Spectators used to pack the Rockland Breakwater to watch the Great Schooner Race from Islesboro to Rockland every year, but this year, with the race canceled due to COVID-19 restricting public gatherings, the seas were pretty quiet.
According to Marti Mayne, spokesperson for the Maine Windjammer Association, most of the schooners were grounded this summer, many still sheathed in plastic.
But, Capt. Noah Barnes co-owner with his wife, Jane Barnes, of Stephen Taber, wasn’t going to end the season with “there’s no joy in Mudville.”
On Friday, September 18, he and his crew put the challenge to Ladona, the sister ship co-owned by both Barnes and J.R. Braugh to compete in a friendly race using the same route setting out from Islesboro.
By 3 p.m. with Barnes helming Taber, the Coaster just passed the tip of the Breakwater when a thunderous cannon boomed, signaling their win. Ladona came in shortly after.
Flanked by several daysailers, Taber and Ladona decided to keep the fun going in the afternoon.
The Hodgepodge Sailing Club, started by Sam Sikema of the Victory Chimes, wasn’t operating this season, but they came out for the afternoon. Barnes invited Club members and everyone else to have a race around the schooners and handed out lobster rolls, beer, bags of Fritos, and awarded prizes for best costume, best listener, and saltiest rig.
‘In seasons past, we’d all be operating at 95 percent for years running and this year, we’re at 20 percent.
‘If you’re not making money with them, they are one step closer to being an oyster bar in Red Hook.’
It was a celebratory moment after a solemn season for Windjammers.
“The reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic for the entire Windjammer fleet was to cancel the season—many didn’t even take their covers off,” said Barnes. “We didn’t even have protocols from the government to resume operating until mid-July, so along with bars and restaurants, we’re all struggling, operating half of our season with half capacity.”
Asked why he would take his boats out while others chose not to, Barnes replied: “I would say many of my colleagues had good reasons to not operate. Some in their families were immune-compromised or most of their business dried up. Going into January we were 70 percent full before the blood bath started. Cancelations were coming in so fast, it looked like we weren’t going to operate either, but in July, we’d had just enough reservations still clinging on to say ‘Let’s give this a try.’ ”
For Barnes, who has spent his life on these Maine waters, the thought of shuttering Taber and Ladona was too much to bear.
“These boats are very expensive to own; it costs about a quarter of a million dollars just to maintain them,” he said. “But, we’re stubborn. We could keep some continuity going with the fleet; we could maybe get some lessons in on how to operate because let’s be honest, there’s no guarantee that next year is going to better.”
The dire reality is that if some these boats go two seasons without operating, they are vulnerable to going out of business.
“I fear for the industry,” said Noah. “Many businesses are holding on by a thread, and state and federal assistance may be necessary to keep this industry from going out of business and perhaps leaving the state. As our industry is unique in the country and made up primarily of National Historic Landmark vessels, we are fighting to keep that from happening.”
Just as Penobscot Bay Pilot has reported on the COVID-19 struggles of the lobster industry, the potato and farming industries and the restaurant industry, the Windjammer industry will require the power of the people to keep afloat.
“Tell your friends who live out of state and for those of you who live here and have visiting relatives who’ve never experience Penobscot Bay on the water, to come sailing,” he said. “Book reservations for next year, if you can. We’ll take you to spectacular places. We’ve learned how to do it safely—and what we have is a lot of fresh air and open spaces. And we’re doing more with deserted islands and to some select islands who welcome us there.”
Currently, Stephen Taber and Ladona are the only two large Windjammers operating, along with the Schooner Mistress out of Camden, until the season ends in mid-October. Other daysailers are also still operating. Check each page for more information.
To stay current with next year’s Great Schooner Race visit: sailmainecoast.com
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org