America’s two oldest working tall ships, the schooners Lewis R. French and Stephen Taber, opened their sails to the wind in competition on Friday as they raced from Camden to Rockland in celebration of the 140th birthdays.
Both schooners are members of the Maine Windjammers Fleet, 13 owner-operated tall ships that cruise the waters of the East Coast.
The 1871 Schooner Showdown started just after 11 a.m. as a blast from a cannon disturbed the trill of bagpipes aboard the Taber.
“We did go down to Rockland and tie some things to the Stephen Taber’s rudder last night, which should help us,” joked Capt. Garth Wells of the French as he addressed the 39-person “crew,” a mixture of past crew and devoted passengers who’ve returned to their cruises time and time again.
Capt. Wells and his wife Jenny Tobin, owners of the French were up against Capt. Noah Barnes and his wife Jane Barnes, owners of the Taber.
Wind ruffled Nadia Rand’s short white hair as she watched First Mate Ryan Downs climb a rope ladder to the top of the French’s mast to unfurl the sails. The birthday race was the 27th time Rand, 80, of Old Town has sailed aboard the schooner.
Rand first sailed the French in 1987, and she’s returned every year since.
“I didn’t want one of those modern ones, where you push a button and the sail goes up,” said Rand, who enjoys helping cook Amber Nuite in the galley and exploring Maine islands she otherwise never would have seen.
The French hauled cargo from its construction in 1871 to 1930. It then went through a series of engines and continued to carry cargo until 1972. The ship entered the Maine Windjammer Fleet and went through a 4-year period of restoration before making it back on the water.
“You kind of look at it like a human body,” said the French’s former captain, Dan Pease as he stood by the helm with Wells on Friday. “You’re continuously replacing cells, but you’re the same person. You can take a piece off and put it back on and replace a piece. No boat survives 140 years without that.”
Wells, who purchased the boat from Pease in 2004, reads poetry to the passengers in the evening while crew members play various stringed instruments. And for one special evening each cruise, they stop at a secluded island to bake lobster and make s’mores.
“I always wonder why more people from Maine don’t come,” said Rand, who always reserves a cabin and plans to sail the foliage cruise this September. “I don’t think I’ve met another person from Maine on a cruise. You meet a lot of people from all over the country … I love to see people from away eat lobster.”
Rand’s fondness for the ship and its crew is matched by Dave Hoilman and his wife Diane, who are the longest-running French passengers. They have driven from their home in Florida to return to the schooner every year since 1986.
“You can only do this a few places in the world,” Dave Hoilman said as the ship heeled and water flowed on deck through the scuppers, wetting his shoes.
“Every boat finds its people,” said the French’s former messmate, Hilary Clark. “The French brings a really eclectic group of people together who are really open-minded and have a good sense of humor. And Garth sails hard.”
And he can sail hard. The two schooners, which were designated as National Historic Landmarks in 1991, are in incredibly good condition due to constant repairs, part replacements and restoration. Nevertheless, they’re self-sustaining ships, paying for their upkeep by carrying passengers for 20-22 ocean adventures each season.
The French is the older of the two, by a few months, but the Taber’s claim to fame is that it has never missed a season on the water. The fleet calls it their “good luck” ship.
The crews of the two boats worked together with the Maine Maritime Museum to make the event possible, down to the birthday cake, which was a joint effort of both ships’ cooks.
For the majority of the four-hour race, the ships went their own way, tacking in the southerly wind to make their way down to Rockland. But as the ships came back together, it was clear who was the victor — the Taber.
After both schooners crossed the finish line at Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, they turned back around to do a victory lap around the bay, sailing side by side as they cast their shadows on smaller vessels. Their birthday flags whipped in the wind as they pulled into the dock at The Pearl, where everyone gathered for a reception and awards ceremony.
“The newer windjammers are rigged the same way, but there’s just something about the history of a ship that you can’t put your finger on — it’s the spirit of the ship,” said Jane Barnes, co-owner of the Taber. “If you think about it, [Ulysses S.] Grant was president when this ship first launched.”