Three Windjammer Captains Celebrate Tenth Anniversary
Rockland, MAINE— 2013 marks the tenth anniversary at the helm for three windjammer captains: Captain Noah Barnes of the Stephen Taber, Captain Owen Dorr of the Nathaniel Bowditch and Captain Garth Wells of the Lewis R. French. All three are fathers, husbands and Schooner Captains belonging to the Maine Windjammer Association. When it comes to windjamming, they’ve got plenty they can agree upon: their hearts all belong to the coast of Maine, their own schooners are the best in the fleet, and sharing all this beauty and tradition with guests from all over the world makes the hard work worthwhile.
One hundred years ago, becoming a schooner captain was comparable to becoming an airline pilot today. While it was an admirable profession, it certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary. Today, though, becoming a schooner captain is very unusual. First, this profession requires mastery of many different skill sets – a quality that has become rare in a world that rewards specialization. Captain Owen says, “You have to be very mechanically oriented and enjoy the repair work which means designing and building new parts for every system on the boat, from the electrical to the mechanical.” Captain Noah explained that a schooner captain must also be a people person. “I love to entertain. My favorite thing to do has always been to throw a dinner party. Now I get to throw a dinner party that lasts a week long.”
What’s more, just because you’re able to build boat systems from scratch and you love people doesn’t necessarily add up to a career as a schooner captain. There’s a certain call to becoming a schooner captain. For Captain Owen, it was in his blood. “My great grandfather and my great-great grandfather were schooner captains.” Captain Noah grew up on a schooner, as his parents had purchased the Stephen Taber when he was six. For Captain Garth, it was love at first sight. He had travelled all over the world sailing huge square-rigged vessels but quickly realized that Maine offers the best of traditional boat sailing and, for him, the Lewis R. French offers the best sailing, period.
While becoming a schooner captain is definitely “the road less traveled,” it’s also been deeply meaningful to these three captains. Says Captain Garth, “Being able to sail a vessel that has been sailing these waters for 140 years and using the French as a platform to let guests experience the Maine coast – that’s the best part of being a captain.” Captain Owen agrees, “ I love the magic of it all – it’s when you see people coming from all parts of the country and the world, to show them the beauty of this area in such a relaxing way – that’s magic.”
Keeping tradition alive is also important to these captains. They all recognize the significance of these vessels to American history – how schooners contributed to the building of a fledgling American economy when the nation was still relatively young – and they are glad to continue the tradition of giving schooners an opportunity to earn their keep. Says Captain Owen, “When the passengers are on board hoisting the sails, they realize that people have been doing that on the Bowditch for decades. These vessels are not museum pieces behind glass. And the passengers get to play a part in this living history.”
But the best part of windjamming? Raising a family around the windjammer fleet. Says Captain Noah, “I see it as an amazing learning experience that includes a lot of character building. They see first-hand the importance of hard work and elbow grease.”
Captain Garth adds, “It is an incredible environment for a kid. From socializing to working hard to enjoying the outdoors to taking pride in your craft, there are so many things for a child to learn on a vessel like the French. And they are often having so much fun doing it that they don’t realize that they are working or learning. It’s quite a trick.”
Over the last ten years, not only have the captains’ lives changed, but the boats have changed as well. Says Captain Garth, “Boats are amazing – they change while staying the same. We are constantly improving systems, rigging, sails, and yet we try to make sure the soul of the boat remains in place. We try to make improvements that don’t take away from authenticity of the experience. For example, we might build an icebox for passengers to stow their drinks, but we build it so it looks like it fits properly on the boat and always has.” Captain Noah has also put more creature comforts into the Taber and improved her sailing characteristics by building a more efficient centerboard and changing her sails to be more like her original sails. He says, “It may sound funny but after making these changes, the Taber is more of a performance machine. It’s like I put a V-8 into my MG.”
What’s clear is that each of the captains just loves his own vessel. Captain Owen says the Bowditch is the “best vessel in the fleet” and he still can’t believe he’s lucky enough to own her. Captain Noah says, “I’ve had a crush on the Taber since I was 6.”
After ten years, there have been many changes and yet, windjamming is still a unique opportunity to enjoy the unspoiled coast of Maine from the decks of an historic schooner. Reflecting back over the past ten years, Captain Noah said, “When you’re just starting out, you’re wondering if you can pull this off – it’s a big thing and it’s not for everybody. So the question is, ‘Can I do this?’ And that’s no longer really a question. The question now is, ‘How can we do it better?’”
For more information about sailing aboard one of Maine’s majestic windjammers, visit www.sailmainecoast.com or call 800-807-WIND.