Celebrating Food, Friends, And Life On A Schooner Called The J&E Riggin

The J&E Riggin beckoned to us, but it was quite dark and very late at night. Since I'm often traversing from one trip to another as a food and travel journalist, I couldn't arrive at the dock to board the ship until rather late in the evening, after everyone had retired to their quarters. The ship was pitch dark, not a soul in sight, and we didn't have the faintest idea as to where we were supposed to be sleeping.

My travel companion suggested we find a flashlight to help decipher which bunk was ours and, perhaps more importantly, where exactly we might find the bathroom.

After searching around for about half an hour, we were quite certain that we had awoken everyone aboard the schooner with our New York City girl antics and a few stray curse words and the inevitable dropping of the flashlight—we finally went to sleep.

The next morning, I was beat. I had flown from West Coast to Maine, running on little rest and mainly adrenaline, and those early morning wake-up calls are not my thing. I had every intention of skipping breakfast that was being served before 8 a.m. in favor of resting, when I heard the bell ring and the sound of Chef Annie Mahle's voice for the very first time.

I was exhausted, but there was something in the way she spoke, or perhaps the smell of what was wafting in the air on the schooner (or it might have been my friend throwing a pillow at my face screaming at me to wake up) that finally caught my attention and wrestled me from my comfortable sleep.

Drowsily, I sauntered into the galley with the rest of the guests to what I can only describe as a Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz type of scene where her world goes from stark black and white to full Technicolor. I smelled eggs, homemade baked bread, fruit with yogurt and granola, as well as freshly roasted coffee that ever-so-gingerly brought me back to life.

Glancing at my friend, I smiled and in that moment, knew this trip was going to be a special voyage.

With appetites satiated and a crash course taken on what to expect on the trip, we began settling in nicely. We helped the lovely deck hands with the sails and listened intently about how Captain John and Annie spoke about the schooner we were aboard, and simultaneously taking in the breathtaking landscape of Maine in early fall. The J&E Riggin, steeped in history, was built as an oystering schooner in 1927 in Dorchester, New Jersey on the Maurice River. Fisherman Charles Riggin, from which the boat's name hails, had her built and named after his two sons Jacob and Edward.

The longer we spent on that historic schooner, the more comfortable I ultimately became with the idea of sailing. As newly-minted sailors, we jumped into our daily duties, hoisting up the sales while Annie sang beautiful and heart wrenching songs of the sea. All of the guests joined in to work together, at the same pace, keeping with the rhythm with in Annie's song, one of our first of many moving moments on board.

A feeling of great satisfaction was forged by pitching in, doing real manual labor (this coming from a woman who writes, eats and travels for a living) and supporting a diligent crew who never quit.

While participating in a hard day's work, of course, I was working up an appetite. I found great solace in the warmth and comfort of Chef Annie's meals that were being produced on board, in one of the smallest kitchen spaces I've ever seen. To us, who had grown up working in professional kitchens, this was nothing short of a miracle.

Each meal seemed to be better than the next. Before every trip, Annie and her crew stock up on local produce, coffee, and protein to last throughout the duration of the sail.

Her dishes included skillet butternut squash with sautéed red onions, which doesn't sound like much, but would definitely treat your taste buds. Perhaps my favorite meal was the Asian broth soup she made on one of the colder days. This flavorful broth was served alongside an endless array of fixings, including cabbage, rice, and freshly chopped scallions. After my second bowl and a half, I quit. If I'm being honest with myself, I could have eaten more.

Beyond the incredible food on the J&E Riggin, I was most touched by the relationships I created with the other passengers and staff.

On our first night aboard, and after a few cups of spiced rum that we brought with us, I asked the Captain and Annie about their story– how they met, fell in love, and started this amazing family business that I was quickly growing fond of.

The two spoke quietly and intently and I found myself at points brushing away tears as I listened to them speak about the life they had built together. Before I knew it, others joined in, sharing their stories. Everyone had something wonderful to share–perhaps a hardship or a painful memory– but what we realized we had in common was that we were on that schooner to celebrate life. That simple fact that we are all still on this planet, ready to see something new and connect with nature was paramount.

The following day, another passenger approached me to inform me of his love story — a personal saga for the ages: a story of a couple going down separate paths to ultimately find each other on the same exact one, in the end.

I felt connected on a fundamental level not only to our magnificent surroundings, the stunning vistas of Maine and the wildly delicious lobsters we ate on land, but also to everyone I encountered on that voyage. It reminded me of why I adore my journeys. I have a chance to see something new, eat a dish I've never tasted before, and meet people that I will never forget.

Those courageous, beautiful, fervent people I met will remain with me as I explore further destinations in my life. This experience with Chef Annie and Captain John truly broadened my horizons both figuratively and literally and I can never thank them enough for that.