Breakwater News : Charlotte's maiden voyage
By luck and circumstance I was invited to crew aboard Charlotte on her maiden voyage away from Vineyard Haven to participate in the WoodenBoat Show at the Mystic Maritime Museum in Mystic, Conn.
Built over a four-year period prior to her launch in Sept. 2007, Charlotte is a gaff-rigged schooner 50-foot-on-deck, traditional plank-on-frame construction, designed and built by her owner Nat Benjamin of Gannon and Benjamin Railway. She had had a few shake-down sails out of Vineyard Haven, but this was really the first time she had been provisioned and crewed to turn her loose and, as is always the case in such affairs, there was a seemingly endless punch list of final details to be addressed literally up until we took the sail covers off.
We tacked up Vineyard Sound on a favorable current in a steady southwest breeze. This was my first schooner sailing experience. I have had plenty of cruises on all kinds of rigs of all sizes and configurations, but this was something new. And what a ride. Fifty-seven thousand pounds of displacement driven by the old style gaff-rigged main and foresail with new high-tech full battened sails is quite the experience. All the sails, including the forestaysail, are self-tending, leaving only the jib to be managed with sheets through the tacks, allowing for back winding to help bring her head around.
As we cleared the lee of Gay Head we were sailing closer to the wind than I would have ever imagined such a rig could manage and the ride was steady and comfortable driving through the seas with no hesitation or loss of momentum. On our watch, my watch-mate Andrew and I tacked her over for a long reach offshore and had an exhilarating run to the south.
Off Point Judith the wind dropped out. Nat fired up the diesel engine and engaged the new feathering propeller. With everything sheeted in tight we were still making a little better than seven knots and even though we had a head current at Watch Hill, Charlotte motored right up through the notoriously treacherous channel into Fisher's Island Sound.
We flaked the rigs down for the entrance into the Mystic River at dusk. Navigating the river in the day can be a challenge, and at night done with the utmost care. The channel winds through mooring fields and past marinas coursing from one side of the river to the other and with no lighted channel markers, all eyes were used. We were obliged to the train and highway bridge tenders for their timely openings and finally settled along the North Wall of the Mystic Whaling village a little after ten.
Shortly after dawn the next morning we were at it again. The punch list shortened during a thorough wash-down. Lines were coiled down while a last final coat of varnish was applied on an interior bulkhead. A last-minute vacuum and stowage of crew duffels and Charlotte was ready for the show.
If you have ever been to the Mystic Museum you have inevitably become enthralled with the enchanting variety of exhibits and ships, boats and ongoing projects that are what make up the incredible entirety of this unique experience in our maritime heritage. Here you will find something to stimulate the imagination of anybody, and I mean anybody. There are programs for kids of all ages to participate in basic boatbuilding, boat rigging, boat sailing and opportunities for the more experienced to handle some really fine and exceptional working vessels.
All of this is encompassed in the Mystic Whaling Village where we were about to participate in the WoodenBoat Show where wooden boat enthusiasts and boat builders mingled around hundreds of boats that had been trailered in from all over the country for this gathering. But what a place to have a boat show.
WoodenBoat Magazine and the Mystic Museum co-sponsored the three-day event. There were several huge tents set up to contain the displays of the latest technologies in boating next to the oldest bronze foundries wares. There were booksellers and tool peddlers, modern miracle cleaners, maritime dog accessories, customized yachting apparel, and boathooks that are also water cannons.
By mid-day Friday, a huge turnout of folks came from all over the world to share their love of wood boats. Aboard Charlotte, Nat did yeoman's service chatting with the hundreds of step-aboard visitors who wanted just to have a minute to entertain a thought so far from day-to-day reality as a life at sea aboard a schooner. There was one gentleman in particular (and his saintly wife) from Las Vegas who visited first thing in the show and returned with such regularity that he became practically part of the crew. At the end of the second day as the show was closing I found him sitting at the helm, spindles in hand and a glazed faraway look on his face. His wife sat quietly while he had his moment of salt spray and sea air and perhaps Gibraltar on his imaginary horizon. When he finally came back in the quiet of the evening on the river, he grinned sheepishly. "We're going back to Nevada tomorrow morning," he explained. "But we'll be back."
Of that I have no doubt.
We had a rollicking good one tack in a stiff southwester from Watch Hill right into Vineyard Haven. Our crew was augmented by a lovely lass and her four-year-old daughter Caroline, who proved to have the constitution of a sea cook and the sea legs of a focsle'man. The child strode along the deck sure-footed as any foredeck hand and was up and down the companion ladder like a ship's cat. The next generation of schooner sailors is assured.
Seaver Jones's column appears monthly in The Times.