap your knee, and guffaw at the sheer absurdity of chance.
Captain Noah Barnes is having one of those days. It’s a gray, drizzly morning, and Captain Noah has just learned that his first mate suffered a long bout of food poisoning during shore leave, his yawl boat was swept away to a lee shore, and his deckhand quit. It is a perfect shitstorm, and Captain Noah is all grins.
On the other hand, Captain Noah is simply one of those people. He knows the value of a good story, and he knows he’s just hit paydirt. Today he might be faced with a mountain of unexpected hassles, but years from now, when he’s a grizzled old man, Captain Noah can still talk about the boat wake that swept his yawlboat from its davit hooks, and the greenhorn who abruptly resigned via text message.
Yes, text message.
In the meantime, the show must go on. The Stephen Taber is scheduled to depart its Rockland berth for a four-day wine tasting cruise, so as soon as Captain Noah recovers his yawlboat, the Stephen Taber will depart shorthanded.
Joee sets the staysail sheet.
Alison Strine, the messmate, couldn’t be happier. In the various stages of schooner bum evolution, the entry-level position is often in the primordial soup of the galley. Then, over the course of a season or two, you might claw your way up the companionway ladder to stand tall on the deck. For some, the transition from messmate to deckhand can’t happen soon enough. While underway in the belly of a windjammer, an innocuous swell can feel like a nauseating carnival ride; plus, your topside shipmates will enjoy bright sun, cool breezes, and sweeping scenery while you’re hunched over a cutting board dicing countless onions in the dim. For the next four days, however, Alison—a Pennsylvanian in her early 20s — will fill in for the AWOL deckhand until a replacement can be found. And she’ll maintain the bulk of her galley duties alongside the cook, a 19-year-old wunderkind named Cara Lauzone.
When the tide rolls in and lifts the yawlboat from its perch on a nearby gravel beach, Noah drives it back to the Taber, lashes it to the stern, and motors us off the dock into Rockland Harbor. The passengers raise sail and we ghost under a low ceiling of clouds, pass the Owls Head lighthouse, and round up into the Bay.
If you’re accustomed to seaside life on Cape Cod or the Caribbean, the tidal range in Penobscot Bay can be a bit of a surprise. In the Caribbean, for instance, the tidal range is measured in inches. In the Gulf of Maine, however, the range can be measured in fathoms. In the Bay of Fundy, the average range is nearly 50 feet; at Eastport, Maine, the range averages 20 feet; in Penobscot Bay, the average is 11.
Keep in mind that these are just averages. Sometimes astronomical forces conspire to make the range even greater. Today, for instance, the range is closer to 14 feet: 12.7 feet at high tide; -1.25 feet at low. This morning, during the exceptionally low tide, the Stephen Taber was sitting on the muddy bottom beneath its home berth. Later, when the tide rose beyond the usual 11-foot mark, the tangled masses of driftwood and flotsam that that trace the Bay’s shore like a bathtub ring floated off the rocks and bobbed toward the sea. Now, as the tide ebbs out of Penobscot Bay, entire trees and debris float past us as Captain Noah bucks a two-knot current while beating to windward. We’re on a virtual treadmill; for every three feet we gain, the strong tidal current pushes us back two. It takes us nearly two hours to sail the length of Rockland’s mile-long breakwater.
But it doesn’t matter. Like so many things in life, sailing is far better than the destination.
A middle-aged hospital-records administrator from Denver sums it up. This is her third trip on the Stephen Taber. It’s the perfect vacation, she says.
“Once you arrive, you don’t need to make a single decision.”
The Camden Hills.
It’s true. At some point or other, we’ve all been on vacations that are more taxing than restorative. Let’s say, for instance, you plan to travel the coast of Maine by car. Each day you might struggle with maps, fight traffic, and search for parking. You might search blindly for a hotel each night and a restaurant for each breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On a windjammer, however, all of those decisions are made for you. You book a single accommodation, you’re given a guided tour of the coast, and three hot meals arrive with Swiss regularity. And, on the Stephen Taber, the meals are exceptional. (I’ll come back to this.)
While the rest of us sit back and take in the views, however, the Taber crew works ceaselessly. In addition to sweating the lines after each tack, Alison and the mate, Joee Patterson, are busy polishing brass, flaking lines, rinsing the deck, and cleaning the heads.
The Stephen Taber, like most vessels in the Maine windjammer fleet, has two marine heads that the passengers and crew share. Four times a day, the deck crew dons rubber gloves, grabs scrub brushes and disinfectant sprays, and cleans the heads top to bottom.
Most travelers above the age of 30 bristle at the notion of shared bathrooms and tight quarters. We’ve long since paid our dues in European hostels or campground lean-tos because that’s what the times could afford, and we knew that the traveling itself far outweighed the lingering odors and apneic grunts of nearby strangers. At some point, however, we all say, “I’m getting too old for this,” and seek out the private comforts of king-sized beds, mini-bars, and pay-per-view.
It is an unassailable fact that traveling on a schooner deprives you of all these luxuries, and it is a subject that many in the industry would prefer to elide. Captain Noah Barnes, on the other hand, prefers to tackle it head on.
Captain Noah Barnes.
“There is a reason people do this. You don’t do it so you can experience ultimate comfort; you do it so you can experience discomfort. You have fun by overcoming it, or mitigating it, or coming to terms with it somehow, and that makes you a bigger person. In this business, we put people outside of the normal realm of experience: we put people in a tiny cabin inside a moving, 140-year-old vessel where they’re subjected to family-style dining with complete strangers. We’re in a nation that is constantly striving to make itself more comfortable, and yet somehow we’ve managed to find a clientele that is interested in being discomfited. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s why I haven’t lost faith in humanity: we still have people who come sailing.”
That’s all fine and dandy. Sure, there’s a noble, abstract, somewhat indescribable reward that goes hand in hand with this type of experience, but there’s also a more tactile, knowable payoff on this particular trip—a payoff so obvious, I can describe it in two words.
After a pleasant afternoon of mostly sunny skies and fair breezes — an afternoon that takes us past four lighthouses and at least a dozen rocky, spruce-covered islands — we coast into Pulpit Harbor and drop the hook alongside the three-masted schooner Victory Chimes. On deck, the crew tidily arranges seven rows of stemware and Bacchanalian quantities of eight different French wines.
When I first learned I’d be aboard the Stephen Taber during one of its biannual wine-tasting cruises, my first reaction—apart from a brief, unbridled “yippee!”—was abject fear. I pictured myself as a graceless, countrified rube slouching amidst a raft of slender-necked Brahmins. While the former is unimpeachably true, the latter was an unfair exaggeration. On this trip, the passengers’ interest in wines range from sanguine Epicureanism to shitfaced curiosity—a broad spectrum on which I feel entirely comfortable.
If there was any lingering doubt, our upbeat hostess, Jane Barrett Barnes (the captain’s lovely wife), sets my mind at immediate ease.
“This is going to be a basic tasting. I don’t like to get too technical and I don’t like to talk for four hours. Let’s just taste and have some fun.”
Captain Noah retrieves the yawlboat.
Jane, of course, is being modest. She’s been in the wine business for 16 years; she’s worked with Four Seasons, Champagne Veuve Clicquot, the International Wine Center, among others; and she’s visited vineyards all over the world. She’s on a first-name basis with many of the winemakers whose names grace the bottles on tonight’s list. She has every right to brag, but starts the discussion by playing down her credentials, then gradually—almost imperceptibly — eases us into the difficult art and science of fine wine craftsmanship.
No slouch himself, Captain Noah sets up a side stage of carefully paired cheeses atop the midship cabin house. After a long day of beating to weather against a foul tide, the captain now has an opportunity to exercise some control over an otherwise unpredictable day. Among various other delicacies, we’re treated to an artful display of Talleggio, an Italian soft-ripened cheese in the French style, served with fresh local honeycomb, and artichokes served with beurre blanc.
When the wine tasting is over, we retreat to the galley for dinner. The aforementioned wunderkind, Cara, has prepared roast pork loin with ginger and a reduction of marmalade and white wine.
It is bonkers.
As night falls on Pulpit Harbor and my fellow passengers steadfastly mingle within arm’s reach of the dwindling wine supply, I’m struck by the rarity of it all. On many trips, Day 1 ends with passengers quietly retreating to their cabins before the end of civil twilight. It isn’t until Day 2 or 3 when people start truly letting their hair down. Tonight, however, the din of laughter, conversation, and clinking glasses continues well beyond 11:00. If these passengers sought discomfort, they haven’t yet found it.