Live look-in: David Collins is tweeting from the schooner Brilliant

I am not alone in suggesting that Mystic Seaport's schooner Brilliant is one of the finest thoroughbreds of yachting, built, at the outset of The Great Depression, with little expense spared, the creation of then 22-year-old Olin Stephens, who became one of the most renowned yacht designers of all time.

This extraordinary boat, original finishes of teak, spruce and bronze and brass gleaming and polished, is maintained and operated by Mystic Seaport, with a year-round captain and mate, not as a museum artifact but as the great sailing vessel she was originally built to become.

Summers are devoted to sail training for young people, with ports of call all over New England. She's Mystic Seaport's seagoing ambassador. Spring and fall are for adult programs, and races.

"Keeping this boat moving is what keeps it alive," says her current captain, Nicholas Alley.

On Thursday, Brilliant, now moored in Baltimore, after a five-day voyage from Mystic, will once again fly the Seaport's colors in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race, a gathering of many of the other most impressive East Coast schooners, some smaller and some considerably larger than her 61.5 feet.

A highlight of the race is the gathering of dozens of these remarkable symbols of a golden age of sail, at the race starting line, near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

The fabled race, which began in 1990 as a challenge among salty schooner sailors at different ends of the bay, Annapolis and Portsmouth, Va., runs 127 miles, through the night. It recounts the age when schooners, the freight trucks of their time, were the means of competition for commerce by both regions.

The start is at 1:30 Thursday afternoon off Annapolis, and the finish is near Portsmouth, at the southern end of the bay.

For those of you reading online, you can follow along. I'll be tweeting from the Brilliant (@davidcollinsct), and you can return here later in the day and through the night for reports on her progress and pictures.

The length of the race depends a lot on variables like wind and tide. There have been times, with so little wind at the race start, that boats have had to set anchors to keep from drifting backwards with the current. In other years, gale winds have ripped down the course.

Capt. Alley actually "owns" the course record for the race, 11 hours, 58 minutes and 53 seconds, set in 2007 when he was captain of the schooner Virginia. He drops those finish time numbers off the top of his head.

In the original instructions to Stephens for his new schooner, the Brilliant, yachtsman Walter Barnum delivered a meticulous and precise design brief dictating the qualities he wanted in his new boat.

Portions of it are quoted on a plaque on the boat's bulkhead.

They start out this way:

"Capable of being rolled over in a hurricane and coming up again with hull and deck opening covers intact.

To lie steadily in a full gale and in a heavy sea."

He wants the possibility of rot eliminated and every material to be "perfect for the use intended." He did say it should be fast and handsome, but solid and strong seemed to be more important to the new owner.

And yet fast she is.

She set records for her class for both of her Atlantic crossings, beginning in 1933, when she crossed from Nantucket Lightship to Bishop Rock in 15 days, one hour and 23 minutes.

She has a collection of silver trophies. Just this year, she has won the two races she competed in.

"Even up against modern boats she's fast," Alley said.

Brilliant spent some of World War II on Coast Guard anti-submarine work. She was auctioned off at the end of the war and purchased by yachtsman and race car enthusiast Briggs Cunningham.

Cunningham donated her to the Seaport in 1953, along with an endowment for upkeep.

Seaport visitors often have the opportunity to tour this exceptional yacht, which looks pretty much exactly the way it did when Walter Barnum first claimed her, the masterpiece he ordered up.

Not today, though. This afternoon and tonight she will be once again stretching her long sea legs down the Chesapeake Bay.

This is the opinion of David Collins


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