Restoring the Stephen Taber

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Photo by Jeff Julian
The dry-docked Stephen Taber, early in her restoration.

Built in 1871, the Stephen Taber is the oldest documented in-service sailing vessel in the U.S., never having missed a season since her launching. Not surprisingly, though, those years of duty did take a toll. In fact, when Ellen and I purchased the 68 foot schooner in 1979 (having left our home and jobs to begin a new lifestyle of oceangoing independence), we knew that a major overhaul would soon be needed. Hairline cracks in the fiberglass layer that had been applied over the old deck had allowed fresh water to seep into the vessel and rot the wood. In addition, the Taber’s keel had “hogged” over the years, developing an inward curve, which caused the outer ends of the vessel to flatten. We hoped to restore the integrity of the hull and to return the Taber to the same saucy shape she displayed in 1871 — and we aimed to accomplish these tasks without letting her miss even one summer of sailing!

The groundwork for the restoration began immediately. After the close of the 1979 season, 1 spent the winter fashioning the vessel’s new ironwork (I’m a blacksmith), and sent it to Boston to be galvanized. Then, during the next winter, we selected more than 65,000 board feet of suitable oak and pine trees to be cut, sawed, and transported to the North End Shipyard in Rockland, Maine, where we organized the wood into piles according to its intended use. During this “off” season, we also collected other materials for the project, including nearly five tons of galvanized steel fastenings, boat spikes, nuts and bolts, and such. Because we were attempting to do in seven months what would normally take more than two years to complete, it was imperative that every tool and part required be on hand before the reconstruction began. 

Starting in the first week of October 1981, we prepared the schooner for the shipyard. The sails, rigging, and other extraneous gear were stored on shore. Next, we drew detailed sketches to document the schooner’s deck layout so that we’d know how to put her back together at a later date. That done, we ripped out the bulkheads (the walls between compartments belowdecks) and had the stripped vessel towed, by yawl boat, to Rockland. 

At high tide on October 18 we eased the Taber onto a cradle, which would support her on land, and hauled her up the beach. The masts, cabin houses, and other heavy gear were then removed by a crane. 

Once the decks were cleared, we quickly set about building a structure over the entire vessel, since the first snows weren’t far off. The ten person work crew (which included Ellen and me) erected a schooner-sized shed in five days. 

With a roof over our heads, our next order of business was to remove the decking and the ceiling (the inner hull), thus exposing the frames (the skeleton of the vessel, or what landlubbers call the “ribs”). Any rotted frames were marked and taken out one by one, so that the shape of the hull would remain intact. Several other projects were in progress at the same time: replacing the deck beams, the keelson (the inner keel or “backbone’), and the centerboard trunk, to name a few. At times the Taber looked quite helpless and vulnerable, being held together only by a series of braces. 

By Christmas, though, she was practically reframed, and at the end of another month of hard work (in the dead of winter), the schooner began to look “whole” again. We’d reestablished her original sheer (her shape, as portrayed in circa-1880 photos), and we were shooting for an April launch. (Many of the folks who stopped by to inspect our progress would shake their heads upon hearing that goal, but our crew was always willing to cover any bets!) 

The crane returned during the first week of April, and our schooner’s masts, bowsprit, and rigging (which had been reworked over the winter) were put in place. Finally, at high tide on April 27, the Stephen Taber was returned to the sea! 

Our job was far from complete, however. The schooner was still a shell in need of wiring, plumbing, and cabin accommodations. We returned to Camden and set to work with band saws, table saws, and a mass of extension cords, with only an awning on deck to protect us from the weather. The spring rains stopped in to time to allow us to finish the sanding, painting, and varnishing, and by June 6, 1982, the Taber was rigged and ready to sail. We left the harbor that Monday with a full complement of passengers, as the schooner embarked on what we hope will be her next 112 years of service!

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