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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

Windjamming on a mystery

If you know anything about the history of SMLI, you know it's an interesting one! Through this long history, we have come into possession of many an odd item from history and the world. From insignificant pieces of the Atocha shipwreck to local artifacts that have been dug out of the grounds, to our current crop of mysteries located on and around the ruins of an old farmhouse, there’s a lot of oddities we have in our collection. While rummaging through the closet of the visitor's center, the Executive Director and I came across something fascinating: two log books from a schooner called the Stephen Taber! How this came to be in our possession, I cannot say, as there is nobody left alive who can attest as to how they came to be in our collection. Being the curious mind I am, and after a little internet searching, you can imagine how utterly stunned I was to learn that the Stephen Taber is still afloat!!!


Now, if you please, try to picture the year 1871... or MDCCCLXXI for those more familiar with Roman Numerals... Some of the notable events I found while doing some digital digging: In North Carolina, William Holden became the first governor of a U.S. state to be removed from office by impeachment. In Brooklyn, New York, P.T. Barnum opened his three-ring circus, calling it as "The Greatest Show on Earth". William "Boss" Tweed of Tammany Hall was arrested for bribery, ending his grip on New York City and the world's first cat exhibition was held at the Crystal Palace, in London.


Stephen Taber, unknown date. Image courtesy www.stephentaber.com

Now shift your imagination to October 1871 at Bedel Shipyard in Glenwood Landing, New York and the shipbuilders who had constructed a two-masted schooner that would be named for New York lawyer and politician Stephen Taber, before setting sail into a history that takes it to this very day. According to the Taber's website, which we'll get into in a bit, "Launched in 1871, the Stephen Taber epitomizes the classic coasting schooner. Built in an era when highly skilled shipwrights built fine vessels to be aesthetically beautiful as well as functional, she stands as a proud tribute to American craftsmanship. She is today the oldest documented sailing vessel in continuous service in the United States, and is a National Historic Landmark."


Stephen Taber under construction by its original build crew, 1871. Image courtesy www.stephentaber.com/history

We now must define what it means for a vessel to be a "schooner". A schooner is a type of sailing vessel defined by its rig: fore-and-aft rigged on all of two or more masts and, in the case of a two-masted schooner, the foremast generally being shorter than the mainmast. The Taber remains one of these vessels and one of three (known) to have been built with a centerboard. This is a device that allows a ship like the Taber, access through shallow channels and to shallow landing points. Let us also discuss that the Taber is classified as a "Windjammer", a merchant ship propelled by sails; something the Taber can still lay claim to! Now there are other forms of windjammers out there such as the four-masted, iron-hulled Herzogin Cecilie, reportedly, one of the fastest windjammers built, or the modem cruise ship, the Royal Clipper. But any ship that relies SOLELY on wind power such as the Taber or Herzogin Cecilie can be called "Windjammers"; the Royal Clipper has diesel engines so it cannot be considered a true "windjammer".


During the Stephen Taber's merchant career, and according to the log books that we have, the ship and her crew would see ports up and down the Atlantic Coast and even to the port of Havana, Cuba! Details were meticulously kept about what was brought on and off board, weather conditions, their latitude and longitude, and how each day the pumps were "well attended". There is even an entry about the pumps being well attended that was clearly embellished by the writer; someone had more time on their hands than normal as you'll see below.

Images of the Taber log books from SMLI's collection


Keep in mind this wooden schooner, with a deck length of 68 feet, an overall length of 115 feet, and a maximum width of 22 feet was constantly taking on water slowly; such is the nature of these wooden ships. According to the logs, the Taber saw the ports of Apalachicola, Florida; Wilmington, Delaware; New Orleans, Louisiana; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Portland, Maine; Providence, Rhode Island; Charleston, South Carolina; New York, New York; and Havana, Cuba. There were undoubtedly more but sadly, these are the only two log books in our possession and there are pages that have been torn or cut out of the logs that we have. So the mystery continued!


One of the strangest things that happened during my investigation of these log books was happening upon fact that a ship with the same name STILL EXISTS and is floating! When I reached out to them and much to my (and their shock), they confirmed that a mystery was now coming into focus. Jane Barnes of the Schooner Stephen Taber & Schooner Ladona, stated, "Our vessel the Stephen Taber was built in 1871. So the log could not have been from our boat. Could there have been another boat with the same name? Stephen Taber (the man) was born in 1821." So who knows what the true story is but missing details are what makes a mystery so inviting!

Images of the current Stephen Taber and historical images of the Taber.

All courtesy of www.stephentaber.com


You can imagine the curiosity dialed way up now but let me be frank with you...Pun intended... To pretend that the CURRENT Stephen Taber is the only ship to carry that name would be foolish. Heck, there at seven ships that have carried the title USS New York! The first one to carry the name was built in 1776 at Skenesboro (now Whitehall), New York and the most current one was commissioned in 2009! Some of you may recall that after the Twin Towers fell, 15,000 pounds of the towers' structural steel were melted down and cast to form the ship's "stem bar"—part of the ship's bow. So one can only wonder what fate befell the ship that our logs books came from, how and why a second one was built and why do their seem to be no records of it, other than the two books currently sitting next to me at my desk.


While the current mystery of the double-named ships will continue until more research can be conducted, it's a fascinating thought to think of what it was like for the men, women and children who sailed on the ship when it was new. As for the ones that make the trip to Maine to experience what it's truly like to sail on one of the oldest, floating ships around have to say, well if you make the trip, report back to us and let us know! While SMLI will get nothing from this next sentence, if you are interested in making the trip to Rockland, Maine to take a trip on the most current ship to bear Stephen Taber's name, please visit their website for more information: www.stephentaber.com. Or if you're interested in following your curiosity, check out this story that originally appeared in the December 1988 issue of Sail Magazine.


And as always, keep wondering. Keep following your desire to know, you never know where the winds of curiosity are going to take you!

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