(6:15 p.m. EDT) -- Out on the deck of Stephen Taber, a 149-year-old schooner that is one of only two overnight passenger ships currently sailing in the United States, the wind picks up. I shiver, despite the numerous layers donned to protect against the chilly Maine night. The galley below deck, heated by a massive wood-burning stove, seems warm and inviting.
I begin the mental gymnastics that have become second nature during the pandemic, with conflicting feelings cartwheeling through my head. Everyone onboard, both crew and passengers, has been COVID tested (in some cases, twice, thanks to entrance requirements from both the state of Maine and Taber's captain, Noah Barnes). We wear masks, stand at respectful distances. Hand sanitizer abounds. Do I go inside to eat?
Comfort wins. I shimmy down the ladder backward in sailor fashion and have my first meal inside, with other people, since the COVID-19 pandemic started. The whole point of all of the precautions taken is to create a travel bubble so we feel comfortable making these decisions.
Cruising during COVID-19 requires more from everyone involved -- more travel preparation, more thoughtfulness, more listening to directions. But Barnes, 46, has made it his mission to show that it can be done, safely. Since the end of July, he's been running his two small schooners, Stephen Taber and Ladona, on three- to seven-night cruises out of Rockland, Maine.
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He knows that some are skeptical that COVID-era cruising can work, which is why the health and safety standards on his schooners are even more stringent than the state required. Capacity on Taber was cut from 22 to 16; Ladona is down to 14 from 17. Meals were changed to plated from family style. Linens are stripped each trip and brought to a laundry for cold ozone treatment.
And everyone, no matter if they are from Maine, down the road or across the country, must take a COVID-19 test before boarding. The crew gets tested at every turnaround.
"There is a way forward more than just being dead in the water," said Barnes, who grew up with the schooner, which his parents bought when he was 6 years old. "When you're not operating, when you're not moving, you have no water past your rudder. You can't steer. You lost your way, literally.
"I feel that the continuity that we've established will, in the long run, serve us in good stead."
Meet Your Bubble Mates
It's a small group that meets on the Rockland dock the first day. Only eight of us are sailing, and only four are regular passengers. (Another travel journalist is in the group.) Three regulars are Stephen Taber loyalists, with multiple cruises under their belts.
Most of them are in their 30s. The Taber, like regular cruise ships, normally skews a bit older, with more people in their 50s and 60s. But with the pandemic, these are the travelers that are staying home, primarily for health reasons, although some simply didn't want to go through the required testing.
Running a cruise with only eight people on a ship meant for 22 passengers, is tough business. Barnes calls it unsustainable. The ship had been 70 percent booked in February -- "and then the bloodbath started," Barnes said. "We're looking at a 20 percent season."
For the passengers, though, the small size makes it feel more like a charter. The crew, all young and athletic by necessity -- hauling up sails is hard work -- nearly outnumber us.
And small works in the COVID era. No one wants to be crowded, and it's clear that the pandemic is still on our minds as we make our introductions. Several of us wear masks that first night, although Barnes tells us that they are only required when we are in close quarters, such as the tender boat or the three-person mini wooden sail boat the crew use to take out guests.
The towns, too, require mask wearing; Maine is a stickler for COVID-19 prevention, as evidenced by the low virus rate. Not all of the Taber's usual stops were open to receiving the schooner's guests this year, Barnes said, whereas others couldn't wait to have tourists back in their small towns. (We personally heard nothing but praise for the windjammers, when we visited a farmer's market in Bucks Harbor and the cute galleries and storefronts in Stonington.)
Most of the ship's stops, however, are on deserted Maine islands, perfect for socially distant hikes and views. The highlight of every trip, no matter the duration, is a New England lobster bake on a deserted beach. It's as delightful as it sounds, and decadent during a time when we've all been cooking at home for months: lobsters -- plural -- as well as steak, corn, chicken and a peanut-butter pizzelle s'more -- are pressed upon us, and we're up for the challenge.
Returning guest Lauren Field, 32, brought her friend Kelly Snead, 29, on the trip. The two were able to drive to the ship from Pennsylvania and Maryland, respectively, which made it an ideal vacation during these times.
"I remember having such a good time on the first trip that I wanted to do it again, especially when we couldn't do anything else," she said. "Just being able to take a step back from everything that is happening now, and be able to relax and let someone else make the decisions, is really, really nice."
For Alice Riedmiller, the idea of skipping her annual back-to-back cruises on Ladona or Taber felt like losing a part of soul. When the pandemic heated up in the spring, the 63-year-old San Diego resident immediately wondered if she would have to stay home. Her husband persuaded her otherwise.
"He said, 'You have to go,' " she said. She booked back-to-back cruises on Ladona in late July and found the trip so refreshing, mentally, that she came back in September on Taber, in part to support the Barnes family during the difficult season.
"I found that it cleared my head," she said.
Trusting Your Shipmates
The first day or so feels as things often do on very small ships, with people getting their sea legs, both figuratively and socially. Then onboard life evolves as usual with shared conversation while sailing, and over drinks.
The cruise is the Taber's annual "wine themed" sailing, with at least four wines at each dinner, matched by Barnes' wife, Jane Barnes, who spent years at Veuve Cliquot and Terlato Wines. While all of the schooners in the Maine Windjammer Association have their own personality, the Barnes' sailings focus on fine food and wine, "like a dinner party on the water," he said.
For many of us, the cruise and trip to Maine was the first time we had been traveling since the pandemic began. Those first few days, it felt odd to be close to strangers again, and you instinctively inched away when someone joined you on "the beach," a large cushioned seating area at the ship's aft. Initially, I was far more comfortable around people who had driven to the ship than the two guests who had flown.
But as our personal stories unfolded, we began to trust one another as well as the crew in their attention to health and sanitation. No one complained when masks were required. We gave each other distance when needed, and applauded the chef, Bethany, for her individually designed cheese boards. "It's a self-selecting group," Barnes said, a feeling that was echoed by the passengers -- no maskholes here.
It has to be noted that unless you test for COVID-19 directly at the dock with a rapid result test -- as the European lines MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises do -- no bubble is perfect. My husband and I took two COVID tests before our trip, one in Pennsylvania before we left and one at the Maine Visitor Center on I-95 a day before we got on -- and the latter results did not come in until several days into the trip. The system set up by Barnes could fail, if someone slipped through.
The passenger numbers on the Maine windjammers are too small to be subject to the jurisdiction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and so Barnes does not have to follow the current No-Sail Order that the greater cruise industry is under through Sept. 30. Barnes worked vigorously with the state of Maine and various departments to come up with his protocols. But it's not the more stringent health protocols that ultimately are the problem, he said.
"People assume that the cruise industry is mothballed," Barnes said. "And that the bespoke boutique vacation industry is on hold indefinitely, and we're not. We would like very much not to be a secret. And we'd like to continue to do this special thing that we do."
As Maine As You Can Get
In 2020, this schooner sailing, away from the news, doomscrolling, and Wi-fi for most of the day, could be the most successful and least stressful thing I've done all year. While others on the ship took out the paddleboards or went rowing, I took time to read Maine-themed novels and let the crewmembers sail us around peaceful bays. If I needed a workout, I could help raise the anchor -- a short but intense full-body activity -- or join on the sails.
Cruising by schooner through the piney islands and rocky beaches is perhaps the most Maine way to actually see Maine. All day, we were surrounded by water, trees and wildlife, spotting sea otters, porpoises and bald eagles. Barnes has spent 17 years running Taber, and he answered any questions we had on anything Maine. The chef kept things on point with gourmet hearty meals that included blueberry pancakes and salmon chowder, as well as menus you'd never expect to see on a small schooner such as coq au vin and seafood paella.
While departure day lacked the hugs that would normally accompany the end of a cruise, I swapped Instagram handles and bumped elbows goodbye with strangers that had become friends. I had listened to live music, provided by Barnes and talented crew who brought guitars and fiddles. I had eaten delicious food -- yes, sometimes indoors, with other people -- and consumed fine wines.
Life felt normal again. And that, ultimately, is why Barnes sees Taber as providing a service, when people really need it.
"For a while, we all thought going to the grocery store was taking our lives in our hands," he said. "To go on an adventure travel experience and feel like you're being taken care of is unique these days. And people have been gratifyingly appreciative of that. It's been really nice."