Tuesday, June 4, dawns clear and dry with a freshening northwest breeze. For the captain and crew of the three-masted schooner Mystic, a better day could not have been ordered for a shakedown cruise. As invited guests gather for an expected 0800 departure, the young crew busies itself with last-minute preparations and meetings to discuss the upcoming maneuvers.
Mystic has been idle for the past four years, and has not sailed in three. Launched in 2007, she engaged in paid cruises for a year-and-a-half before the economy’s tide fell and left her stranded at the dock in Mystic, Connecticut. Her square topsails are as yet unbent, but her lower sails are laced and shackled in place during the previous three weeks in preparation for this day’s sail. Renewed interest in her mighty potential has brought together parties of many interests, all to partake in the first leg of her new adventuring voyage.
The time at dock has taken a small cosmetic toll: it left brightwork in need of re-finishing and her lines have traces of mildew. But the engine and generators roar to life. The departure is easier than anticipated by Captain Geoffrey Jones, who in a brief announcement mentions that the brisk wind has the schooner pinned to the dock. Soon the still young, perhaps even nubile, schooner is underway, easing through the two bridges on the Mystic River.
Along the shore, on decks of condos and private yachts, local people applaud and photograph the resurgent vessel, one of only two three-masted schooners in America. Mystic Seaport’s exquisite schooner, Brilliant, shadows the downriver departure, and fine homes and historic lighthouse steadily pass the view of Mystic’s passengers and crew.
The past four years have been a tale of financial woe for the schooner, and a failed auction attempt followed a mortgage foreclosure. The costs associated with building and operating a vessel of this size are daunting; the debt payoff holds at $1.9 million at this time. Measuring 127 feet on deck,
170 feet sparred with bowsprit, 34 feet in beam, this is among the largest of operational schooners afloat.
Today’s voyage, scheduled to stop in Newport, Rhode Island, will end later in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. There she will be hauled for a Coast Guard inspection, which will conclude with in-water inspections when Mystic returns to her homeport. This is part of a process to re-certify Mystic for passenger and school-ship service, integral to all plans for the future operations of the vessel.
At this time, the vessel’s owner is the Mystic Nautical Heritage Society, a non-profit which preserves historic and traditional boats. Captain Jones and his associates have plans to run sail-training programs on the schooner this summer. They also hope to locate the S-51 submarine, sunk off of Block Island, and recover her anchor for use as a submariners’ memorial. The captain has a long personal and family history in the boating world, having crewed on and skippered tall ships for 30 years or more. His father, the scholar-writer-waterman, Stephen Jones, is owner of Schooner Wharf from whence the Mystic departed today; he is also owner of Flat Hammock Publishing Company, publisher of nautically oriented books.
Now we are secure in the waters of eastern Long Island Sound. One by one, with reflective pauses, Mystic’s sails are raised. First is the foresail, then the staysail. Adam, a quietly confident sailor, climbs out on the bowsprit to loose the outer jib, followed by the main jib and flying jib. The mainsail is raised and set and, finally, the mizzen. Under all lower sails, with the engine reassuringly rumbling along, the fresh nor’westerly breeze presses Mystic along smartly. Waves dance unnoticed by this large vessel, until the eastern tip of Fisher’s Island passes under the lee rail and long, gentle ocean swells roll the small ship in an ancient rhythm.
Also aboard is Chris German of the Bridgeport-based Connecticut Community Boating organization, which boasts the motto No Child Left Ashore. He and his board members have expressed publicly an interest in purchasing an operating Mystic, as both corporate-cruise vessel and school-ship for inner-city children. He speaks enthusiastically of a fleet of small sailboats stowed on Mystic’s decks, able to deploy as part of weeklong educational cruises. Chris and his organization face a steep challenge of raising the funds to secure and purchase (and operate) the vessel. As for this shakedown cruise, it is “just like the brochure promised,” smiles Chris.
The Ways Of The Sea
Among the crew is Christopher Gray, for ten years a New York bicycle messenger who has decided that sailing offers a better life. He has come to Mystic after seeing an online ad at the American Sail Training website. Previously he had sailed on the Hudson River-based sloop Clearwater, the brain- and heart-child of folk singer Pete Seeger.
Crewmate Grace McDonough, 19 years old with an even younger face, already knew she wanted to go sailing as a way of life when an opportunity to crew on the schooner Shenandoah presented itself. A counselor at a career conference revealed that a determined person “could even sail the seven seas” as a career—and Grace was on board. “I knew this is what I definitely want to do with my life” at the end of that one week’s experience, says Grace. She went on to winter on the HMS Bounty in Puerto Rico, then on the all-female-crewed Unicorn, then with an all-male crew on Alabama (“they really treated me like a little sister” confesses Grace), then four months on the Pacific aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain, and from there to Mystic.
With Fair Winds, The Distance Flies
The approaches to Newport, Rhode Island are populated with regal homes, hotels, and condos. The port itself is home to yachts new as well as classic, and to the colonial-era reproduction ship Providence, and a fleet of twelve-meter yachts with America’s Cup pedigree. From a distance, the expansive Jamestown and Newport bridges frame the late afternoon sky. Small islands and rocky outcrops, some festooned with houses and mansions, some with lights for navigation, accentuate the port.
But we have arrived. After lowering Mystic’s sails and picking up a mooring, crew and passengers part ways, each to continue on his or her personal Odysseys of varying import. This separation too has its precedent. Shipboard life and ocean cruises forever follow a pattern of strangers meeting at one wharf, and soon to part at another as acquaintances with a common and distinct bond open only to those who have shared the experience.
This bond, and the prospects that it offers for new adventures in our busy but predictable modern life, is a vocation; in the end it is what will draw people for years to come to the schooner Mystic, and to its filled sails and frothy wake.