Just as the show must go on, so must the race. Last Friday, on a foggy and damp morning, with Hurricane Arthur rumbling up the East Coast, I boarded the schooner Stephen Taber a floating National Historic Landmark, for the annual Maine Windjammer Association’s Great Schooner Race from Gilkey Harbor, off Islesboro, to the Rockland Breakwater. I trusted the captains more than the weather service, and that proved to be a smart decision. The heavy clouds parted and we actually enjoyed some sun for the all-day event.
Built in 1871, the Taber is the oldest vessel in continuous service in the Maine Windjammer Association fleet. “Technically, the French is older by a few months, but it didn’t operate one season,” Capt. Noah Barnes says, manning the wheel wearing his signature crisp, ironed white shirt. Today’s light air favors the French, he adds, because it has higher sails than the Taber.
The Stephen Taber
The Great Schooner Race had its roots in a 1951 race between the Taber and the Wentworth, which no longer sails. The Taber won that won by a bowsprit, Barnes says, adding: “I have a great deal of respect for this boat. I owe a lot to how handy this schooner is. Things I’d never try on other boat, I can do with the Taber. Then again, I’ve been sailing her since I was 7, so that’s an advantage.”
Barnes, a second-generation windjammer owner and captain, took over from his parents Ken and Ellen more than a decade ago. He was working in public relations in New York City, and when he went home for Christmas, bringing his girlfriend, Jane, with him for the first time, his parents took him aside. “We’re retiring after next season,” they told him. “We have offers, but you have the first refusal and you have 45 days to decide.”
He knew immediately what his choice would be. “I said to Jane, ‘Jane I dig you, but I gotta do this.’ I felt I had no choice, I felt compelled. I had been running away from this for years.”
Wine-ing not whining
He worked for his parents as first mate that summer, and Jane, who worked in the wine biz, followed two years later. “I don’t know how to sail, but I can organize a wine tasting,” she says. And that’s what she did, organizing the Taber‘s first wine cruise in 2005. It was a tremendous success, and now the Taber offers five full-on wine cruises during the season. In addition, it serves wine every night with dinner on all cruises. “We have one red and one white table wine, different ones every night. They’re inexpensive wines, but not ones most people had heard of, but good wines.”
Just as some guests come repeatedly for the wine cruises, others return year after year for race week. Carol Riman, from Randolph, Mass., is back for the ninth consecutive year. She’s so enamored of the boat, crew, and captain, that she designed and made a needlepoint belt featuring the Taber for Barnes. “I think one of the reasons I keep coming back is the captain. I just fell in love with with the atmosphere in the boat and how he treats his staff,” she says. “The food is spectacular, and I meet such nice people.”
For your dining pleasure…
Anna Miller rings the lunch bell, and we gather around the buffet spread on deck. Miller, who cooks in the winters at Rockland’s wonderful In Good Company restaurant, has made a monster Mediterranean tuna sandwich comprising Tuna and probably a dozen veggies. Accompanying it is a green salad, a Moroccan carrot salad, and killer peanut butter cup bars. “I make a fast lunch for race day,” she says, since no one wants to spend a lot of time eating.
The Taber is in the lead as well approach the Breakwater. “We’re going to win,” I say to the captain. He smiles, but says because the pace has been so fast, they’ve decided to add another lap to the race. We’ll circle into the harbor and then out to a marker and back.
And just when it seems we’re sure to crash into the tip, we squeak by.
At least it was a squeak to me. Barnes says we had about 8 feet of clearance. But still… “I wouldn’t do that with any other boat,” Barnes says . “I tacked to do that, I played that angle. That’s how you win the race.”
Outrunning the Mary Day
But it’s far from over, and the Mary Day isn’t far behind. “The Mary Day hasn’t lost the overall cup in decades,” Barnes says. “It’ll be a big thing if we win.” He keeps glancing over his shoulder at the Mary Day as well as ahead, watching the wind play in the sails of other boats.
With 300 yards to go, the wind dies. We drop from 7.5 to 1 knot per hour. The Mary Day keeps gaining on us, taking advantage of her higher sails to catch the light winds. “We need to be able to look straight down the breakwater to win,” Barnes says. Tension grips the boat. The radio cackles to life: “Did you do the sacrifice of a passenger this morning?” Yes, Barnes replies, “but don’t worry, she wasn’t well liked.”
Barnes strategizes in hopes of keeping the thinning lead. And then, the Mary Day not only slows, caught in that pocket of dead air, but also is legally cut off by another schooner on a tack. Barnes looks down the breakwater and gives the command to fire the cannon, signaling the win.
A crew member asks whether it would be too smug to put up the Eat My Wake flag. The response is unanimous, don’t do it. Barnes quietly explains why it’s not the right thing to do.
Winning, wining, and dining
The captain opens a bottle of champagne during the cocktail hour, and we celebrate the victory while nibbling all manner of fancy hors d’oeuvres: cheeses and charcuterie, deviled eggs, lobster gougeres, stuffed peppers, her boat-made chicken liver pate with pickled rhubarb or fiddleheads, phyllo-wrapped bried with a chutney, and more. It’s enough to call dinner, but it’s not.
We’re all well into the wine when Bo ssam, a Korean pork dish, is laid out. “It’s pork candy,” Barnes says, as he demonstrates wrapping a scoop in a lettuce, adding rice, and topping it with Miller’s kimchee and a to-die-for ginger scallion sauce. Even though I’m full, I eat not one, not two, but three of them, opting to pass on dessert.
By the time I depart the Taber, it’s raining, hard. No matter. The wind blew, the sun shined, and we won the race. I have nothing but delicious memories of the day. Next time, I want to join the full race week sail. Maybe, just maybe, I can convince Barnes I was the good luck charm that won him the trophy.