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The Ballad of Joe Bummer

Seafaring Couple

Ken & Ellen Barnes

Ken and Ellen are captains who know firsthand the effect nature can have on you. Arriving in 1978 to start their own business, the couple has been living and breathing everything Maine ever since. There are plenty of waterways and coastlines waiting to be explored and it’s not the current, but the sights and sounds that will pull you in.


They delivered him onboard, sighed with relief, then left without ceremony. Two ancient daughters pleading "take him for God's sake." The women were old but nothing like their dad; thin as a windless brake and bent like a futtock. He passed a rough night, though the schooner lay snug in her berth without a ripple to be seen in the harbor. I worried about Joe—Joe Bummer by name—and counseled him on whether or not he should go. "If last night was rough for you," I said, "well then you'll want to stay ashore. It will be worse out there." He began to think on it. I found the ancient daughters across the harbor, watching and waiting for the schooner to sail. "I'm concerned for your father," I said "he had a rough night and I'm not sure he should go." "Oh for God's sake take him" was their reply. "It's all he wants to do. So just take him, take him please." What were these ancient, mirthless crones about? Was I their Charon to get him across the Styx?

Onboard, I found Joe sitting on the taffrail with furrowed brows. "Well Joe," I said, "what's it to be? Once we're under way there's no turning back." He shot me a glance and said, "Well Cap, I guess I'll hang a Brodie." It was all that he offered.

The weather was dirty. It was all oilskins, boots and southwesters on that cruise. Whatever bothered old Joe that night in port had left him there, and he couldn't be coaxed below deck. The Taber put her broad shoulder to the seas and sent spray flying aft to sweep the quarterdeck with just the crew to keep Joe Bummer company. He wouldn't budge from his quarterdeck perch, and seemed to drink in each droplet of spray like savoring fine wine. The smell of tar and wood and canvas; the bass voice of the masts creaking and the upper register of the rigging harping were his symphony. What was he thinking? What tune was he humming? They were his private stock from another time and experience that we were not a part of. It was fine because they belonged to Joe Bummer, some secret part of him that was too precious to share.

Each night after supper, Joe tucked a bite into a napkin and stuffed it into a pocket. "For ma' dog" was all that he offered. By Wednesday we had all developed our own affinity for that elusive "dog" who lived somewhere in the recess of Joe's cabin. But by Friday when asked, "how's your dog, Joe?" "Ran away last night," said Joe, gaffing a pancake with his fork. That was all he said. We missed that dog.

At the end of the cruise as we eased into our berth, he sat on the rail as silent as ever with his old sea bag flung over his shoulder. As the lines were made fast, Joe hopped onto the dock with an agility he hadn't come with, and started to go. At a moment where others find tearful farewells at the order of the day, Joe simply stopped for a moment, turned with a wink and just a hint of a salute and said to me, "thanks for the buggy ride." Then he turned, shifted his bag, and walked away and out of our lives as quietly as had walked in.

That was the last we ever saw of old Joe Bummer. I think of him often and can't help feeling he taught us a great deal. Much more than he could ever imagine. That life is a great cruise if we just know enough to drink it in and savor it like children catching winter's first snowflake on their tongue. Having drunk full measure to be able to say at the end with the wry, satisfied simplicity of old Joe Bummer, "Thanks for the buggy ride."

Editor's Notes

Have your own sailing experience aboard a historic schooner. The Stephen Taber is one of many schooners docked in Maine's harbors. There are several cruises to choose from, as well as opportunities to customize your own journey.

Be sure to check out the Maine Lighthouse Museum in downtown Rockland. It houses the largest collection of lighthouse artifacts and offers a glimpse into American maritime history.

Immerse yourself in traditional boatbuilding skills, sailing and maritime arts by joining a program at The Apprenticeshop. Traditions of the sea are presented through programs that range from two hours to two years.

Looking for more nautical stories? Be sure to stop at the Down East Bookstore in Rockport for a selection of books, DVDs, calendars and gifts.

BlueJacket Shipcrafters, Inc. in Searsport is the oldest ship modeling company in the U.S. Visit their showroom and store where they manufacture the most historically accurate wooden model ships in the world.