My astrological sign is Cancer the crab so it’s no surprise that I love the water. (And I do tend to get crabby from time to time.) My husband is also a crab (we share the same birthday) so we’re always in search of vacations that put us on the water. We recently embarked on a five-day adventure aboard the 148-year-old Stephen Taber schooner for a wine, dine and chocolate cruise. From May to October, Maine’s windjammer fleet sets sail along the spectacularly beautiful Maine coast.
The Stephen Taber, built in 1871, is the oldest sailing vessel in continuous service in the United States and a registered National Historic Landmark. The Barnes family has owned the Taber for more than 30 years and its current captain, Noah Barnes, began his sailing career at the ripe old age of six.
Today, Captain Noah and his wife (and ship sommelier) Jane, with their nine-year-old son in tow, run somewhat of a B&B on water. Noah guides the boat and offers guests a native’s guided tour of the Maine coast, while his son Oscar serves as his first mate, taking on tasks I’m quite sure no other pre-teen could manage. Gus, Sean and Alex round out the ship’s tactical crew and despite the hard and physically taxing work, they always manage to interact with the guests. When she’s not selecting wine and typing up tasting notes, Jane is busy making the ship’s small spaces feel like home, with vases of fresh flowers from her garden and bouquets of herbs that do double duty as both centerpieces and ingredients. The kitchen is manned by Ian and when we sailed, it was his first week as the vessel’s onboard chef.
Close quarters lead to close friends
I was a little concerned about traveling in such close quarters with 22 people I didn’t know but making new friends is all part of the experience. Everyone onboard has a sense of adventure and not to mention, this was a food, wine and chocolate cruise! We all shared a love of great food, fine wine and decadent desserts! By the end of the trip, after breaking bread (and, ahem, sharing one of two communal bathrooms) with these people, we were all quite cozy and amicable friends.
On board, you can relish your downtime. Or not. I did. My husband did not. Early on, I staked my claim to the new cushioned lounge area on the boat’s bow. On chilly mornings, I sat with my coffee and a blanket just appreciating the stillness and serenity of the water. We sailed early in the season so we rarely saw another passenger boat, enjoying the water and scenery all to ourselves.
Guests are invited, often encouraged (sometimes recruited), to get involved and help hoist the sails, drop and raise the anchor or tend to many of the other sailing tasks. My husband was always eager, feeling the need to get in the slightest workout. It took five people on each side of the boat to raise the sails and six to raise the anchor.
No itinerary is the best itinerary
Our course changed daily, and in some cases by the hour, depending on the weather. The first day, I asked, “Where are we going?” Noah shook his head, “I don’t know.” We were still early in the season and winds were shifting so he was literally taking it minute by minute. Who else can say they took a vacation and didn’t know where they were going?
We’d sail from mid-morning to late afternoon, stopping before the sun went down, just in time for happy hour. We passed dozens of named and unnamed islands (there are 2,200 of them off the Maine coast), and spotted seals and multiple species of birds. On two days, we dropped anchor and snuggled into a harbor where Oscar rowed us to the shore to wander the quaint seaside villages (in a craft row boat he built with his dad). There were deserted beaches and islands designated as national parks just ripe for a day of exploring.
At night, the foredeck is filled with music. Captain Noah pulls out his guitar and serenades guests against the moonlight, often accompanied by other members of the crew. It was a familial and convivial atmosphere, to say the least.
Big food in a tiny kitchen
Imagine preparing a multi-course gourmet meal for 25 in a kitchen so tiny, you can’t stand upright. Now imagine doing it for five straight days. On a rocky sailboat cruising the coast of Maine. Did I mention the kitchen consisted of nothing but an Easy-Bake Oven sized wood stove and single sink? Ian, our London-trained and Irish-born chef, magically prepared gourmet feasts in the tiny, underground galley (at six-feet tall, he could not stand up in much of the prep area).
Since this was his first week on the Taber, the ship’s former chef, Anna, was onboard to orient him. Being a foodie, I felt privileged to have two schooner chefs at my disposal for interviews. Anna is now the chef on the Schooner Ladona, one of Noah and Jane’s newest ventures in sailing (note to self: do this cruise next year!).
I spent much of my time below deck, perched at the kitchen table, watching the dance of Ian, Anna and Alex as they prepped food, weaving in and out and over and under one another.
We awoke one morning to lobster eggs Benedict; Ian poached 40 eggs in one morning and paired them with leftovers from the prior evening’s lobster bake. He broke down and confited 24 duck legs in the galley and made rillette (the stock produced a very elegant risotto) and duck bacon. He made fresh pasta and baked scratch-made cookies every day.
Breakfast was always homey and hearty with fresh breads and jams home made by Noah’s mother. Lunch was often a warm bowl of soup or stew served in a random coffee mug, perfect for warding off the early season chill. At 5pm sharp, a happy hour spread of hors d’oeuvres, decadent cheeses and exquisite wines led to great conversation. Dinner was nothing short of a multi-course gourmet feast. You certainly can’t visit Maine without eating lobster so Captain Noah hopped into the dinghy and headed off to a cove to pick up 40 lobsters for an authentic lobster bake (do the math: 25 passengers, 40 lobsters. Yes, decadence and gluttony).
I had big plans for this trip. I had planned to catch up on some writing. I had some research to do on my mother’s health condition so I brought a book and highlighter with plans to have it figured out by the end of my trip. I even thought I’d start journaling. Nope, nope and nope. I relaxed, made new friends and experienced a completely new sort of vacation.
This will not be my last schooner trip. I have my eyes set on Noah’s other ship, the Schooner Ladona. It took two years to rebuild as he and his partners designed the boat to offer guests the best of what he’s seen among all of the schooners.
The Stephen Taber is one of eight ships in the Maine Windjammer Association fleet, which sail out of the charming seaside ports of Rockland and Camden. They offer pre-season, summer sailing and fall foliage tours. But book early as most boats are booked every season.
Disclosure: Captain Noah’s Stephen Taber and Maine Windjammer Cruises hosted me and my husband.