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Two Maine schooners turn 150, remain the oldest vessels still in commercial use in America

The Lewis R. French out of Camden and the Stephen Taber out of Rockland hit the water for their 150th year.

ROCKLAND, Maine — If the Penobscot Bay could talk, it might tell tales of the old schooners that once crisscrossed the water. And if it did, you would hear legends of two of the oldest sailboats still in commercial use in the country— which live right here in Maine. 

To step aboard the Stephen Taber is to step back in time. 

In a time when steam was replacing sail, the wooden 68-foot deck and two-masted schooner was built in 1871 in Glenwood Landing, New York for coastal trading. She worked primarily in New York Harbor until 1920 when she was sold to a captain in Maine. 

Noah Barnes has been at the helm for the last 18 years. His parents bought '"The Taber" when he was just six years old and he grew up sailing in the Penobscot Bay. When his parents were ready to retire, he took up the trade of sailing each season from May to October, taking passengers from around the world to visit the more than a thousand islands that dot the bay. 

"When the Taber was launched Grant was President. Prussia was a country," Barnes said to put into perspective her long history. She's been sailing continuously for the last 150 years, never missing a season, never not putting her sails a loft but Barnes admits her history is not why she is fun to captain. 

"The Taber's cool because she sails like a witch. This is just a delight to sail."

The Lewis R. French, captained by Barnes' good friend Garth Wells out of Camden is even older. 

"We have a good-natured rivalry about that," said Barnes. 

The French has four months on the Taber. She was built in South Bristol Maine and has been ported in the state her whole 150 years. She had sailed continuously up until 2020, when Wells decided to not take her out due to the pandemic. He too has been captaining the French for 18 years. 

"Like a boyhood dream to captain a ship," said Wells. 

Both the French and the Taber are traditionally built vessels but through the years most of them have been replaced. Both captains say about 15 percent of the boats are still the original pieces. The framing and deck beams are original but anything that has seen a lot of weather has been replaced at least once possibly more. 

The French hauled lumber brick and canned sardines but nowadays like the Taber she is part of the Maine Windjammer Fleet, carrying passengers along the coast to explore islands, some rarely stepped on. 

Both wooden vessels were traditionally built, The framing and some of the deck beams are still original but only about 15 percent of their structure remains the same as 150 years ago. Wells says anything that has seen weather has been replaced at least once. 

"If there is a harder way to do it, we find it," said Wells. 

Like raising the anchor by hand or cooking three meals a day for 22 guests and five crew members on a wood-burning stove. The cabins are ... cozy. There is enough room to stand up in one place and a comfortable bed. Each schooner has two heads or bathrooms, and guests can enjoy the luxury of a shower when the crew drapes a canvas across the deck and pump up hot water for a quick clean. (Crew members, who work from sun up to sun down, are not allowed to take showers while out at sea.)

Barnes admits the experience of sailing on a traditional schooner to explore islands that are rarely stepped on is not for everyone but attracts a particular type of person. 

"If you like sailing and being outside and you like good food… and you like music and you want to be outside on these islands you're predisposed to be our friends," said Barnes.

Both the Lewis R. French and the Stephen Taber continue to chart new paths with new friends, keeping a Maine tradition alive.