In a class of her own
The forecasted rain never did arrive, just occasional mist.
But the predicted wind did indeed come up for this past week's Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race, lots of it, heavy out of the east, consistently at least 20 to 25 knots, with frequent higher gusts. The bay was often a blanket of whitecaps, with sloppy swells.
The race course, connecting and settling old bay rivalries, between Annapolis, Md., and Norfolk/Portsmouth, Va., leads generally north to south, 127 miles.
Racing south, then, for the 2017 running of the 27-year-old Chesapeake race, made for ideal schooner sailing, a single point of sail, called a reach, with the wind coming generally across one side of the boat, neither directly down her bow nor over her stern.
Wednesday and Thursday were not so much days for tactics, strategies for tacking across the wind or playing currents, but more a time for "brute strength," observed Chris Gasiorek, Mystic Seaport's vice present for watercraft preservation and programming, on hand to help the Seaport's schooner Brilliant flex her muscles.
Indeed, she did, like her competitors, galloping down the bay at speeds a bit eye-opening even for big schooners, topping 12 knots at least once.
Nicholas Alley, only the fifth person to captain Brilliant since she was donated to the Seaport in 1953, said, after crossing the finish line at 3:06 a.m. Friday, more than 13 hours after starting, that was probably the longest stretch of speeds that fast for the boat in the six years he has been running her.
The schooners, all different sizes and shapes, are handicapped for the race, and, until the official results were announced at a pork and oyster feast Saturday afternoon on the Portsmouth waterfront, it was educated guess work how the math would leave Brilliant against principal competitors in her class, like the 1928 100-foot schooner Summerwind, owned by the U.S. Naval Academy, or the 62-foot Light Reign, raced by the light artist James Turrell, a 1984 MacArthur Fellow known best for his decadeslong refashioning of an extinct crater in the Arizona desert into a naked-eye observatory.
(I learned on this race that schooners attract a lot of interesting people.)
Never mind speed. Brilliant could win most any classic boat competition based on appearances, hands down, if originality was a factor.
I came to appreciate much more how true she is to her pedigree, designed by Olin Stevens and built in 1932 by the famed Henry B. Nevins shipyard in City Island, N.Y., after chatting with Bob Chapin of Preston, a retired toxicology scientist at Pfizer, who, like his cousin Nancy Chapin of Roanoke, Va., a math tutor, was along on the race as one of the paying passengers who help the crew.
As we sat perched on the cabin top in full foul-weather gear, talking above the constant roar of water rushing down the sides of the hull, Chapin explained some of the work on Brilliant that he does as a volunteer each winter.
He pointed out a brick-sized wooden door in the side of the boat, at our feet, just above the deck, one of a series running fore and aft, meant to be opened to allow more water to drain quickly from the deck, when necessary.
Chapin said each one is removed each fall and taken inside to Brilliant’s work shed, where the hardware is cleaned, greased and polished and the wood is sanded and painted.
Multiply that task by maybe a thousand or more, all the intricate pieces of the boat, which is literally taken apart and put together again each year, with fresh paint and varnish on most exterior surfaces, and you can begin to imagine the maintenance that goes into preserving her authenticity.
Free labor from people like Chapin is testament to her enduring allure.
Except for new teak wood decks, almost everything on the Brilliant, other than sails and canvas, is original issue from 1932. Even the brass winches, used to mechanically tighten sails, are rebuilt with new custom-machined parts, when necessary, rather than replaced.
The Naval Academy’s Summerwind, of the same era, for instance, has beautiful masts, too. But they are carbon fiber and made to look like they are varnished spruce. You can tell the difference.
Brilliant is not only an extraordinary museum piece, certainly the only of her kind to so accurately tell the story of that period of yachting, but it is one the museum enthusiastically sends to sea, even to race sometimes in 30 knots of wind. It’s what she's always done.
Her original owner, Walter Barnum, specified in instructions to the builder that Brilliant be able to roll over in a hurricane and come up again with hatches intact.
Chapin, after our chat, passed over a cup of warm nuts, an afternoon snack for the sea-sprayed and busy crew sent up from cook Ger Tysk, who, with Madeline Weisman, the mate, round out the full-time crew for Brilliant’s youth summer training cruises, the boat's primary mission. Capt. Alley, Tysk and Weisman all have the patience with newcomers that comes from leading hundreds of teenagers through the schooner learning curve.
On occasions calling for more professional seagoing firepower, other sailors from the Seaport's staff fill out the crew. For the bay race, Kevin Murray, head of the Seaport’s boat donations program and someone with a tall ship sailing resume, joined Gasiorek, whose broad marine background includes skippering tall ships, several circumnavigations and turns captaining freighters around the world.
Thursday morning, as we motored in the early pre-dawn light from the finish line to Portsmouth alongside the Summerwind, Gasiorek told the story of how he and the Summerwind crew once earned a national lifesaving medal in a race in Maine.
The schooner, then owned by the Merchant Marine Academy, was captained by Gasiorek, then academy waterfront director, who jumped into a dinghy during the race, shrouded in fog, when someone from a competing boat fell overboard into the 58-degree water.
He had to use a life preserver to propel the dinghy to the victim; its oars had been removed before the race to lighten the load.
“Stupid me,” Gasiorek recalled saying to the victim, chatting to make sure hypothermia had not set in. “I forgot the oars.”
“Stupid me,” the victim said back while being helped into the dinghy, “I fell off my boat.”
The only calamity I saw on the Chesapeake was when the wind suddenly burst a spinnaker, a big parachute-like sail, on Light Reign into shreds. At least it is easier to replace a spinnaker than it is to see the stars with the naked eye from an Arizona crater.
Brilliant finished third in her class in the race, respectable but not among her many firsts over the years.
If I were judging, I certainly would have given her firsts in a lot of categories: beauty, spirit, consistency and authenticity.
This is opinion of David Collins.
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