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The Cooks of the Tabor Boy

Tabor boy crew enjoying the food
Black and white photo of an old Tabor student who was Cook for the Tabor Boy
Black and white photo of the kitchen on the SSV Tabor Boy
Past Captains of the Tabor Boy enjoying the food
The Cooks of the Tabor Boy

In his first life, Henry “Barney” Barnes worked as a brakeman on the New York railroad. He came to Tabor in 1929 when the school hired him to oversee its growing motor fleet. It was a shrewd hire for the school as Barney knew his way around an engine. He also knew his way around a kitchen. Before long, these diverse skills made him a valuable member of the Tabor Boy’s crew.

Accounts of voyages throughout the 1930s and ’40s document Barney’s culinary contributions. He loved cooking stews and often enlisted students to peel spuds on the ship’s deck. The aromas from these dishes would waft up the galley’s vent, giving everyone above a preview of the meal to come. 

During the “Council Cruise” of 1935, an annual May event for the student council to celebrate the past school year, Barney opted for a surf-and-turf menu. After a fun-filled afternoon on Fairhaven’s West Island, students returned to the ship and found steaks and heaping plates of steamed clams waiting for them. Dessert was vanilla ice cream bathed in strawberry sauce. 

“The preparation of meals aboard the Tabor Boy has always seemed to us to come under the heading of one of the world’s minor miracles,” a student wrote in a 1944 Log article that ran as Barney started his fifteenth year at Tabor. “Toward meal time Barney descends into a galley about the size of a good-sized broom closet—two-thirds filled up with engine at that—there is a great clattering, the sound of muttered imprecations, and behold! A feast to which even twenty-odd Tabor appetites can scarcely do justice.”

Cooking responsibilities rotated over the years between faculty, staff, and students. In 1951, John Woodman ’53 distinguished himself as a master of simple yet classic New England comfort food. Franks and beans were his specialty, and he served them every Saturday night the ship was at sea. 

A second Barney, Barnabus “Barney” Nye, had the fraught pleasure of cooking on one of Tabor Boy’s most perilous voyages. In March of 1957, she sailed from Marion to Bermuda. The trip had an idyllic start. A pod of whales followed the schooner as she passed New Bedford, riding a steady easterly breeze.

“A most pleasant day at sea,” the ship’s log concluded that night. The following morning began with similarly peaceful conditions. They did not last. 

A little after noon, the “wind became suddenly forceful and seas built rapidly.” The barometer dropped below 30 and continued to fall, a sign that bad weather was approaching. An hour later, the wind increased to force 9, severe gale force, and the vessel labored through heavy seas. “Conditions deteriorating as our outward passage ceases to be a carefree adventure,” reported the midnight log entry. 

Fierce winds and mountainous waves raged through the night. “Seas precipitous and featuring huge swells from horizon to horizon,” the log noted. “A deep chasm appears as if the ocean were opening its very bottom.” 

The next morning, the ship was “struck by a short squall of unequal severity” and was pushed all the way to her port side. The pressure on the foresail caused the boom to buckle, ripping out bolts that were eight inches long. Acting quickly, Captain George Glaeser ordered jury repairs that saved the sail from ruin. 

The storm lasted three tumultuous days, during which Captain Glaeser seldom left the bridge. Barney kept him and the crew fueled with a steady supply of coffee. Although the conditions made it impossible to prepare full meals—“The cook would like to cook but cannot,” the log stated—Barney devised a way to ensure nobody went hungry. He boiled eggs in the coffee pot. One week after departing Marion, Tabor Boy’s crew arrived safely in Bermuda Harbor. They promptly cleaned the ship and went ashore for a well-earned feast on terra firma.

While Tabor Boy has had many memorable adult cooks over its history, there is a long tradition of students running the galley whenever possible. Captain James “Cap” Geil, who retired in 2020 after 35 years as the ship’s master, saw scores of young cooks learn the job on the fly.  

“At first, new cooks took forever to turn out a meal,” he says. “Many meals got served very late. Estimating how much food to prepare for up to 24 people was a challenge — too little would mean people were still hungry, and too much resulted in large amounts of wasted food.” 

There is no teacher like experience, and sooner or later, every cook figures out a system that works for them. In the process, they develop important skills—culinary, yes, but also organizational and leadership skills—that they carry with them long after their tenure in the galley ends.  

“The cooks also served as stewards,” Captain Geil says. “Their responsibilities included menu planning and shopping for food and other ship’s supplies. Students serving as cooks and stewards was just another valuable aspect of the Tabor Boy program — they grew, and they learned about responsibility.” 

Achieving success as cooks and stewards has historically led to students becoming SSV Tabor Boy officers and, often, Executive Officer (XO). One student who followed this trajectory was
Pat Collins ’03.

“Pat loved good food and liked to prepare gourmet meals onboard,” Captain Geil says. “Because of this, his grocery bills were the highest.”

For his senior project, Collins published a collection of short stories based on his time on Tabor Boy as well as interviews he conducted with alumni and others who forged close ties with the ship over the decades.

The book is peppered with culinary anecdotes. The most action-packed story details a food fight that erupted off the coast of Maine in 2002. Throughout the orientation program that summer, the schooner’s crew had engaged in friendly water balloon skirmishes with a local Boston Whaler. 

When the Whaler hit Captain Geil with a flying tomato one afternoon in August, things escalated. Captain Geil summoned Ben Hall ’03, his cook that summer. He put a hand on Hall’s shoulder and squinted at the Whaler. 

“Ben,” he said, “what’ve you got down in the galley?” 

Hall grinned and ran below deck. He returned with bags of slop and an armful of moldy fruit. A few minutes later, covered in food waste and drenched from Tabor Boy’s fire hose, the men on the Whaler waved their shirts as flags of surrender. They pulled alongside the schooner and exchanged laughs and handshakes with Captain Geil and his officers. 

“Sometimes you have to defend your ship,” Captain Geil told his XO later that night. 

Another lesson Collins took from his time at sea concerns the restorative power of a good snack. One story in his book opens with a scene in which he shares a bag of Chex Mix with fellow officers during a long evening’s watch. “I had learned from my days as cook what reliability and renewed strength a few snacks here and there can bring to a tired crew in the middle of the night.”

Ten years later, Dutton Smith-Wellman ’13 adhered to a similar philosophy when he was Tabor Boy’s cook. Under Smith-Wellman’s leadership, “sierro tango” became nautical shorthand for “snack time,” which became a highly anticipated part of life at sea. So, too, did Smith-Wellman’s blueberry and M&M pancakes. 

Over the years, Tabor Boy’s cooks have provided much more than nourishment. They are the quiet stars whose gravitational pull attracts the entire crew. 

“A good cook is inherently loved,” Collins writes, “because he makes everyone else onboard feel better three times a day. However, he is also the only person who remains elusive on a ship as small as the Tabor Boy, save perhaps the Captain, and thus his conversation is held with high regard. 

“Although he is usually very tired by the time dessert has been served, and aware that he must wake much earlier than everyone else, it is often only the cook who stays awake long after his tea has gone cold so as to enjoy the camaraderie he regularly misses while the sun is up.” 

Alex Katzenstein ’05 remembers that as a young crewmember, “it felt like an initiation eating in the main saloon, seeing and consuming whatever production the student cook had prepared. There was strong camaraderie down there. Frequent, uproarious laughter was commonplace.” Later, as an officer, Katzenstein enjoyed more formal meals in the deckhouse. “We ate when all were seated, and Cap always initiated the meal. Table manners were among Cap's best expectations. There were a lot of laughs in the deckhouse as well…the food was always very good.” He offers high praise for the cooks during his time on Tabor Boy, Ben Hall ’03, Leah Shabshelowitz ’04, and Mike Lombardo ’06.

Over the years, no cook has been more beloved or respected than Tucker Francis ’16. As a student, Francis cooked for two summers of orientation cruises. After graduating, he crewed and cooked for the REEF Program during the winter season of 2016-2017 before his tragic death that January. 

For those who sailed with him, Francis is remembered for his infectious personality and infinite capacity for kindness. As a cook, he was incomparable. Fried rice and mac & cheese were his specialties, and he often entertained the crew with his ukulele.

“Tucker was one of the best student cooks during my years aboard Tabor Boy,” Captain Geil says. “He made the job look easy, and I knew it was not.”

The cooks that have followed in Francis’ footsteps have continued his legacy of raising the crews’ spirits with good food and warm smiles. Christian Vander Mel ’19 was the last cook before the pandemic temporarily halted Tabor Boy’s operations, and he always looked after his crew.

He also kept them on their toes, as this June 2017 entry from the ship’s log reveals: “A bacon ban has been put in place due to Christian setting off the smoke alarms at 5 in the morning.” But the crew was forgiving, judging by the next log entry: “Bacon blockade lifted, cook on parole.”

For the most part, it was pleasant aromas—not smoke alarms—that woke Vander Mel's crewmates each morning. The cinnamon scent of French toast often filled the ship before sunrise. His dinners were equally scrumptious. One evening menu in July of 2018 consisted of pork chops, steak tips, mashed potatoes, and green beans. For dessert, Vander Mel brought out 84 cupcakes he had secretly prepared for a birthday celebration.

For nearly a century, the cooks of Tabor Boy have provided sustenance and much more to their fellow sailors. While each cook has brought a unique style to the galley, they are united by the critical space they hold in the vessel’s history and the memories of those who ate their food and cherished their company.

Tucker Francis ’16

As a student, Tucker Francis ’16 served as Tabor Boy’s cook for two summers. During orientation cruises, new students loved to hang out in the galley because of his kind and comforting nature. Just like Barney, the first great Tabor Boy cook, Tucker was mechanically gifted and loved fixing things. After graduating in 2016, he took a gap year before he planned to study engineering at Santa Clara University. 

That fall, Tucker helped sail the schooner from Marion to the Virgin Islands for the annual REEF Program. Reprising his role as cook, his mere presence elevated the experience for everyone onboard. On January 31, 2017, Tucker died in a tragic snorkeling accident. The loss of such a promising and radiant young man was a heartbreak for the

Tabor community, but the values that Tucker embodied, on Tabor Boy and throughout his life, will endure forever.  

In the wake of their terrible loss, the Francis family has remained steadfast in their commitment to Tabor Academy and the Tabor Boy program. Through their support and the generosity of many alumni, families, faculty, and friends, the schooner is receiving a new deckhouse. Made primarily of aluminum and stainless steel, it will maintain the classic aesthetic style of its 70-year-old predecessor. The deckhouse will be named in honor of Tucker, including a plaque displaying Tucker’s motto of “Be Nice,” ensuring his memory will live forever in the hearts of all who board the vessel.