The region's windjammer fleet is facing its greatest storm as the COVID-19 outbreak has led to the cancellation of early trips, and the remainder of the sailing season is in limbo.

Schooners, including the eight historic sailing vessels of the Maine Windjammer Association, have long been an important economic engine, bringing in thousands of visitors each year to Rockland and Camden.

"This is an industry of optimists," Capt. Noah Barnes of the 68-foot long schooner Stephen Taber said. "The industry is made up of tough, practical-minded people. None of us are gnashing our teeth or crying in the corner."

Instead, the longtime captain said, owners and crews are getting their vessels ready in hopes that some of the sailing season can be salvaged.

But Barnes acknowledged that the virus outbreak and the mandatory closing of many businesses presents a serious challenge to the industry.

"The margins are slim for windjammer operators," he said.

Barnes pointed out that much of the costs of having a schooner are fixed expenses, such as dockage, insurance, and maintenance. The wooden vessels must be maintained whether they take passengers this year or not, he said.

Schooner owners have five months to make their money, he said.

For the past four months, the Stephen Taber has been undergoing an overhaul including replacement of the stern and much of the planks. This is the first major overhaul of the 1871-built vessel since 1983.

Barnes said he does not regret doing the work but said the outbreak and the closure of businesses could not have come at a worse time.

The Taber carries about 600 passengers a summer.

"Every single captain will say, as I do, that operating a schooner is a labor of love," Barnes said.

Barnes and Capt. John Foss of the schooner American Eagle said a decision on when sailing trips can commence this summer will be made by the Coast Guard as well as the state and national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Foss said people are eager to get back to activities such as sailing on a schooner.

Foss has been sailing on schooners since he worked on the Adventure in Camden Harbor in 1969.

Capt. Doug Lee of the schooner Heritage said he has refunded the money for guests who had reservations for the first trip in June.

Barnes said Sunday he was going to begin calling people this week to cancel their June trips.

The captains all voiced hope that the sailing season could begin by the Fourth of July when the annual schooner race is held.

Lee said passengers who have made reservations for the summer are not showing interest in canceling.

Barnes said typically this time of the year, there are two to four calls a day from people interested in taking a trip on a schooner. He said now there are no calls other than people canceling or voicing concern about whether it will be safe.

The 92-foot long American Eagle sails on trips of varying lengths, from three to nine days. In July there is an eight-night trip scheduled to Portland to celebrate Maine’s bicentennial with other tall ships. During the summer season, about 400 passengers in total sail aboard the vessel.

Captains Doug and Linda Lee have operated the 95-foot long Heritage since they completed construction of it in 1983 at North End Shipyard. The Lees have been sailing schooners in Rockland since 1973.

The Heritage carries about 500 passengers during the summer.

Foss said that revenues for the North End Shipyard — owned and operated by the Lees and Foss — is also down with fewer vessels undergoing work during the past month.

Barnes said he applied and was approved to get assistance through the federal payroll protection act in order to keep the crews working for the next two months. He said he contacted Sen. Angus King's staff member Chris Rector to make sure that schooners would be eligible when he learned large cruise ship lines were set to receive benefits.

"We are America's original cruise ships, we are American-flagged ships, and we are mom-and-pop operators," Barnes said.

“Cautious optimism is the one phrase I use everyday,” said Barry King, who with his wife Jen Martin has operated the schooner Mary Day in Camden Harbor for 28 years. Along with that optimism comes patience, perseverance and persistence, he said.

King and Martin are facing the challenges of the coronavirus head on, while preparing their boat for the upcoming sailing season. The Mary Day's website is the only one among the windjammers in Camden Harbor that provides a COVID-19 Update.

With optimism, King sees a time, not too long from now, “when we all find safe ways to travel. Done correctly, Maine is going to be a really nice place for people to visit.” He sees that time as when anyone within driving distance can approach travel intelligently and safely.

The windjammers have the unique advantage of getting people out on the water, sailing to the more remote places, and getting travelers away from the hustle and bustle of downtown.

He said that while schooner cruises are not an essential business, there's great value in taking people to a place where they can relax, out on the bay, or at anchor by any number of remote islands, where they can walk around, paddle board, kayak or row a skiff.

To do this safely, the Mary Day is adopting new strategies, which will be updated on the website, King said.

One strategy is to create a list of questions to help people decide if they should be traveling, he said. “We don't want them to come to Maine if they are at risk of getting or transmitting COVID 19. If people can't travel safety, they are encouraged to stay home, he said. In conjunction with this, the Mary Day has added more flexibility to reservation deposit and cancellation policies. And for those who decide they cannot sail safely this year, King's message is “We're not going anywhere. They can come next year.”

The schooner, which can carry up to 28 guest and 7 crew, will lower the of guests to 24 and increase the number of private single cabins from 2 to 6, at no additional charge.

Hand sanitizer has always been on board the Mary Day and its use required for all before entering the main cabin. This season, hand washing will also be available on the deck., King said. Disinfection of the heads 5 times a day was standard. For the upcoming season, they are reviewing the cleaning procedure between trips, both high tech and low tech ways of disinfecting every inch of the schooner, King said.

To keep the crew safe, Martin has sewn 50 masks, each with three layers and a pocket for filter fabric. The Mary Day has applied for both federal emergency disaster loans and the paycheck protection program for employees.“We've never gotten assistance for anything,” King said, but now the business is doing what it has to do to be fiscally responsible and take care of employees.

For the upcoming season, “The good news is most of our guests are hanging in there.,” King said. Some of the trips have been shifted to later in the season, they have not seen too many seeking refunds and are still taking reservations, he said. One school group that was booked, “is not joining us, because school has closed.”

The business is relying on the leadership of Gov. Janet Mills, Dr. Shah, who heads Maine CDC, and the Coast Guard, “to help us make decisions about when it's appropriate to operate.”

"The beautiful thing about the windjammers is we're small enough that we can be really nimble about how we operate our businesses," King said.

“It's why these schooners are here. When sailing schooners hauling cargo were replaced by steamships in the 1930s and 40s, the boats stood empty on the banks. One person who saw there were people in Boston who would love to go on a schooner cruise started the entire business, he said. It's that same agility that will keep the business going now.

Assistant Editor Susan Mustapich contributed to this story.