Schooner cruise

Sam Llewellyn goes sailing in America

There is a plank attached to the boards of the jetty by a carpenter's clamp and sticking out over the sea. I am walking down the jetty and along the plank and pausing on its end, for two reasons. One is that there is a three-foot gap between the plank and the transom of the boat on to which I am expected to jump. The other is that there are three huge wooden boats there, and one of them is the boat for which I am heading, a New England schooner 50' on deck, and it is beautiful enough to stop the breath in your throat.

Toss the clothes bag aboard. Take the leap. Grab the mainsheet to steady yourself. Hellos all round. Walk up the deck, a clear curve of teak all the way to the bow and out on the footrope under the bowsprit, swaying over mucky harbour water, to drop the lines holding us to the big wooden ketch on either side. The thrum of the engine comes faintly through the deck. Claw the mooring pennant's loop off the Samson post and stick an arm out to show the helmsman where not to steer, for the boat is moving now, creeping out into the harbour.
Time for some sails. Schooner sails, like (come to think of it) the sails of all multi-sailed boats, are set starting aft and working forward. First, the mainsail. Ties off. Throat and peak halyards are thicker than garden hoses. Haul, keeping the gaff horizontal, endless hauling until the luff is tight. Sweat it tighter, tight as a fiddlestring, one pair of hands hauling out and down, another tailing with a half-turn reinforced by the horn of the cleat. Then haul up the peak, but more gently, until the sail loses its crumpled look and becomes a curve smooth and taut in the inner-harbour breeze.

The stern of the schooner Alabama slides by, huge and night-black, a gilded eagle stretching the full width of the transom. We are not watching eagles, because the breath is loud in the ears and the foresail is going up. It is smaller than the main; as all the world knows, a schooner foremast is lower than its mainmast. Creases run from tack to peak, vanishing as the breeze, heavier out here, thumps home.

Forward again, bare feet skidding on a deck suddenly tilting to starboard. Unhitch the staysail halyard from the rail and clip it to the huge cringle at the head of the staysail - the innermost of the two triangular headsails, if you are interested in such details; though the most interesting thing is that while we have been working, the breakwater head has slid by, and we are in the wide blue bay, and the strong rustle of parted water is rising from the lee bow. Up goes the staysail, clatters, is sheeted in. The thrum of the engine ceases. We are sailing.

Aft we stroll to the cockpit. A big Stars and Stripes streams from the transom. Let off the furling line, haul in a sheet. The jib unrolls with a bang. Winch in. Suddenly we are heeling properly, white water roaring down the side deck. Trim the jib and staysail, crank a fat winch to take the flutter out of the foresail luff.  A cup of tea comes up the hatch. The headsails are balancing the foresail, which is balancing the mainsail, so you can steer this powerful giant with a single finger while you take a swig. And here we are beyond the heads: a boat-shaped angel with four white wings, tearing as if on rails for the low dim shadow of Cape Cod on the far horizon. The cruise has begun.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly