ROCKLAND, Maine — Balancing a plate of lobster mac and cheese with one hand and turning the ship’s wheel with the other, Capt. Jon Finger directs his 75-ton schooner, the J&E Riggin, toward Curtis Island.
A gust of wind picks up, and his daughter Chloe, 18, jumps to her feet to adjust a sail. As she walks by the helm they high-five each other and look back out at sea.
In the galley below, his youngest daughter, Ella, 15, slices veggies next to his wife, Annie Mahle. The cookbook writer, who creates spectacular meals on a cast-iron woodstove at sea, gently instructs her daughter as they prep dinner for 20 passengers from Toronto to Texas who loll about in the morning sun. It must be pushing 100 degrees in the space the size of a food truck, but the crew of family members and hired hands are upbeat.
Another windjammer food cruise is underway.
Through countless weather patterns, ebbs, flows and currents, the rugged Riggin has been a safe harbor for this nautical nuclear family. At first glance, the former oyster dredger resembles any other charter plying Penobscot Bay waters to give out-of-towners a taste of Down East.
This is the 19th summer the Rockland-based wind-powered gourmet hostel has soothed stressed-out teachers from Boston and hedge fund managers from New York by sailing to ports such as Castine and Stonington for extended excursions. Cutting a timeless image, the 1927 two-masted, gaff rig may look like it’s powered by sail only, but the majestic vessel is animated by something more. The family, skipper, galley cook and crew keep the sails taut and the ship in trim and passengers crying out with delight.
He skippers, she cooks and their children pitch in from first light until the kerosene lanterns are lit.
“It’s like camping on the water with all kinds of gorgeous food. Oh, and P.S., we are sailing,” Mahle, a spunky blonde with ice-blue eyes and boundless energy, said.
In constant motion, she lifts a platter of buttermilk pancakes garnished with flowers to a ship’s apprentice, who sets it next to a tray of bacon, peach compote, coffee and cinnamon syrup laid out for breakfast.
Most summers since they were newlyweds, Finger and Mahle have lived at sea. Since they bought the Riggin, lighthouse, lobster and culinary-focused tours have been their specialty. On deck and down below, from stem to stern, they are raising a family by old-school values.
“It’s a very simple lifestyle. There is no TV, there is no Wi-Fi. We simplify things as much as we can,” the ship’s captain and patriarch said.
Walking barefoot on the deck, Ella and Chloe blend in with the crew. They reef and douse sails, instruct guests how to hoist sails, jump in the yawl that acts as a tugboat to help mom get the ship out of port.
“I learned how to walk on the boat before I learned to walk on land,” said Chloe, who got so deft on her sea legs that when she tried walking on land, “I’d tumble.”
As an infant in a sling strapped to her father at the helm, the rolling sea was the nourishing environment she was born into.
“In the early days, we had just bought the boat and had our first baby. Not only did we not know how to run a business, we didn’t know how to raise a baby,” Finger said. “There is no manual for either.”
The unplugged experience that guests seek is one keel that keeps this nontraditional family even. The only technology on board is radar and GPS in his command center.
That’s a relief to his daughters, who welcome the downtime and reprieve from the constant barrage of social media.
“It’s nice to be away from all the media and buzz of technology,” said Ella, who lazily reads a book above deck as the morning sail gets underway.
Neither has a cellphone. Pokemon Go pales before the Penobscot.
From May to October, this is their summer. Like any family business, it’s all hands on deck all the time. Running such an endeavor tests any couple’s mettle.
To keep the business afloat and the family in harmony, a division of labor was agreed upon early. Though Mahle can captain the Riggin, she prefers to captain the woodstove in the galley.
With the second edition of her book, “Sugar and Salt,” attracting guests, the Riggin is well-known. Between meals, Mahle mingles with passengers and shares cooking tips. Her husband, steady at the helm, fields navigation questions from the curious.
A few feet from the galley, awaft in wholesome aromas, he warily keeps a weather eye out and charts the day’s course.
“I don’t tell her how to cook, she doesn’t tell me how to drive the boat,” Jon Finger said. “It works out so much better.”
Judging by the raves at meal time last week, they’ve got it down.
“There are challenges, but every kitchen has their challenges,” said Mahle, who trained with a Swedish chef and studied at the Culinary Institute of America. “Sometimes the boat heels, so I’m cooking on a platform where things move. My pies sling to one side of the oven. You have to be smart,” Mahle said.
Not to mention foresighted. In deep water, “you can’t run out to the store,” she said.
Twice per week, after breakfast and before leaving port, Mahle jumps in her car and heads back home. Joined by Chloe, she forages her garden for herbs and greens for the excursion. With her patterned apron still fastened, she steps into the chicken coop and scoops up a dozen fresh eggs. A shore-bound Riggin staffer watches their chickens, and a neighbor keeps an eye on her garden while at sea.
Surveying the array for what’s ripe and ready, she plans her menus accordingly.
“I think of things that would work well in a woodstove,” she said.
Strawberry shortcakes, tarts, chocolate spiced cake — “there is very little I won’t do.” She’ll bake bread, roast meat, caramelize onions and shuck oysters in any given day.
Although they’ve been married for two decades, Finger still marvels at his wife’s speed and agility.
“It’s magical. She feeds 30 people a day, three times a day,” he said. “It’s witchcraft.”
Confidence at sea
Making all this look easy is a six-month balancing act, one that has produced well-rounded, polite teenagers.
Forget a village, “it takes a schooner to raise a child,” the captain said.
Similar to the popular semesters at sea, where some people shell out hundreds to study abroad surrounded by waves, light and few distractions, these girls have lived it. And their confidence and intelligence is contagious.
“There is a lot of nurturing that goes on,” said Mahle, who also is a mentor to the apprentices aboard the Riggin.
She’ll help these kids with banking questions or offer a fresh, parental ear. It couldn’t be further from a corporate resort experience.
“Guests can feel it is real. All of it this is real,” Mahle said. “Kids don’t lie. If we were not authentic, our kids wouldn’t want to be here.”
Jean West, a tourist from New Jersey, who has sailed on the Riggin 28 times, has seen it firsthand.
“The kids have grown from having a nanny on board to needing supervision to young adults. I think they’ve developed incredible social skills,” she said.
As land recedes and the Riggin cleaves the waves, their daughters stand with the first mate and apprentices, all alert.
“They have gained confidence by learning to work as team members. Knowing how to use your body to get an end result. There is a physical part to get a 75 ton sailboat to go in the direction you want it to,” Finger said. “You’ve got to be the boss.”
Who is the boss on this ship?
Emerging from the galley, as Lincolnville comes into view, his wife strides to the middle of the ship with a swing in her step. The bell rings; it’s time for another sumptuous meal.