The only cruises in the United States sailing during summer 2020 are the ones you might not have heard of: the Maine Windjammer schooners. Two of the historic ships -- one of them part of the National Historic Registry -- sailed an abbreviated season, after developing stringent health and safety standards to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
We took a six-night cruise in September 2020 on Stephen Taber, a 149-year-old schooner that in pre-pandemic times could carry 22 passengers. Captain Noah Barnes found himself alone in the Maine Windjammer Association coalition in developing a 2020 season on his two ships, and while the three- to seven-night cruises didn't carry as many guests as usual, he found a promising formula that worked, keeping passengers safe, for sailing through Maine's gorgeous rocky shore.
Here's why a cruise on Stephen Taber (or its more upscale sister ship, Ladona) is the perfect vacation for the pandemic era -- and well beyond. While no one can predict how long the pandemic will last, knowing that the ships pulled off cruising with no positive cases can help you feel confident they will do what it takes to sail safely.
While the state of Maine asks visitors from most states to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine, Barnes required all passengers and crew, including those from Maine, to take a COVID-19 test. While the tests themselves aren't completely fool-proof -- the line doesn't have the ability for dockside rapid tests -- all passengers must provide proof within 72 hours of being onboard. We found that everyone on our cruise had complied, with many putting themselves in a voluntary quarantine before their results came in.
The world learned early on that the virus transmission primarily takes place indoors. On the Stephen Taber and other schooners, you are outside all the time -- including meals, showers and time spent watching the scenery. While there's an inside galley space to keep warm as well as a main cabin with some bookshelves, almost everyone on our late-September sailing hunkered down on a large cushioned area called "the beach" or found spots to sit, socially distanced, to chat, read or look for otters, porpoises and bald eagles. The Taber also has paddleboards, a wooden boat for rowing and a small sailboat that the crew will take you out in. Many also spend time helping the crew raise the anchor, hoist the sails or even take the wheel.
The cabins on the Stephen Taber are comfortable but tight -- and you don't typically spend much time in them, other than to change clothes or sleep. What we appreciated in that many of the ones in use had outside hatches for entry, so there was plenty of fresh air (and with no heating or air conditioning, you didn't have to worry about poor ventilation).
A small boutique experience such as you find on Ladona or Stephen Taber tends to attract a certain type of person – someone who doesn't mind a little discomfort in the name of the common good. When Barnes asked guests to mask up, usually on the tender boats or onshore in the small towns and harbors, everyone instantly complied, without complaint. In fact, many passengers delighted in buying nautical or lobster-themed masks to complete their Maine look.
Schooner life is often family style, but with COVID concerns in mind, Barnes changed the meals to individually plated dishes. The move caused no diminishment in the quality; in fact, the small cheeseboards that came out at appetizer time were even more picturesque than they were before the pandemic. Except for the chilliest of evenings, most people elected to eat outside for meals, which made us feel even more safe. Galley staff wore masks to serve, and signs prompting guests to lather up with hand sanitizer were everywhere.
Let's face it, at some point during the pandemic, everyone became tired of their own food. Culinary excellence is a feature of the schooners, with extraordinary Instagram-worthy meals turned out on the historic wood stoves below deck. As a bonus, Noah's wife Jane Barnes had several decades of experience in the wine business, and multiple bottles designed to match your dinners are opened every night. It's the perfect relief for a dulled pandemic palate.
Both of the Maine Windjammer Association ships sailing in 2020 were docked in Rockland -- and that was the biggest town we encountered on the trip. Aside from a stop in scenic Stonington, the day's itinerary usually focused on deserted islands to hike, or a remote private beach for a lobster bake. When we needed to, we masked up. But overall, we met few people outside the "bubble" that had been created onboard.
Stephen Taber can hold 22 guests, while Ladona can take 17. Barnes voluntarily reduced the number during the pandemic to 16 to encourage social distancing, but our sailing was fairly typical of 2020, in that the count was in the single digits. That should change in the 2021 season as sales have already been brisk, but overall, the schooner is big enough -- and with enough crew -- that it could feel more like a private charter experience than a crowd of strangers.
At least in summer 2020, Maine had its own rules that required visitors from most states to take a COVID-19 test before entering, with signed waivers required not only at the dock, but at airports and hotels for people driving in. The state generally had few cases, at least compared to other regions, and so the likelihood of community spread was lower than you'd find in other parts of the country. That in itself made a Maine windjammer cruise attractive.
Neither ship has WiFi onboard, and while there are outlets to charge your phones, Barnes encourages his passengers to completely unplug. We found that most guests preferred to avoid the the headlines, at least for a week, to clear their head. Political talk too, was eschewed in favor of shared appreciation for the Maine landscape and good books.
Updated July 07, 2021