Dispatch from Winter Schoonering

Written by Samuel D.S. (OCSC Sailing Instructor)

It’s May Day, and looking out from this little Cape Cod coffeehouse, I’m realizing that I can’t escape winter forever. Our crew of ten are waiting for seas to calm and icy winds to turn as we plot a course for the Northernmost point of Schooner Amistad’s annual migration. Most of us have great winter tans, mine from four months aboard another schooner in the Bahamas, and we’ve pillaged the local marine surplus for every wool blanket, watch cap, and pea coat they had. Sure enough, I’ll be well-steeled for Bay weather when I return to OCSC next month.

Since work slowed down last year, I’ve crewed aboard three Schooners, The Rainbow Warrior III, Liberty Clipper, and La Amistad. Most of us at OCSC know Schooner Seaward well. Technologically she’s at the modern end of the spectrum between the Warrior, 180′ overall with helipad, hybrid e-drive, and colossal roller-furling Bermudan sails on A-frame masts, Clipper, 125′, a Baltimore Clipper-inspired rig with amenities for windjammer cruising, and Amistad, 129′, an authentic wooden reproduction of the historic Baltimore Clipper (with some concessions made for the her new job as a classroom ship.)

Working aboard Schooners is a blast… and exhausting. I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss the thrill and freedom of sailing modern yachts on the San Francisco Bay. Take our crew course to the n’th degree, ditch the winches for wooden blocks and hauling chanteys, and throw on gaff and square sails so big they could smother a J/24. That’s schooner sailing.

For all the horribly-disrupted sleep and annoyance of living under a militaristic command structure—more or less so depending on the captain—there’s the reward of a lifestyle that demands practicing traditional marlinespike skills, palm-and-shank sail repair, carpentry, complex rigging puzzles, hand-steering, managing half a dozen sails at once, and the exhiliration of laying out on the head rig with waves crashing underneath you or aloft with the squawking sea birds. Did I mention sea songs?

If you’ve sailed with me, you probably know I’m a nerd for social history and maritime folklore. The first time I worked on a traditional ship, I was the education program intern aboard Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. We kept a very traditional work schedule, scrubbing the deck every morn, etc. I learned that those crazy sea songs don’t just make synchronous hauling easier, they keep you sane. Music is a boon to sail education programs with kids, windjammer passengers love it, and it’s a big hit in Nassau dive bars.

I’m looking forward to seeing you all again soon. I’ve been singing, stitching, splicing, and doing my gonzo social history studies in the Bahamas and up the East Coast to Nova Scotia. Expect a little saltier Samuel with a couple new sea stories and, hopefully, rocking a good winter tan.

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