Time and the Taber
by Brion Ross
- Ferdinand Zeppelin was working on a revolutionary airship.
- Max Planck was working on the quantum theory.
- Teddy Roosevelt was fresh from San Juan Hill and on his way to the White House as vice president
- There were about 5,000 cars in the United States.
Everywhere the old ways were fading as the world readied itself for a Century of Progress.
In that same year, a New York tugboat misjudged the tricky tide in Hell Gate and crashed into the 68-foot (LOD) coasting schooner Stephen Taber.
The tug's owner acknowledged full responsibility for the damage. Without pressure of lawsuit or other contention (remember, this was 1899) he made a prompt and generous settlement on skipper Byron G. Halleck.
Now Captain Halleck was a good sailor, and he loved his boat. But he was also a good businessman, as every independent merchant captain needed to be.
The Taber had a well-deserved reputation for speed and easy handling, but at 27 years of age it was hardly in mint condition, even before the collision. And with steam-driven vessels rapidly displacing sailing carriers, cargoes for the engineless Taber were becoming harder to find.
So Captain Halleck took a good, hard look at the world around him and a good, hard look at his boat. And then he did the only thing he could do: He spent the settlement, not just to repair the Taber, but to upgrade her to Bristol condition.
But a like-new coaster is still just a coaster — small, archaic, and without the accountant-pleasing ability to keep to a rigid schedule. Had all that money been misspent? Gussied up or not, there was little work for the old boat.
Then, in the following spring, the Stephen Taber's yachtlike appearance attracted the attention of a wealthy Long Island family with a yen to spend the summer on the water.
In short order they made arrangements for an extended charter, had "facilities for the ladies" installed in the forward hold, and moved aboard — servants, rocking chairs, and all. Suddenly the Taber was a yacht, roaming the East Coast with a carefree cargo aboard.
In port, the most strenuous activity was a game of cards. Under sail, the greatest challenge was to serve tea.
In the course of the season, the little working-class schooner fell in a squadron from the New York Yacht Club. At first the new arrival was treated with amused tolerance.
But tolerance soon turned to respect and not a little consternation when it was discovered that no amount of sheet-tightening and sail hoisting could leave the schooner behind.
The Taber stayed with the gold-platers as far as Newport, returning by and by to Long Island. It was in every respect a successful cruise, but do you think Captain Halleck stayed in the charter business? That he might have even tried to exchange an arduous, fading way of life for one of relative ease and comfort?
Perhaps he figured that the same nimbleness and turn of speed that had so impressed those rich folks would give him an edge in the freight business.
Or maybe he thought that somehow business was due to improve on its own.
In any event, he did one more vacation charter, in 1902, but otherwise stayed with hauling cordwood, coal, and such until 1920, when he quit the sea.
- Anne and Charles Lindbergh made ready for their airborne expedition to China.
- New York prepared to install Manhattan's first traffic lights.
- Congress authorized the construction of 19 new cruisers and one aircraft carrier
- The stock market suffered a near-fatal disaster.
With the possible exception of the Lindberghs, the Century of Progress was not working out all that well.
In that same year the 58-year-old Stephen Taber lay dying in Cape Rosier, Maine.
In 1871, when the Taber was built, there were thousands of coasters in service. Now all but a handful were long gone.
For current owner Captain Fred Wood, keeping the Taber running must have seemed a hopeless proposition. Diesel had picked up where steam left off, pushing sail cargo into ever less lucrative corners. Ashore, trucks had taken over much of the little work that remained.
The world had condemned schooners to irrelevance, and surely Captain Wood knew it.
He thought about this, and then he thought about the endangered way of life his coaster represented. This time there was no collision money to breathe new life into the old boat — no money at all from any source.
So Captain Wood did the only thing he could: He walked into the woods carrying an ax and began to cut down trees, and he rebuilt the Taber by himself.
Why would anyone undergo such heavy, exacting labor for the sake of a wreck of a boat? Was Wood so passionately devoted to a way of life that he could not let it go? Did he know something that we don't?
We are not talking here about well-to-do techno-refugees yearning for a taste of Our Magnificent Nautical Heritage.
We are not talking about Mother Earth Newniks veering off on some harebrained scheme.
We are talking about hard-bitten men and their hard-bitten families, people all too familiar with the stupefying laboriousness of the Old Ways. One would think that, given the choice, they'd have dumped the Taber faster than you can say "propeller."
To some extent, they did not have a choice; life at the bottom of the economic ladder presents few options. The entire fabric of their lives, and the life of their community, was deeply involved with schoonering.
Progress can be grand, but it can also be fearsomely disorienting.
So economic and cultural restraints helped assure the Taber's survival, but surely there was something else at work.
By 1929 a coasting schooner was a rare sight. Many excellent, relatively young boats were being broken up, abandoned, or sold for extremely low prices. Many more were being nursed along by their owners, either from an inability to afford serious maintenance or in a cynical effort to extract every possible dollar while the hulls could still bear cargo.
It's tempting to think that the Taber was simply lucky. But maybe it was her people who were lucky.
Here was a vessel big enough to haul 60-some chords of wood, yet small enough to be handled by two or three people. Shoal enough to ease up into most any backwater, and flat-bottomed, to ground out and unload without need of a pier.
Yet so artfully shaped and balanced that, with the centerboard down, she could outpoint many full-keelers. Saucy and trim in appearance, the kind of vessel that encourages pride, which makes maintenance a little more likely. And that pleasing appearance, far from being only plank-deep, was backed up by profoundly solid original construction.
In short, this little ship was uncommonly strong, versatile, and resilient. If people assured her life, it was because she assured theirs.
- Annie Hall got the Oscar for best picture.
- Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca as president of Ford Motor Company.
- The Amoco Cadiz hit a reef off Brittany and spilled 1.6 million barrels of crude oil.
- The first "test-tube baby" was born.
- Fifteen nations, including the United States, agreed to safeguards intended to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.
A funny, dangerous, hopeful time.
In that same year, in Camden harbor, Ken Barnes rowed through a gentle snowfall. The Taber, now part of Maine's fleet of passenger-carrying schooners, lay at a mooring. She was tired, drooping at the stern, for sale, and just over 108 years old.
As Ken said later, "I'd never been much for love at first sight, but I knew enough to recognize it when it struck." Ken's wife, Ellen, saw the schooner the next day and was likewise instantly smitten.
Just like that, the Stephen Taber had found some new lives to assure.
The Barneses had shared backgrounds in theater (direction and stage design) and business management. They also shared a love of sailing, an appreciation of bygone times, and a sometimes raucous sense of humor.
So they were tailor-made for the adventure/drama/hijinks/historical recreations that a sail aboard a Down East schooner is all about. And like Halleck and Wood before them, they were willing and able to put their new boat back into first-class condition.
In the course of two off-seasons, Ellen, Ken, and some very skilled, very hardworking helpers played rot-busters with the Taber. They planned the most thorough rebuild the boat had yet seen and launched themselves into the enormous task.
They replaced the stem and the transom and a good part of everything that lay in between. Centerboard trunk, shelf, clamp, knightheads, ceiling, deck — things that would have taken a less talented and less zealous crew far, far longer — were dealt with, artfully, in the six cold months between sailing seasons.
Each of those two autumns, work began as the last passengers went ashore. And each of those two springs, the crew was sweeping up and painting as the first passengers came aboard.
The Barneses took two days off in those two years, and their efforts were rewarded with a once-again sound, beautiful vessel. But Ken tells how "some folks in Camden feared that our radical surgery would take the life and the luck out of the boat.
“In particular Captain 'Budsy' Hawkins, who owned the Taber in the fifties, told us, 'The work's got to be done, but it won't be the same old Taber, and that's a shame.' Well, we started wondering if we weren't destroying the boat in order to save it.
"So it was wonderful when, after the job was done, Budsy came aboard and immediately got this quizzical look on his face. You know how some boats sometimes have a feeling of life in them? Well, the Taber's always had that feeling.
“So Budsy felt it the minute he got here, and he started wandering around, just touching things, looking at things, listening. And all of a sudden he says, 'By gawd, she survived, she's still here!'"
The Stephen Taber is a time machine. People step aboard, sail through time, step off. We live with the events of the moment and change with them; the Taber sails on, alive but unchanging.
She has never missed a season, never stopped working, never stopped sailing, never had an engine, never been anything but a nimble, reliable gaff schooner. She has coasted patiently along, not so much sailing out of the past as bringing the past into our present.
Watch: The wind and tide are against them as they try to round the southern end of Isle au Haut. The sun is westering; the wind grows stronger and veers to head them even more.
Relief comes not from a new engine, but an old attitude: Stay warm and dry. So they tack, bear off and reach in ease and splendor up around the north side of the island. It takes a little longer, but they've got the time.
Watch: They're coming in through the narrow entrance to Pulpit Harbor. The wind is on the nose again, but this time it's a zephyr. Some of the passengers stand by to help with the headsail sheets, others help to back the mainsail.
The granite shores are about 150 feet apart. The Taber's length, including her boom and bowsprit, is 115 feet. Only the orderly actions of passengers and crew will prevent an (at least) embarrassing bump.
There is some tension, much confidence. They tack and tack.
In almost no air, the bluff-bowed schooner comes about with startling promptness, sailing little more than a boatlength before coming about again.
How many times in the last century has the Taber responded to hopeful hands? The passage opens up into a generous harbor. Everyone breathes easy.
And watch: They heave-to and reef the great gaff main.
It's easy, standing on that broad, docile hull. How many times has that main been reefed? Guesstimate a conservative 15 times a year — remember, this was and is a working vessel, often out in a blow. That's about 1,800 reefs.
Boats that are difficult to reef, or that sail poorly when reefed, do not live to be 117 years old. Once more the ancient sail-reduction dance: Take up on the lifts, slack the halyards, tie the points neatly, hoist away, bear away. A reef in time.