Uncertain future for Windjammer Fleet

Published: Jun. 26, 2020 at 6:41 PM EDT
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"It was an industry that was born in the depression and born in times of adversity, but I don't think the Windjammers have ever faced a challenge like this, ever."

Noah Barnes has captained the Stephen Taber, a 149-year old schooner, for the last 17 years. He also operates the schooner Ladona.

From late May to mid-October, the eight vessels in the Maine Windjammer Fleet are usually seen carrying passengers up and down the coast. Many of them are National Historic Landmarks and considered ambassadors of the state for those visiting.

Due to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the season has been postponed and the ships are still in port.

"It's three weeks before we start operating, and we still don't know if we can. One vessel has already pulled the plug on the season. I think that there will be others to follow, and that's a bit of a tragedy."

For every day the schooners aren't carrying passengers, he says they lose $5000 in revenue, and a whole season of revenue lost would set him back five years, or worse.

"The uncertainty of all of this is most wearing. It's exhausting."

The Windjammer Association worked with the state and the Department of Marine Resources to craft guidelines that would allow them to operate.

"We arrived at what we all agree was a workable, safe, pathway forward."

Barnes says he doesn't disagree with the efforts being made by Governor Mills and Dr. Shah to keep Maine safe, but he says a major stumbling block is a lack of access to testing in the state.

"I can't get my crew tested, and I can't test myself unless we're visibly showing symptoms. And if I can't get my crew tested, then I'm not going to operate."

Even if the testing problem is solved, he says some of his guests aren't comfortable or able to come.

"About half of the people are saying, you know what? We'll see you next year. It's just not going to happen for us this year."

Passengers or not, Barnes says he and his crew aren't giving up. They're still preparing the Taber to sail.

"We're stubborn. Sailors are by nature optimists. That's the oldest continuously operating vessel of any kind in the country. I'm not going to let 2020 be the year that she doesn't go and do anything. So, if we don't get to carry passengers, we're gonna go clean up garbage on the islands. We're going to haul granite. We're going to do whatever we can do to go do something with an old coasting schooner."