Before my eyes a New York city Lawyer turned twelve year old boy as his sky blue eyes scanned the busy Mystic River while directing our two masted schooner out to sea. Like Frank, Earl & Jen and myself, Chuck was a guest aboard the Mystic Seaport’s training schooner. No computers here, no TV or even music to distract from the sounds of rigging and hull responding to the wind and waves or the gentle chatter of getting to know our boat and fellow travelers as we sailed.
Under the guidance of Captain George Moffitt and mate/chef Keith Chmura our mission was to learn old fashioned sailing. Before setting off, Keith assigned our bunks, offered the all-important “head lesson” followed closely by all the various safety procedures finishing with a drill on boat handling. George’s twenty years of experience as captain/teacher aboard Brilliant had us eager to face what four days of wind, weather and sea might present as we learned to sail between the islands and harbors of the New England coastline.
The river was mirror smooth as we passed beneath the railroad bridge. Our first lesson in raising sails on a gaff rigged schooner was done without too much tension on the lines. All four lower sails went up peacefully with our main concern being where the lobster pots were. Brilliant sliced neatly through the flat sea but when we passed Race Rock, the breezes freshened to six knots as suddenly as if someone had turned on a fan.
As we made the turn at Plum Gut towards Gardener’s Island two hours later, Keith arrived on deck with antipasto on excellent slices of bread and the scent of luscious beef stew followed him up the companionway. The disembodied voice of NOAA spoke of the front we could now see approaching with its flashes of red and gold bursting on the horizon, at once hypnotically beautiful and alarming. The air had that round rolling feel that usually precedes a heavy rain. Some people thrive on that kind of exciting turbulence. I am one of those, as long as I can see my way to a safe harbor. In this case it was Sag Harbor and it was right around the point.
As we put our schooner to bed that first night, the wind on deck became a gale while Keith put “Brilliant Bouillabaisse” on the table in the saloon. This original blend of mussels, scallops and fish in rich broth had spiced aoli on floating toast sprinkled shredded cheese on top. I am certain that I am not the only one who was feeling entirely well fed already, when the fork tender medallions of steak drizzled with zesty horseradish sauce arrived at the table. I noticed that we all began reclining against the back of our seats when the sliced melons and nectarines layered with Crème Fraiche arrived. It was clear that we were not going to starve.
By 9:30PM with the rain pounding on the deck overhead, we could legitimately climb into our cozy bunks declaring it a full day of exercise, salt air and great food. I never sleep better than I do on a boat, and this night was no exception. Voices drifted through the dark saying good night in the soft tones of tired bodies and it was as good as fondly remembered summer camp.
As an early riser, I had the first few minutes of buttery sunlight to myself. George hosed off the deck while I chamoised hatches and rails as the smell of coffee wafted up the companionway. If NOAA predictions were correct (only a 48% probability) we were in for a long day of running before the wind to cover the 60 miles from Sag Harbor, NY to Newport, Rhode Island.
Brilliant’s name is also an adjective which only applies when all hands spend a bit of time every day polishing the beautiful brass winchs, cleats and fittings aboard. George calls this the “Brilliant Mantra”. I found this polishing a pleasant activity performed over that first cup of coffee, accompanied by quiet talk as we enjoyed the early morning. The time was short lived though, soon to be replaced by warm french toast, sliced peaches and maple syrup.
As we eased away from the breakwater at Sag Harbor we could see the chop on the waves indicating plenty of wind. Blue skies, warming sun and 18k of breeze set us up for the Gollywobbler and the asymmetrical pole-less spinnaker. We made ten knots of speed over the bottom. By late afternoon we comfortable with what the deck jobs were, and how to do them properly under the watchful eyes of Keith and George. Frank and I talked of how we were in no hurry to get ashore, it had been a wonderful day at sea and we wanted it to linger.
Entering Newport harbor Endeavour greeted us with that uncanny ability she has of appearing to make 20k while still on the mooring. We were early for our dock space so we took a leisurely wander through the mooring field. Graceful Gleam slid by on her way to collect guests for an evening sail, followed closely by the elegant dark hull of Northern Light. Both captains hailed George and exchanged welcomes. This is an early summer ritual born of each captain’s understanding of how many parts must come together to ready a classic yacht for the season. The sense of reunion is clear. This atmosphere carried into the evening as we were loosed on Banisters wharf where captains, crew and visitors created a festive scene that would only accelerate as the season progressed.
The next day we were heading for Block Island roughly 35 miles away. There was absolutely no wind as we left Newport but NOAA’s bleating voice had promised light wind from the south-west turning mid-day to 10-12 out of the North. Jokes about the accuracy of weather prediction aside, we turned on the engine and hoped they were right. Arabella, a classic famous for having 50’ inserted between bow and stern, had just picked up a mooring when we passed her. More new season greetings were exchanged between captains over the rails.
We motored out for a while, but collectively decided that a slow day under sail was still better than speed plus engine noise. We put up the #1 jib along with the staysail and the main. There is truly no louder silence that the first instant after the engine is shut off on a sailboat, especially when the sea is quiet. Brilliant slid quietly towards Block Island. I dozed in the warm sun with the soft voices of George, Chuck and Keith drifting forward from the cockpit, lulled by the even motion of the boat gliding through the soft swells and the soothing sounds of the hull in the water. I eased awake when the angle of heel increased and noticed then that Sarah, Paula and Doug were beginning to stir from the same relaxed state as the breeze freshened.
But George was visibly alert, listening with his head turning slowly as he watched the wind over the water. He asked us to get the #2 up on deck and be ready to bring in the #1. As we were doing that it seemed like all hell broke loose. We had just gotten the #2 on deck for a sail change when a wall of wind marched through and we were slammed with 35ks. In truth it took about ten minutes to build but that is practically no time at all aboard a schooner doing a sail change.
There is a complicated dance associated with doing a sail change in high winds, but George and Keith calmly directed us through it. Earl and Frank were out on the bowsprit while the rest of us hauled in the huge #1 before it could be shredded or filled with water. Our rails were fully submerged with water running freely inches deep along the deck. We moved about carefully and consciously as Brilliant sliced along through the white caps blowing off the chop. It was an exhilarating 15 minutes after which the wind settled into about 20k as we raged towards Block Island.
We did discuss doing the “harbor burn”, basically shooting through the channel under sail, but considering Brilliant’s 47 tons of momentum nobody would even find the pieces of a small craft that chose not to observe a sailboat’s right of way. We dutifully brought down the sails outside the channel and motored peacefully through the interior chop to the dock.
A small crowd of locals warmly greeted our arrival at the Block Island Boat Basin. George was again waving and greeting old friends as he directed the fairly complex docking arrangement required in such winds. Brilliant seems to draw appreciators at every dock, we observed this phenomenon often. Whether or not you understand the true nature of such a yacht, you can’t miss the seaworthy resonance such an honest boat.
We used our residual adrenaline to clean the boat before heading up to The Oar for a wee dram. On the deck of the local pub overlooking Brilliant at rest, we talked about another aspect of this boat’s history, racing. George is justifiably proud of Brilliant’s performance, he calls it “successfully racing an elephant against gray hounds”. George limits the schedule because the stresses on gear and the risk to the boat are high but he believes that it does help with training for a crew to focus on an objective.
Aboard Brilliant the world becomes smaller and perceivable, populated only by the friendly and adventurous group aboard and united by teamwork and being in tune with the elements. Days are filled with the rythm of raising, lowering or trimming sails, punctuated by Keith’s creative and irresistible cuisine. Evening brings exploration of some new or familiar harbor followed by the summer camp atmosphere of bunking in an open saloon.
And at the end of four days, what had I gained? I learned that the kind of life at sea that Brilliant represents is a larger subject than only the sailing. George and Keith instruct visitors in the total adventure of being “boat people” and that there is something very restorative about that. I learned that beautiful Brilliant, and by extension probably all schooners, are in constant need of caretaking, understanding and guidance. Without such programs as the Mystic Maritime Museum offers, schooners would surely remain tied up at the dock. I learned that George’s 20 years of accumulated experience has evolved into instincts that should always be respected. I learned that Frank, Chuck, Earl & Jen and the more than nine thousand others who have had the experience of pulling strings aboard Brilliant will return because they can’t help it. Certainly I will.
To attend a schooner training program aboard Brilliant:
There are 6 Teen programs scheduled from Sunday through Friday in July/Aug
There are 6 Adult programs from Friday to Monday beginning in September